The worm turns. Last spring the religious right made such a fuss about the polychrome piosities of Mel Gibson that even card-carrying atheists had to line up to see what all the buzz was about. Every action has its reaction, so now the sanctimonious left has created an even greater fuss about Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. As a result, the Bushmen have come thumping out of their caves in droves to denounce the pack of lies as their top banana launches his campaign against both effete liberals and the English language. Wait a minute: effete liberal? Michael Moore? With his ratty baseball hat? Three days growth of beard? Wardrobe by Salvation Army? Body by Michelin? Chances are the man has never tasted Chablis, the alleged Gatorade of the left, nor would he be admitted to a fund-raiser by either party. The guy is no smoothy, but like Mel Gibson, he does know how to sell tickets. Or to put it more accurately, he knows how to allow his critics to sell tickets for him.
As was the case with Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” the hysterical pre-release reaction to “Fahrenheit” was totally overblown, but understandable. Of course, Michael Moore tells his story with his biases firmly in place. He doesn’t like Republicans, big business, the White House coterie and, especially, George W. Bush. The mysterious title of the film was lifted from Francois Truffaut’s 1966 piece of future fiction, “Fahrenheit 451,” based on a novel by Ray Bradbury. The story itself is a reworking of the theme of George Orwell’s 1984. In some dystopia in an indefinite future, a sinister government keeps itself in power by systematically burning all reading material. The flash point of paper is, appropriately enough, 451º F. Orwell warns us that whoever controls the present, controls the past, and whoever controls the past, controls the future. So in order to preserve its power, a government will manipulate history and ultimately the truth. It will create convenient realities and erase the inconvenient. Weapons of mass destruction, links to Al Qaeda, bringing human rights to the region. Well, no we really didn’t say that after all.
Michael Moore then centers his attention on truth as the most tragic victim of 9/11. Before the opening titles run, Moore rakes over the Florida election fiasco, suggesting that the fix was in from the outset, with the Republicans in charge of the voting process and Republican partisans running the Supreme Court. He conveniently omits the fact that several recounts and polls affirm the fact that George Bush actually did win by a paper-thin plurality, and shifts the issue to the allegation that many presumably Democratic black voters had been disenfranchised. This charge may be true, and tampering with registration rolls may have changed the result, as Moore suggests, but he fails to establish the charge as fact. He displays equal opportunity outrage when he excoriates Tom Daschle, soon to become Senate majority leader, and the other Senate Democrats for failing to support a resolution put forth by eight Representatives, seven African Americans and one Asian American, calling for an investigation of the Florida rolls before they would vote to validate the election results. Acting as president of the Senate, then Vice President Al Gore gavels them into silence. A poignant moment, but Moore does not explain that Mr. Gore and many other Democrats judged that after the Supreme Court’s decision, continuing to contest the election would have been divisive and counterproductive.
This pattern continues through the rest of the film, and it raises serious ethical questions about Michael Moore’s own structuring of the truth. Viewers should be on yellow alert about what appears on the screen and its connection to Moore’s thesis and to their own manipulated reactions. The questions become incredibly complex because the film mixes genres promiscuously, and often the transitions come so stealthily that one can easily mistake one genre for the other. Any film that includes a comic sequence of Moore’s reading the Patriot Act over the loudspeaker of an ice-cream truck cruising around Capitol Hill and shots of amputees at Walter Reed Hospital keeps its audience more than a bit confused about what exactly it is watching.
After the titles, Moore shows the Bush team preparing its makeup for public appearances, including the now infamous shot of Paul Wolfowitz slicking down his hair with saliva. Ugh! Candid shots of Bush and Rumsfeld preening for the camera provide a political cartoon in the tradition of Thomas Nast. A bit later he provides close-ups of documents from the National Guard records like a seasoned prosecuting attorney presenting evidence to a jury. This is in the best tradition of carefully researched investigative reporting. The film never pretends to be objective reporting, but even within the broad limits of its editorial comment, many should feel a bit queasy during the rapid shift from very funny caricature in the style of Will Rogers, Mark Russell and late-night comics to meticulous factual journalism, with both being used indiscriminately to bolster Moore’s editorial conclusions.
