Michael Moore is a documentary filmmaker with an unapologetic liberal bias. He has created memorable and quirky documentary films including Roger and Me, which I’ve seen. That film explored the negative impact the auto industry had on his hometown of Flint, Michigan. (This happens to be where my wife grew up.) Moore has also tackled more controversial topics such as his movie Bowling for Columbine. That movie focused on the shootings by two students at Columbine High School in Colorado and how he believed it was precipitated by the easy availability of firearms in this country.
In Fahrenheit 9/11 Moore clearly goes for the jugular: the Bush Administration itself. The focus of the movie is Bush’s response to the attacks on 9/11 but it is a general indictment of Bush and everything associated with Bush. This movie is very controversial and there are right wing groups trying to keep it from even being shown. So I was surprised to find myself yesterday with a ticket (courtesy of my friend Renee) to the 7:40 PM show at the Cinema Arts Theater in Fairfax, Virginia. Needless to say all the tickets were sold out. Had not Renee bought them earlier in the week I likely wouldn’t have seen the film until much later.
There were two aspects to the movie. The first was the movie itself. The second was the controversy swirling around the movie. The owner of the theater put up a large sign next to the ticket booth justifying showing the film. The sign noted that the theater had also showed Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ despite objections from some on the left side of the spectrum at the time. The owner was more than a bit nervous about showing the film. Before the movie he went up and down the aisles asking questions from us. I doubt there was a Republican in the house. We were ready for the film and we were prepared to applaud.
But how was it as a movie? This is after all a movie that already won the Palme d’Or (best in show) award at France’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival just last month! Given such kudos my expectations were pretty high. I was somewhat disappointed but not too surprised that it did not live up to my expectations.
Yes, I had big problems with the movie. First of all let me assure you that I am no George W. Bush fan. I am actively working to get him out of office. And I subscribe to Michael Moore’s thesis, which is well articulated in the film, that the media in this country had a largely uncritical bias toward Bush and his war. Still Moore often plays fast and loose with the facts. He jumps to conclusions not necessarily warranted by the facts.
What Fahrenheit 9/11 really is is an emotional parry from this country’s left wing to the Bush Administration in general, and to the way they botched up our response to 9/11 and the Iraq War in particular. It tries very hard to succeed in connecting the dots between a close relationship between the Bush family and Saudi oil interests. And I actually did learn some new things I did not expect from the movie. This is very unusual for me because I am a political junkie. To find events in the movie that didn’t even get reported on DailyKos or Atrios is pretty amazing. I have to complement Moore for his research. Still in playing connect the dots in many cases instead of drawing straight lines between the dots, Moore is really drawing dotted lines. He spends a lot of time making inferences that are not really justified by the available facts.
The film itself tries to be organized but only partially succeeds. Like Moore it often rambles back and forth from point to point. One moment we are in Iraq, the next we are in Flint, Michigan. It’s unclear where the film is going and when it will end. It feels a bit long at about two hours. And most amazingly enough it leaves out large areas of the story that should be told to a general audience. In place of these crucial events we get disturbing but very effective close-ups of a mother who lost her son in Iraq, or of our troops conducting midnight raids on an Iraqi family’s house. What crucial events are missing? Well, for one the lack of connection between Saddam and al Qaeda, which is hinted at, is never explored in any depth.
Instead the film often rushes to be sophomoric where it could have been soared. We all know on some level that our leaders are human beings with human failings. Moore goes out of his way to make everyone in the Bush Administration look like jerks. In the process he really just lowers our opinion of him. We get lots of pictures of Bush prior to going on the air getting his hair retouched. We see many shots with Bush looking like a lost little lamb. We even see Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz licking a comb to retouch his hair and similar nauseating events. We also get a very grainy shot of a beheading in Saudi Arabia. We see war footage from Iraq including those horrible images of the charred bodies of our contractors dangling from bridges in Falluja. There are numerous pictures of victims of the war in pieces or with parts of their bodies missing. The R rating was I think well deserved. War is not a clean business.
The movie is perhaps a bit unfocused because it felt rushed to the screen. Incidents like the kidnapping of Thomas Hamill (not my brother!) are discussed. The film is also annoying because it integrates so much video footage with filmed interviews. Much of the film is consequently jerky and grainy.
Where the film succeeds though is on an emotional level. If you toss out its problems with connecting the dots and see it as a crass appeal to our emotions it succeeds quite well. Sometimes it does so brilliantly. The events of 9/11 themselves are largely heard, not seen. We hear sounds of the airliners crashing into the Twin Towers against a black screen. Eventually the black fades to the looks of horror in people’s eyes as they watch people fall to their death.
Thinking about it last night, this is the sort of movie Matt Drudge’s evil twin would make. Although I can appreciate Michael Moore and his style, he is hardly unbiased. He frequently substitutes innuendo and snide remarks for facts and logic. No person who calls himself or herself a liberal should accept this film uncritically. To do so in my mind puts them in the same category as those neo-conservatives who perpetrated Bush and his mistakes on this country.
Moore may be biased but the poignant moments scattered in the film are real enough. And you have to love those signature Michael Moore scenes. One happens when he is in an ice cream truck running around Capitol Hill. He is inside the truck on the loud speaker reciting the details of the Patriot Act to Congress, which had never bothered to read it. I also enjoyed his on the street interviews with congressmen he manages to accost. He gives them brochures for the armed forces so they will send their kids to fight in Iraq. (Only one member of congress has a son or daughter serving in Iraq.) During these parts of the movies you can’t help but laugh and forgive a lot of his other mistakes.
Is the movie worth seeing? Overall I’d say yes. Will it change minds? My guess is it probably won’t change many since the country is already very polarized. For weeks the crowds seeing it will be highly partisan. But perhaps it will be seen by more independents when it is released on DVD (hopefully long before the election). Then it might have impact that translates into votes. And while I am annoyed by Moore’s leaps of logic I find it hard to be too upset. There are plenty of beyond dispute facts in the movie that need all the publicity they can get.