In 1989, an overweight smart-aleck with a movie camera turned his frustration with corporate greed into one of the most entertaining and effective documentaries ever made. The man behind Roger & Me was a filmmaker worth championing.
Michael Moore changed in the years that followed, or perhaps we just got to know him better. Critics on the right, left, and in-between noticed: He was a blowhard; he wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t meticulous about the truth; he didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t always know what was good for himself, his movies, or the American people. He wanted to entertain and agitate simultaneously and sometimes wound up flopping on both fronts. He could be as embarrassing to those who shared his cause as he was to the corporate bigwigs whose lobbies he stalked.
Michael Moore the itchy public personality is still with usÃ¢â‚¬”and likely will be for some time, providing an easy target for conservative attacks. But Michael Moore the filmmaker has grown up: Fahrenheit 9/11 is so much more assured than his earlier work that it begs to be judged in a new category. Roger & Me and The Awful Truth are the work of a lefty class clown; Fahrenheit 9/11 is propaganda in a league with the masters. Although MooreÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s confrontational nature continues to make his arguments ineffective at converting diehard conservatives, Fahrenheit 9/11 is the kind of work that stands a chance of convincing fence-sitters in NovemberÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s electionÃ¢â‚¬”and motivating those liberals who donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t believe John Kerry is worth fighting for.
While the film contains little that will come as a surprise to politically aware viewers, the way it gathers this diverse information is an antidote to the perpetually numbing cycle of mainstream news, which can tolerate only so many controversies at one time. At a recent Austin screening, some viewers were audibly startled by facts that they surely had encountered and forgotten months ago. Moore, like any man with a grudge, has a long memory.
Structurally, the film is a marvel. Looking back on it, one finds it difficult to believe that so many issues are addressed in a film that, by the standards of HollywoodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s prestige films, isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t even that long. Yet Moore and his editors not only squeeze it all in, they make the material flow with near-seamless logic. The opening third of the film, in particular, is a virtuoso string of sequences that gets viewers emotionally prepared for what is to comeÃ¢â‚¬”recounting the 2000 election debacle, painting a damning picture of the new president, and culminating with a September 10 visit to Florida, where Moore notes (anticipating the Francophobia to come) that Bush Ã¢â‚¬Å“went to sleep in a bed made with fine French linens.Ã¢â‚¬
As the opening credits finally roll, Moore gives us a loaded look at the Bush administration. We are introduced to figures like Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice through footage of them being made-up for television appearances. Of the impassive faces being powdered and primped, only that of Colin Powell looks ill at ease, as if he were getting involved in something that didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t sit well with his conscience. Moore is making it clear that, although much in his film deals specifically with the Bush family, the scope of his complaints is far wider. He doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t want DubyaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s head on a stickÃ¢â‚¬”he wants complete regime change.
When the filmÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s main narrative begins, Moore avoids graphic depiction of the World Trade Center attacks. He shows almost a full minute of black screen, letting the noises of that morning tell the story; when the image returns, we see only the reactions of shocked onlookersÃ¢â‚¬”New Yorkers brought to tears, to flight, and to prayer by the horror unfolding hundreds of feet overhead.
Then Moore shows us another reaction to September 11Ã¢â‚¬”that of a man who, however confused the situation was, was not nearly as powerless as the Manhattan bystanders. We see George BushÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s face as he sits with a classroom full of children at a photo op and learns the second airplane has hit tower number two. For almost seven minutes, he does absolutely nothing. Moore has an arsenal of facts, but this is one opportunity for him to leave cold arguments behind and use an in-the-moment example to speak to viewers who, no matter what reporters might say, believe the emotional image projected by George Bush. To people who believe BushÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s tough, patriotic rhetoric even when it is belied by his policies, Moore says, Ã¢â‚¬Å“HereÃ¢â‚¬”look into his eyes now and tell me what kind of stuff heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s made of.Ã¢â‚¬
This is a powerful, chilling sequence and one that seems capable of changing minds in a way that decades-old military records and business transactions cannot. One is tempted to say that it would have been still more effective if Moore (who edited the footage rather than letting it run the full six-plus minutes) had left it raw, without narration. (It can be seen that way at www.thememoryhole.org.) But the filmmaker needs to integrate the sequence into his overall message and thus invents thoughts for his subject, providing half-serious but pointed guesses at what was going through BushÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s head.
