Anyone who has followed the ongoing revelations about the Bush administration and has concluded that all the presidentís men (and women) have led the country into disastrous policies for sinister motives will find Michael Mooreís Fahrenheit 9/11 anti-climactic. Those in the know who are convinced otherwise will remain so and might even rekindle their convictions, alienated by the filmís stridency. Those ignorant and indifferent who watch out of curiosity serve to benefit most: perhaps theyíll be stimulated to learn more and fill in the filmís many gaps and ambiguities.
Many, though, will dismiss this yearís Palme díOr winner at Cannes as another Michael Moore screed, a slash-and-burn collage of seemingly disjointed information, interviews, and images manipulated into an argument by the filmmakerís personality and bias, his clownish confrontations, his crude but effective irony, his cruder but perhaps more effective sentimentality. Fahrenheit 9/11 takes on his biggest target ó the most powerful people in the world ó so it canít help but score more hits than misses. It may be Mooreís most important film, but itís far from his best.
It opens with cheap shots (just because theyíre cheap, of course, doesnít mean theyíre not on target): the Florida recount, mass demonstrations at the inaugural parade with eggs splattering on the presidential limo (how come we didnít see this on the news?), Bushís 42 percent vacation rate, his plummet in the polls, his resurrection at the cost of the World Trade towers and 3000 lives (the horror is distilled in the haunting image of billions of bits of paper falling from the sky). Then comes one of the most disturbing moments: the president receiving the news of the disaster while reading a childrenís book to a Florida elementary class. A sign on the blackboard behind him says that reading is what makes America great. Had Bush taken that to heart, Moore slyly suggests, he could have saved everyone a lot of trouble: inserted footage of the vacationing president shows aides carrying the unread security reports warning of Osama bin Ladenís intentions.
Score one for Moore, but what follows next ó his lingering close-up of the presidentís face for the nine minutes after his hearing the news in which he does nothing ó is the most sympathetic image of the president Iíve ever seen. Heís hurting, heís desperate, heís been "smoked out" ó youíve got to feel for him. Moore, instead, tries to read his mind: is he thinking of which "pal" screwed him? Could it be Saddam? (We get a shot of a young Donald Rumsfeld looking surprisingly like Robert McNamara as he shakes the Iraqi fall guyís hand.) The Saudis? Thatís Mooreís bet. Relying heavily on the recent book House of Bush, House of Saud and interviews with its author, local writer Craig Unger, he weaves together a gauzy web of ties between the bin Ladens and the Bushes, between the Saudi royals and virtually every corrupt capitalist nabob in America. Why did the government provide a ride out of town for Osamaís relatives when all other flights were grounded after September 11? Whose name has been blacked out of Bushís military records? The leads are tantalizing ó and undeveloped.
Instead, Moore injects sophomoric gibes (okay, I laughed when they played a riff from "Cocaine" over Lieutenant Bushís fitness-to-fly report) and falls back on the usual agitprop stunts. He corrals a woman from his home town of Flint, Michigan, whose son has been killed in Karbala. He takes her to the White House to confront the party responsible for her grief and she collapses in tears and rage. A bystander cries out, "Itís staged, itís staged." It isnít staged; the womanís agony is genuine and terrible to see. But an argument could be made that itís exploitative.
Itís not beside the point, though. Youíll see plenty of what the government and the media didnít want you to see, from incinerated Iraqi babies to taunted POWs to legless GIs and dead ones, too. Those who have gotten over the shock of Abu Ghraib will have to start spinning some new rationalizations.
What Moore fails to do, however, is connect the dots. Spurred on by this movie, perhaps others will. If they havenít already. As Donald Rumsfeld notes without apparent shame or irony in another urgent, inadequate documentary, Jehane Noujaimís Control Room, the problem with liars is that they always get found out. The problem for everyone else is that it doesnít always make a difference.
Click here to read Peter Keough's review of Bowling for Columbine.
Issue Date: June 25 - July 1, 2004
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