By Way of Deception
Not the judgment of film critics but the passage of time will decide whether Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 can change the world. Change, of course, is the whole purpose. Whatever satisfaction Moore derives from his ever-mounting income and awards, he clearly will consider this picture a success
only if it helps drive George W. Bush from office. Voters will write the real review. I can merely fill time until November, with the thought that Fahrenheit 9/11 might be interesting as a movie after it has done its work as politics.
As with any good polemic--and this is an excellent one--you sit in the theater thinking of how someone else would respond, some imaginary "undecided" in a swing state, or perhaps your Uncle Max the Republican. You don't much monitor your own reactions. But then, as you leave the movie house, you might notice that the sidewalk chatter sounds oddly muffled, the traffic looks a little blurred, as you begin to realize that your attention has not come outside with you; it's still in the dark, struggling with the feelings that Fahrenheit 9/11 called up and didn't resolve. Are you outraged, heartbroken, vengeful, morose, gloating, thoughtful, electrified? Moore has elicited all of these emotions and then had the nerve--the filmmaker's nerve--to leave you to sort them out.
I think there are two bundles of messages in Fahrenheit 9/11, one political and one emotional--and while the first is about as ambiguous as a call to take up pitchforks and torches and storm the castle, the second is too complex to unsettle those in power. It works to unsettle you. It's what makes Fahrenheit 9/11 a real movie.
For clarity's sake, then, let's start with the politics: the film's bill of particulars against Bush, and also against the Democratic leadership, which in Moore's view has colluded most shamefully in the misrule the world now suffers. The prologue to Fahrenheit 9/11 revisits Bush's rise to power in late 2000, paying particular attention to the hunched posture of the Democrats who let him step on their backs. Here are Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle, counseling "acceptance" of the non-election; and here is Al Gore, mildly officiating over the Senate session that legitimized the theft of his presidency. For the first time in Fahrenheit 9/11, but certainly not the last, Moore tells his story through borrowed but decidedly nonstock footage, which you most likely have not seen before--in this case, a scene of members of the House, all of them African-American, coming forward to contest the election, while Gore calmly rules their objections inadmissible because no senator, not one, would satisfy Congressional rules by signing on to them.
Moore's antagonists, being Republican, won't go so easy on him. Their attacks will no doubt include the charge that his film is Democratic Party propaganda. You should understand from the preceding the flimsiness of this accusation--although it's true that Moore spares us the sight of one notable Democrat, John Kerry, voting to authorize Bush to start a war on his own say-so, at any time that suited him.
But enough of Democratic malfeasance. Who is this Sage of Crawford, that he may choose for us between life and death? Moore answers, in part, with more footage you probably haven't seen until now: a substantial portion of videotape from the morning of September 11, 2001, when Bush and his handlers staged a photo opportunity at an elementary school in Florida. After an aide whispered to him that a second airplane had struck the World Trade Center, Bush sat in place for seven minutes, pretending to read a book titled My Pet Goat. Have you ever before had a chance to study his face on that morning? Has anything other than this movie made you feel the unendurable length of his inaction? What do you suppose he was thinking for all that time, as he stared into space? Moore himself asks that last question on the soundtrack, as a way of opening a biographical digression about Bush, his family and their business interests. This section of the film will particularly incense Moore's attackers, who will pronounce on him the dependable slur of "conspiracy theorist." So, to digress on my own:
Moore alleges no conspiracies. He merely says that Bush has motives beyond those he's willing to state. To make this case, Moore begins by showing that the Bush family in general, and George W. in particular, have received lavish support over the years from the Saudi elite, including the bin Ladens, and have offered valuable help in turn. Unlike the actualities footage that Moore uses in the film, these facts are by now widely known--although it was news to me that Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador, dined with Bush at the White House on September 13, 2001. In speculating about this dinner, and about the subsequent airlifting out of the United States of more than a hundred Saudis when everyone else was grounded, Moore goes only so far as to say that the overwhelmingly Saudi makeup of the September 11 attack teams could have proved embarrassing to Bush. He would not have wanted journalists just then to begin looking into his personal ties to Saudi interests, or to ask whether any useful information had emerged from the two dozen bin Ladens who had been in the country, and whom he soon spirited away without the indignity of questioning.
Nothing conspiratorial about that. The worst you can reasonably say of this section of the film is that it gives Moore the opportunity for one of his man-on-the-street pranks. He films himself and Craig Unger (author of the book House of Bush, House of Saud) in front of the Watergate complex in Washington, directly across the street from the Saudi Embassy: a choice of location that insures interruption. Sure enough, onto the scene drive carloads of Secret Service agents, who just want to ask, politely, why a film crew is working on this spot. The agents move off readily enough when given the answer, although one of them seems abashed when Moore blandly delivers his punch line: "I didn't realize the Secret Service guards foreign embassies."
In fact, reasonable people may find this to be the best part of the section.