Produced, written and directed by Michael Moore
Rated R; 122 minutes
It’s become almost impossible — if it ever was remotely possible — to separate Fahrenheit 9/11’s value as a film from its identity as a political statement and a political tool. For one thing, it’s likely that millions of people will form their opinions about Fahrenheit without ever seeing it. Those opinions will run the gamut from “that fat traitor Michael Moore is a menace to America” to “he can’t say enough bad things about Bush and his cronies for my taste,” and will have more to do with one’s political stance than anything contained in the movie itself.
Even for those who do see it, I think it will be difficult for anyone who has been conscious for the last four years to come at Fahrenheit with what’s laughingly called an open mind. I certainly didn’t. Anyone who knows me knows that I think Shrub and Cheney have been the scariest things to inhabit the White House since Dick Nixon. Bush and his chicken-hawk cronies achieved what I thought was impossible — they made me appreciate Tricky Dick. I mean, Nixon had blood on his hands by prolonging our stay in Vietnam, but that war was already going on when he got into office; it’s a lot harder to shut one of those things down once the reactor gets hot. W. has already gotten us into two wars, the latter of which is proving to be a moral and logistical sinkhole that seems to have only two beneficiaries so far: al-Qaeda recruiting efforts and Halliburton shareholders.
O.K., I’m calmer now. Breathe.
So perhaps the question is less whether Fahrenheit 9/11 is biased (it is) but whether it’s effective, as both a film and a political statement. By effective, I mean does it engage people’s emotions as well as their intellects as it tells its story; and, does it encourage thought and discussion rather than simply reconfirming prejudices? I believe it does both these things, the former more effectively than the latter.
On the emotional front, there’s Lila Lipscomb, a self-described “conservative Democrat” and flag-displaying patriot. The scenes that show her dealing with the death of her eldest son in Iraq are among the most powerful Moore has ever filmed. All the polarized red state-blue state stuff suddenly seems beside the point when Lila reads her son’s last letter from the war zone. Each banal, hopeful word about returning home is like another poison arrow in Lila’s heart, made all the more painful because she had encouraged her children to view the military as a good career and life choice.
About the bias issue: there’s no question that Moore is anti-Bush. He is not subtle or quiet about his political leanings, either in the film or in his public statements. Compare this to the disingenuousness of, for example, Fox News, which pretends to a standard of journalistic objectivity while shrieking and shilling a relentlessly conservative, Republican worldview. With Fahrenheit, Bush supporters can go into the film with their guard up.
Overall, I believe the point is less about bias per se than about a needed redefinition of the “documentary” concept. The idea that all documentaries are calm, objective pieces of celluloid truth needs some serious attention. Every documentary — every film, TV show and commercial, for that matter — is all about the filmmakers’ choices, which affect how viewers see the final product. It’s not always easy to remember that what’s not shown can be as important as what’s included; that the process of film editing, by its nature, can affect the viewer’s perception of time; and that narrative juxtapositions can point up unexpected concordances and hypocrisies.
Moore brilliantly exposes the role of context in other types of visual media that are supposed to be truthful, i.e. TV news. In what is destined to become a classic clip, Bush’s boilerplate statement about calling on all nations to support the U.S.’ fight against terrorism is immediately followed by the immortal words “Now watch this drive,” as Bush demonstrates an impressive golf swing. Moore’s point is less that the frequently vacationing Bush seems to care more about his sporting prowess than finding Osama bin Laden, as is the implication that nearly everything we hear (from anyone in a position of power) is a pre-packaged, pre-digested and probably focus-group-tested sound bite.
And as Moore shows, Bush is honest in his own way. Addressing a group of heavy-duty Republican supporters, Bush identifies his audience as “the haves and the have-mores,” adding “Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.” Well, the guy knows who is buttering his bread.
In Fahrenheit, Moore relies less on his own presence and the kinds of attention-getting stunts he’s used in previous films (receiving a rifle as an account-opening gift from a Midwestern bank in Bowling for Columbine; disrupting a General Motors stockholders’ meeting in Roger & Me). He has powerful enough material with the clips of Bush, including the dreadful minutes that he sat in that Florida classroom after being told the second World Trade Center tower had been hit. It’s scary (Why didn’t he do something? Is he a zombie?) and oddly humanizing — like so many people that day, he just couldn’t believe what was happening.
He also has powerful footage of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, so young that you expect them to be flipping burgers or skateboarding instead of making life-and-death decisions armed with AK-47s. Is the footage gruesome, sickening, horrifying? Yeah. War is hell.
You don’t have to buy all the (conspiracy) theories Moore floats in Fahrenheit — about the coziness of the Bush family with the Saudi ruling elite; about the proposed natural gas pipeline running through Afghanistan as the prime reason for our half-hearted invasion and occupation of that country, especially compared with our full-blooded one of Iraq. Even if you don’t buy simple greed as the motivating factor for world events — I think there’s plenty of room for stupidity, arrogance and messianic certainty as well — you do get a real sense from watching this film about the power gulf between our leaders and ourselves.
Technically we are Bush’s boss. We elected him (well, sort of) and power is supposed to derive from the governed. But the pervasive theme of Fahrenheit is also one of the oldest themes in all drama and literature. Power is dangerous, and power corrupts. My worries about Bush are less that he’s a bad guy personally — who really knows? — as that he and his “base” don’t acknowledge that there are, or even should be, limits to power. When these guys (it’s mostly guys, Condoleezza Rice is a token in more ways than one) don’t like the rules, they rewrite them or ignore them. Moore is encouraging us to exercise what little power we have left — the power to stand in a voting booth on November 2 nd and make a choice. If we really elect Bush this time (hello, Florida! I’m talking to you!), we have no one to blame but ourselves. But let’s make it a fair fight.