Part of the problem stems from the compression of information required by the film medium. Viewers cannot pore over the documents and ask questions about their significance, like legal scholars working through an archive. The first third of the film, for example, deals with the relationships between the Bush family and big-oil interests in both the United States and Saudi Arabia. The complexity of the contacts rivals those of the breaking Watergate revelations: insinuations of conspiracy abound, but in the end, what conclusions are to be made? It’s like a game of six degrees of separation, somebody knew somebody who worked for somebody and therefore...what? In the incestuous world of the international oil industry, wouldn’t it be reasonable to think that there would be interlocking boards and legal teams? During the McCarthy period, a long time ago, we denounced guilt by association. To Moore’s credit, he seems to be urging greater transparency in these relationships, whether or not they include criminal conspiracies.
In Michael Moore’s opinion, the secret relationships between the House of Bush, the House of Saud and the oil cartel form the backdrop for the war in Iraq. Near the end of the film he shows a conference of business executives drooling in anticipation of the contracts to be let out for the rebuilding of Iraq. Once they have control, they can build a pipeline that will carry oil and gas into the Persian Gulf and money into the coffers of Halliburton and its subcontractors. It’s a no-risk situation; the greater the violence, the more profit for defense and securities industries. Besides, the government will pay for everything anyway. This type of free-market economics is government-sponsored terrorism at its worst, but did the Bush administration really plan a war from inauguration day simply to provide contracts for its friends? More plausible is the suggestion that the administration wants to keep the voters on edge by orchestrating vague terror threats and adjusting alert levels to insure the re-election of a tough “war president.”
And what of the war itself? In a brilliant use of the medium, Moore reconstructs the events on 9/11 with a black screen and an evocative soundtrack. The images of the smoldering towers, now grown so familiar, have lost their edge, but the sounds coming through the darkness evoke a new sense of horror. The reaction shots of stunned onlookers become even more powerful after the audience has replayed the scene in its own imagination. When the violence moves to Iraq, Moore slides back into the old Hollywood style of combat footage, fireballs and maimed victims of American bombing. He provides agonizing moments of distraught Iraqi women mourning their losses and denouncing the barbarian Americans, but he shows nothing of the ambushes, roadside explosives, cached weapons in safe houses, firebrand clerics, snipers and suicide bombers that have made the occupying forces understandably a bit edgy. In fairness, late-night raids on the homes of suspected insurgents seem only prudent, but by showing one taking place on Christmas Eve with Bing Crosby crooning a carol on the soundtrack, the raid becomes obscene. Al Qaeda’s role in provoking and sustaining hostilities in the United States, Europe or the Middle East for its own purposes doesn’t enter the picture at all.
In a final portion of his film, Moore returns to his hometown of Flint, Mich., where he shows convincingly how recruiting officers make their pitch to unemployed young men and women in this severely depressed region. The politicians want onogoing war to provide a place for the proles—this time Moore quotes 1984 directly—but a draft including the middle-classes is politically unfeasible. Using his signature tactic of the ambush interview, Moore accosts representatives outside the Capitol and asks them to sign their own sons or daughters into military service, a legal absurdity. The method is tacky, but it does allow him to make the point that only one member of Congress has a son serving in Iraq. Congress, the administration and perhaps even the American people are willing to support a war that other people, expendable people, will fight. This is a point few other commentators have had the courage to make. In contrast to these crude ambushes, he provides a lengthy and sensitive interview with Lila Lipscomb, an extraordinarily articulate woman who lost her son in the war. Her noble presence offers a painful reminder of the actual cost of war.
At the end, even as an extremely critical viewer, I have to applaud Michael Moore for “Fahrenheit 9/11.” It’s infuriating in its bias and strident in its accusations. Yet despite my reservations, I’m grateful that he has used the medium so skillfully to raise the conscience of the country, not so much about its varied strategies for fighting the war on terrorism, but for questioning the integrity of those who would lead and those who would gladly follow. No, as much as I have come—lately, I must admit—to oppose the war policies of the Bush administration, I’m not willing to buy Moore’s simplistic thesis that the tissue of deception surrounding the war is part of a calculated strategy to improve corporate profits. Through some bizarre form of selective perception, they probably believe what they tell the world, and what’s really scary, they are willing to act on it. Goethe had it right: “Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action.”