Ryan’s Vintage Review of Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

(originally written on June 28, 2004)

Michael Moore is a publicity phenonenom. In the past, a documentary would never open in the biggest theatres in town, but Fahrenheit 9/11 is certainly not being limited to a modest release in art-house cinemas. Everybody is talking about this scathing partisan picture and, apparently, everyone is paying to see it. That’s partly because of the immediacy of the subject matter. The rest of it can be attributed to the fact that the “Michael Moore” brand name is attached. Bowling For Columbine not only won him an Oscar, but it’s now evident that his infamous “shame on you, Mr. Bush” acceptance speech was apparently just an introduction to what was to come. With this film and The Passion Of The Christ, 2004 has been a controversial year at the movies. Spider-Man 2 is getting ad space on every corner of the planet, but the must-see movie of the next few months is definitely Fahrenheit 9/11.

The man himself polarizes people. Moore is loved and hated in equal doses. However, my own feelings about him and his politics are somewhere in the middle, although absolutely leaning towards the left. While I certainly like much of what he has to say, the fact that a documentarian has become a rock star proves that Moore is not really documenting anything. Most of his work is extraordinarily biased, which is not usually what filmmakers in his line of work strive for. Still, I think it’s excellent that he stands by his beliefs and doesn’t pretend to respect the Powers That Be when he so clearly doesn’t. I recall that my review of The Corporation about 4 months ago was openly critical of the Bush administration & his cronies. That doc was a liberal smash-up on big business and you can’t see something like that without your blood boiling. Pseudo-docs such as these are preaching to the converted. Those who think they’re bunk probably won’t see them anyway.

So I’ll cop to this right now—I walked into the theatre without as much objectivity as I should have had. Moore has admitted that he wants to influence the November election and put an end to Bush’s four-year reign. It’s rare to see a movie be so honest about its motives. I hope this film or a fart in the wind or whatever it takes gives the entire world an American regime change by the end of the year. Anyone who disagrees with that and thinks believers in this cause are wacko might want to pony up the dough to peek at this flick. Then they can feel free to discredit a movie they’ve actually seen (!) and point out the errors. I have no doubt that many liberties were taken and some Daily Show-esque editing done to humiliate various Republicans & their supporters. Then again, Bush doesn’t need Michael Moore to make him look stupid. He’s quite good at dumbing things up all by himself.

George W. Bush stars as himself. If you guessed that the movie spends a lot of time just letting a dunderhead be an incredible dunderhead, you’d be right. Repeatedly showing off his inability to grasp the English language, the president is often anything but presidential. Is the most powerful man in the world really just a shade more intelligent than Curious George? Or is it all just dishonest editing, juxtaposing unrelated comments and/or actions? If you’ve been paying attention to world events in the past 3 1/2 years, you’ve seen much of this material on the news already. In fact, the grainy-as-shit footage looks like it’s been stripped fresh off the boob tube. Bush goes from demanding that all nations stop terrorism to hulking up in front of reporters to hit a golf shot. That’s the recurring joke you see in all the trailers, and it was more funny and absurd the first time I saw it a looooong time ago.

What about Bush’s inaction on September 11th itself? He sits and reads with kiddies for several minutes after being told that America is being assaulted by airplanes. Why this powerful man was even reading to Florida children in the first place is a mystery to me (oh, wait, I just got it…they were reading to him because “My Pet Goat” was probably over his head), but Moore doesn’t buy the argument that he was trying to project a sense of calm. When the president is decisive (about Iraq, about how to handle terrorism, etc.), it seems to be when he’s making the wrong decisions. But the movie doesn’t stop there. Muck has to be raked…

The most damning aspect of the film is the sinister Bush/Bin Laden connection. Those who opposed the war in Iraq don’t buy the Saddam/Osama connection, but Moore goes to great lengths to link some of the world’s notorious figures to the current administration—and to George Bush Sr, for that matter. For those of us who saw a CBC program called The Fifth Estate months ago, this is old hat. Now, I know I’m name-dropping a program that very few Americans would ever watch. Most Canadians don’t watch it. The point is, that show had 45 minutes to do essentially what Fahrenheit 9/11 does. Why was Osama Bin Laden’s family whisked out of America immediately after 9/11? Was Bush worried that his Saudi friends would be blamed, especially when the terrorists were mostly Saudis? Officials interviewed for the movie say that all the Bin Laden’s should have answered some questions, whether or not they had anything to do with Osama’s murderous plans.

The Bush/Osama connection is going to be difficult for anyone to prove. Even if someone does find clear evidence that these dynastic families have had illegitimate business dealings, that doesn’t necessarily mean they should be rounded up and gunned down for murder and treason. There are a dozen reasons to resent what Bush’s elitist allies are doing to everyone on this planet, but Moore is intent on proving that past business ties guarantee that they’re all in villainous cahoots now. Sounds like spitballing to me and this kind of conspiracy stuff (however much it could wind up being true) undermines the liberal view point. Oliver Stone cut his own nuts off in similar fashion with JFK. I believe there’s something to this, but I wonder how much research Moore actually did. He’s launching his own war with as much iron-clad proof as the White House had in going to war against Saddam Hussein.

