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.
You may have heard, by the way, that Moore is less of a presence in Fahrenheit 9/11 than he was in his previous pictures. Actually, he’s always with you, in voiceover; but he does perform for the camera less than usual. At times, his stunts serve to drive home a point, as when he accosts members of Congress on the street and offers them recruiting brochures, in case they want to enlist their children in the military. At other times, his antics are pure comic relief. (After complaining that the House passed the USA Patriot Act sight unseen, Moore corrects the situation by reading the bill aloud to Congress, circling the Capitol in an ice-cream truck and reciting the provisions over a loudspeaker.) Either way, though, Moore makes sparing use of this sort of material in advancing his main charges against Bush.
The first principal accusation is that Bush had gotten along just fine with the Taliban before September 11 (which is demonstrable) and didn’t much care about fighting them afterward (which is unproved but plausible). Bush invaded Afghanistan, Moore claims, because he had to be seen to do something, because the war helpfully diverted attention from the Saudis and because those closest to him would gain lucrative contracts for a natural-gas pipeline. Moore’s second accusation is that Bush undertook the war in Iraq for even shadier purposes. As Nation readers knew, and as others have since caught on, Bush attacked without even the excuse he’d had in Afghanistan of pursuing bin Laden. There were no terrorists in Iraq to destroy, no military threats to counter–and unless you define “democracy” as the creation of profit-making opportunities for Halliburton, no process of democratization to pursue.
There is also a third principal point, most devastating of all. But before I go into that, let me digress once more, to sum up the impressively varied materials that Moore assembles to make these arguments.
The film contains, as I’ve said, a few of Moore’s little skits, along with a lot of borrowed actualities footage, which is usually surprising and sometimes shocking. (How many shots have you seen of daily life in Baghdad immediately before the war? How many dead and wounded Iraqi civilians have you looked at close up?) In addition, you find pop-culture images, which Moore takes over for purposes of sarcasm or parody (as when he remakes the TV western Bonanza as the Bush adventure Afghanistan); talking-head interviews with expert commentators (such as former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, former FBI agent Jack Cloogan and Senator Byron Dorgan); a range of texts and graphics; patches of direct cinema (for example, an excursion to a shopping mall in Flint, Michigan, with a couple of Marine recruiters); and, most critical of all, filmed encounters with ordinary citizens, who pretty much have the frame to themselves while Moore stays quietly out of the way.
The most important of these citizens, the one who takes over the final portion of the movie, is Lila Lipscomb of Flint, mother of Sgt. Michael Pedersen, who served in a helicopter unit in Iraq and was killed in action sometime after “the completion of major combat operations.” Lipscomb is a pleasantly robust woman of modest means, patriotic and Christian in convictions, guileless in manner, whose role in the polemic is simple: She is meant to embody disillusionment. Having once despised all protesters against war, feeling that they were slapping our soldiers in the face, she now grieves over a dead son, whose final letter home said of Bush, “He got us out here for nothing.” In a succession of artfully spaced scenes, which constitute the film’s third damning charge against Bush, Lipscomb speaks of the meager possibilities open to most young people in Flint; she recalls having encouraged her own children to enter the military, believing it to be a good thing to do and a good opportunity; and at the end, bereft, with Moore trailing behind, she visits the White House (or as close to it as you can get these days) and says she is glad to be there, since it gives her a place to put her anger.
Lipscomb makes a very efficient witness–but she is an intractably complex movie character. She just doesn’t fit Moore’s scheme. He generally relies on economics to explain the behavior of the elite and psychology to account for the rest of us. (As you may recall from Bowling for Columbine, he is very interested in the way politicians and the communications media use fear to grab attention and elicit compliance.) But when it comes to Lipscomb, Moore (to his great credit) forgets about his standard categories. For perhaps the first time in his career, he shows someone as a fully rounded personality, animated by beliefs and loyalties that he does not necessarily share but must respect; and so he allows her emotions to overwhelm his cleverness.
This is the point at which Fahrenheit 9/11 may overwhelm you, too. Perhaps it will seem trivial to a pollster, counting and recounting those swing votes, that this campaign tool should also qualify as a work of art; but I can’t believe the effect will be lost on moviegoers.
Fahrenheit 9/11 is Michael Moore’s most urgent diatribe and also his best, most moving film.
Extremely Short Take: Had Moore’s film not shouldered everything aside, I would have devoted several paragraphs of this column to praising The Corporation, a new documentary by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan. A study of the business corporation as the dominant institution of the past century and a half–and an analysis of the built-in qualities that make this “fictitious person” a psychopath–The Corporation recently opened in San Francisco and is now about to begin a New York City run at Film Forum (June 30). I think you’ll find the film smart, playful, rapid and almost too richly informative. A nationwide release begins soon–a very successful one, I hope.