Thus launches the meat of the film, which investigates ties between the Bush family and Saudi Arabian interests; the younger BushÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s attempts to block the investigation of the 9/11 attacks; the invasion of Afghanistan; the Bush administrationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s use of fear as a motivator (a subject explored in Bowling for Columbine but well worth revisiting); John Ashcroft, the Patriot Act, and a homeland security policy that threatens our liberty without making us substantially safer; and finally, many facets of the Iraq war.
MooreÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s personality is largely submerged here, buried in the script and structure more often than it bubbles into the overall tone. He very rarely appears on-screenÃ¢â‚¬”a striking difference from his earlier documentariesÃ¢â‚¬”and his narration displays what for Moore must be superhuman restraint. He replaces his familiar smartass tone with one of sad wonder at what has happened in the last four years.
This is a smart move for a man who has sometimes seen his political statements fall flat, neutralized by viewersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ reactions to his strident tone. In Fahrenheit 9/11, audiences who walk in with an open mind will note that Moore takes fewer cheap shots than his detractors would like us to thinkÃ¢â‚¬”and the ones he does take are more fair than usual. (He needs the laughs, but he justifies the jokes with quotes from Bush or Donald Rumsfeld that invite harsh responses.) MooreÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s trademark stunts, which are scarce here, are similarly to the point.
Moore starts his account of the Iraq war with images of Iraqi children flying kites and getting their hair trimmed. He shows mutilated bodies and grieving women after the bombs start to fall. Some critics have faulted Moore for not showing the Ã¢â‚¬Å“goodÃ¢â‚¬ side of this war, for not proclaiming the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Perhaps they missed the last year and a half of television news. (To be fair to a particularly unfair and sloppy screed by Christopher Hitchens in Slate, there are plenty of bones to pick with MooreÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s assertion that we were attacking a nation that had never attacked, murdered, or even threatened a U.S. citizen.) Asking Moore to make the hawksÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ case for them is like asking Bush to list KerryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s war decorations while making speeches calling him soft on terror.
Those who accuse Moore of siding with Iraqi civilians over American soldiers obviously walked out of the movie around this point. The filmmaker proceeds to plant himself firmly in AmericaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s corner, albeit with his ideological bent on his sleeve. He returns to Flint, Michigan, as he always should and will, and finds Lila Lipscomb, a patriotic American who encouraged her children to join the military because it provided opportunities she couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t give them. He intersperses LilaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s story with the pieces of the Iraq puzzle that get little attention on Fox News, scenes which argue that it isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t un-American to criticize warÃ¢â‚¬”itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s un-American to target poor people to fight a war that will make the rich richer. The point is unavoidable when a list of George BushÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s cutbacks on military benefits is juxtaposed with a quote from his address to one black-tie gathering: Ã¢â‚¬Å“This is an impressive crowd . . . the haves . . . and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite; I call you my base.Ã¢â‚¬
The last we see of Lila is during her pilgrimage to the White House, where she lays the blame for her sonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s death at BushÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s heavily guarded gates. Some would compare the sight of this grieving mother to the repulsive mawkishness of the Charlton Heston episode in Bowling for Columbine, but this footage has an honest purpose. It is an attempt to connect some human pain to the sterile, flag-draped coffins the administration will not let us see.
It is a moment of real empathy in the service of heartfelt dissent, not of MooreÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s self aggrandizement. Fahrenheit 9/11 is proof that, at least this once, Michael Moore can make a movie far greater than himself. It is not the most important political movie of the year in terms of new factsÃ¢â‚¬”Control Room offers American viewers a perspective they cannot get elsewhereÃ¢â‚¬”but it makes the anti-Bush case engaging to the politically unmotivated without straying from the facts. Progressives would be foolish to think this film will do all their work for them, but itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s an effective tool we shouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be ashamed of embracing.
John DeFore is a freelance writer in Austin.