I gotta tell you, I walked out of the theatre feeling as if I already knew half of what’s in this movie. Do you watch the news? If so, you’re going to be up to speed too. If someone is dumbfounded by everything they see in Fahrenheit 9/11, they need to channel surf off the Survivor island and get back to the real world, post haste. The guy running the United States is a politician. He’s a brutally bad politician, but he is in the White House, after all. I don’t think we want to know what deals these moneyed men have struck behind closed doors over the years…before, during, or after they were in office. That goes for anyone who’s ever laced the presidential boots.

When Moore steps back and lets existing footage be its own explanation, he digs some gems out of the sewage. My heart sagged into my guts when we hear the impact of the jetliners demolishing the WTC towers. The movie doesn’t dwell on the carnage of that tragic day. Considering this doc exists primarily because of 9/11, the time we spend with devastated people on New York’s ash-covered streets is very brief. What more can you say to evoke those feelings we had nearly 3 years ago anyway? This movie is more about the aftermath. It’s a master touch to let us hear the attacks, rather than see them. I’ve seen those skin-crawling attacks far too many times already. There are lots of disturbing images of war-related madness in the flick, by the way. Along with some expletives casually tossed around by a few soldiers, the movie’s violence and mature language doomed it to a restricted rating.

It’s not all a pathetic parade of George “Yogi Berra” Bush verbal foul-ups, though. The second half focuses on soldiers and American families. Maddeningly, there’s not all that much footage of Iraqi civilians. The oft-forgotten regular people of that ravaged country get more air time here than they usually do in other forms of media, but their horrible story is still glossed over almost as much as it is by everyone else. Soldier after soldier speaks candidly—one is so detached that he could probably kill an entire village without blinking, another hates Iraq—and I felt that same sadness I feel for anyone who takes a vow to kill. Even most of the dissenters continue to stay and fight. The film is dedicated to the men & women who have died in this misguided attempt to fight terrorism. Some of those coalition warriors deserve the dedication. Others don’t.

The other focus of the last hour is Lila Lipscomb, a middle-aged social worker in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan. Moore shows her at work, at home, and on the street in front of the White House. She’s lost her son in the war and just wants to understand why he had to die. While I feel for her and her story is raw & painful, Moore proves his point, then beats it into your noodle about how America’s middle class families are being destroyed in this never-ending battle in the desert. The poor are victimized too, since signing up for the armed services is a great opportunity for those without a good job. Later, Moore badgers congressmen to see if some of America’s fortunate sons would be willing to put up their own kid’s lives as bait for terrorists. No congressman is ever going to do that, especially when confronted on the street by a well-known rabble rouser. Again, he goes to great lengths to continue proving a point that he proves in about 3 seconds.

Now that this documentary has won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and set a few records (including being the first doc to ever make the weekend box office’s Top 5, let alone finish at #1), it’s going to be interesting to see if it wins Moore his second Oscar. His commando tactics are remarkably successful and both this movie & Bowling For Columbine are often hilarious. If you’re going to be an activist, at least be witty about it. In fact, Fahrenheit 9/11 is the one of the funniest movies of the year! Ironically, both of his big-ticket movies have been rib-ticklers while also being as serious as a wooden table. The ’02 movie about guns and now the ’04 movie about politics & terrorism have the same central theme: fear. Moore pushes the idea that people need guns because their oppressive leaders have made them feel afraid. And now they’re terrified that terrorists could strike any time. “Look out, here they come right now! Raise the colour-coded terror thing! But continue shopping. Spend money, but be alert for a shifty-eyed Muslim when you’re spend spend SPENDING in the Gap.”

Maybe both movies tweak nerves because they force audiences to look at what people can’t see or don’t care to see. To keep the populace under your thumb, you scare the living shit out of them. These are not tools of democracy, but millions of Americans don’t think they should question their elected officials in a time of war. Isn’t that the most important time to keep the government honest, though? As a Canadian, I don’t have that same fear because we aren’t quite as hysterical as our southern neighbours. We can even applaud a flawed movie when it’s over if it’s got a brilliant closing line. “Fool me once…uh…shame on you. Uh…we won’t get fooled again.” Indeed, Mr. President.

The charges that Michael Moore is un-American are exceedingly moronic. The Patriotic Act is un-American. What happened in “Abu…uh…Ga-ref” is un-American. Moore is not. He seems to care more about what’s going on in his country (and the world entire) than just about any other entertainment personality around. He’s doing something about his disenchantment. Bravo to him. Waving flags and talking about God & country accomplishes absolutely nothing. Beating down dissent accomplishes nothing. It might win a few cheap votes, but that kind of phony patriotism belongs in the very bottom of my toilet. Wrong-headed or not, Moore should be encouraged to be a confronter. He regularly butts heads with TV networks for their softball questioning of the administration and their “rooting for the home team” approach to war.

So should you see the movie? Well, it gives a loud voice to a lot of the little guys. That’s noble. But don’t expect just the facts, ma’am, when you see Fahrenheit 9/11. This is a docu-fiction. See it anyway. You’ve got about two hours to listen to a talented filmmaker tell his own passionate story from up on his left-leaning soapbox. Art might not be able to fix the world, but the astounding box office and incredible word-of-mouth hype for this movie suggest that Michael Moore’s latest polemic has a good chance to affect some humungous change. How many movies have the power to do that?