Taking the Temperature on Fahrenheit 9/11
Vincent Francone
7/6/2004 4:03:10 PM

There is a lot to admire about Michael Moore, but almost more to dislike. He purports himself as the voice of reason, the conscience of America and a true hero of the working man, yet I wonder if the guy has ever worked a day in his life. Having read the very funny and enjoyable book Rivethead by Ben Hamper, I got the impression that the closest Moore ever got to the GM plant in his beloved Flint, Michigan was while filming its closing for Roger and Me. Personally, I get annoyed when I see those moments in Moore's films when he gets confrontational and asks those oh-so difficult questions. Badgering a senile Charlton Heston (who, I admit, bears significant resemblance to Satan) is about as brave as sucker punching a three-year-old. The main failing of so many of his efforts is that he is in them. This is why I enjoyed Fahrenheit 9/11; the film has few moments where Moore is showboating his faux-caring, alleged boldness and swaggering David v. Goliath constructions.

Ignoring the silliness of Moore reading the Patriot Act from an ice cream truck and the pointless stunt where he tries to enlist the children of congress in the military, the movie is more a well-streamed look at archival footage placed in logical order by Moore. And what is the effect? Answer: to make George W. Bush look inept and highly questionable. Gee, that's about as difficult as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Where Fahrenheit 9/11 succeeds is in presenting the viewer with undeniably horrific footage of little Iraqi children with their faces blown off. When the viewer first sees interviews with American boys playing soldier in Iraq, they are bound to become disturbed and angry as these rubes discuss their favorite neu-metal music in which to play while driving tanks and firing weapons. Later, Moore interjects some sympathy for the boys as he cuts in the disenchanted and confused interviews, which look a lot like those conducted in Vietnam. So we are to feel outrage and then sympathy, or something. I'm still not certain, but the end result is indeed the one I am sure Moore intended-mainly that we should not be over there blowing up a nation which never posed a threat to any American.

Or did they? Moore seems to ignore a few instances where Iraq fired upon the No-Fly airspace or threatened George Bush, Sr. An assassination attempt was staged on Papa Bush, and while I myself have perhaps wished the man unwell, this attempted assassination still qualifies as a threat from Iraq. So, unless Moore does not consider Bush an American, he is wrong. And worse, the contradiction is displayed within his own film in an infamous clip of W. stating that they tried to kill his daddy. Again, despite what I think of the man, Bush is still an American.

If I quibble over this one fact it is for a reason and indicative of my problem with Moore's film: his facts are a little questionable. He has a clear position on things but he clouds them needlessly. One can only assume that he does this not intentionally but because he is simply throwing in every bit of evidence that might support his point, regardless of authenticity. If one thing contradicts another it seems not to bother the guy a whit. After all, who will question him? Most people agree with his position and the film itself is so rapid fire that it makes spotting flaws difficult. But the last thing Moore--or any of us on the left side of the fence--needs is to look shaky. His film will be put under a microscope by the right and they will find something sloppy to harp on. Anything that might discredit the film will be used, and while Moore will surely survive such an attack (as he seems to have weathered the attacks on Bowling for Columbine rather well) it only makes those of us who agree with him yet think him a clown look...well, clownish.

Another problem: Moore shows us footage of the children of Iraq playing in the streets without a care in the world until the bombing starts. The images of Iraq as a happy little place to live are a tad misleading. Moore would have fared fine had he not felt the need to dress up Iraq and project it as something of a peaceful nation that never tried to harm anyone. It is similar to the American left trying to boost Castro to the level of sage while glossing over the tortures and extreme poverty of Cuba. One does not need to view Iraq as utopia to feel badly about its occupation. This sort of slant can only do Moore, his film and our cause significant harm.

Since anyone who enters the theatre will already have their mind made up about W., the film is not likely to change opinions or sway a vote. Essentially it is preaching to the choir. Well, there is nothing wrong with that, but I'd prefer a better sermon. I can't swallow every allegation made in the movie simply because they are too broad and there are a few big leaps. Is Moore for more restrictive airline flights and tighter security? It seems murky when he makes us laugh at the story of a woman who was forced to drink some of her breast milk by airport security yet he takes the opposing side in regard to their allowance of lighters and matches. The first point is to demonstrate the fear factor prevalent in our post 9/11 society and the other is to make a big swing at the tobacco industry-someone Moore was bound to get around to in some context, however vague. These do not seem to be glaring contradictions but at the very least it is evidence that Moore will do what it takes to get a laugh and then flip-flop slightly to support his agenda.

More offensive is the lingering camera on a bereaved mother who, upon losing her son in Iraq, became anti-war. I might be cynical in my reading of all this but it almost seems condescending when we first see her spouting pro military sentiments (everyone laugh at the silly woman from the Midwest) and then exploitive as we watch her cry and cry. Her pain is very real and the moment is devastating but I couldn't suppress my suspicion that Moore was secretly delighted at her break down, as he knew it would work well in his movie.

And then there is the whole Bush-Saudi connection. Slightly resembling conspiracy theory, the entire segment might feel better were it not for the montage of Bush and his father shaking hands with numerous Saudis--an image that seems to be playing up to America's view of anyone from the Middle East being demonic (worse, the whole thing is scored with R.E.M.'s abysmal "Shiny Happy People"). What is established is that the Bush family has a lot of connections with Middle Eastern oil. A salient point indeed, but the footage seems to contain an undercurrent of racism.

What problems I have with Fahrenheit 9/11, the film is still very effective and certainly the best thing Moore has done since Roger and Me. I celebrate it mainly as a rare occurrence inasmuch as it launches an attack on a figure of current relevance. While I doubt it will change minds, I admire it anyway. I hope Moore will continue to make himself less of a presence, as his buffoonery does nothing more than promote his own mythology. Having no idea what the competing films were, I still am not so sure that this one deserved the highest award at Cannes, but what is done is done. I'm sure an Oscar or two will land in Moore's lap. People like his films for their intentions and seem willing to overlook the mistakes and often, downright falsity. Fine, no one ever said a documentary had to be 100% accurate and objective. I have no major problem with that and can only hope that the popularity of Moore's work will get people interested in some better documentaries.


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