Fahrenheit 9/11: Convergence of Politics and Entertainment

Michael Moore claims that after his inflammatory Oscar speech for “Bowling for Columbine,” in which he called Bush a fictitious president and was booed by the audience, he could not walk down the street without encountering some form of abuse.

But there’s no need to worry. With his follow-up documentary, the incendiary “Fahrenheit 9/11, he proves that above all he’s indefatigably a populist entertainer. Like every good comedian, he knows that timing is everything. He fought hard to get his agit-prop about Bush into the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, and he fought hard when Disney refused to allow its subsidiary, Miramax, to release the film in the U.S. Moore not only won on both fronts, but also emerged triumphant from Cannes, where his movie received the Palme dOr. It was only the second time in the festival’s long history that a non-fictional work has won the top prize.

The movie is a huge hit. With domestic box-office grosses of over $115 million, “Fahrenheit 9/11” is the most popular documentary in film history. But Moore isn’t basking in the sun. Not yet. Realizing that American are watching more movies in their privacy than on the big screen, he’s eager to get his documentary out on DVD in early October, a month before the Elections. Moore will not relax until Bush is out of office.

Moore made a conspicuous presence at the Democratic National Convention. He even got the national spotlight on Ted Kopple’s Nightline, though Kopple (and the news media) are prime targets of “Fahrenheit 9/11”. Using scholar Noam Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent,” well-known theory, which had been published as a book and also made into an excellent film, Moore claims that far from being objective or balanced when reporting divisive events like Iraq, the American news institutions, all capitalistic institutions motivated by profit, have been coopted by the ruling class.

Since its premiere in Cannes, a number of important questions have plagued the film. How rigorous and methodical is “Fahrenheit 9/11” as a documentary Can a single movie change people’s mind when it comes to such crucial matters as voting Is the documentary mostly preaching to the converted

Taking a cue from “Roger & Me,” the 1989 documentary that put Moore on the map, the new work might have been titled “George & Me,” with Moore serving as straight man to Bush, portrayed here as an inept clown. When the film opened, critical consensus held that the documentary is scathingly entertaining but that it’s also diffuse and lacking in focus, and that its mode (which heavily relies on montage) makes it hard to substantiate its explosive charges.

Indeed, what begins as a focused look on 9/11 and its aftermath turns into an overall critique of the Bush administration international and domestic policies. This is the broadest in scope and the nastiest in tone. The agenda of “Fahrenheit 9/11” must have changed as a result of the Iraq War, an event that needed to be included if the documentary aspired to be up to date. With the immediate goal changed, Moore has opted for an all-encompassing review, sort of Moore’s state of the union address about all the ills inflicted by Bush on his beloved America.

The most inflammatory theme is in the first reel, which tries to establish a link between Bush and Saudi-Arabia. Moore claims that the Bin-Ladens were directly connected to the rise of former President Bush, channeling huge amounts of money into enterprises controlled by the Bushes and their inner circle. He also accuses Bush of airlifting members of the Bin-Laden family out of the country within days after the terrorists attack.

A scary sequence depicts the morning of Sept. 11, when Bush was visiting a Florida elementary school, reading a children’ book to his captive audience. According to Moore, once informed of the attack, Bush didn’t move for seven minutes. According to Moore, Bush didn’t know what to do because no one had told him what to do. Taking a nasty shot, Moore’s jokey voice-over then speculates about the inner working of Bush’s mind during those fateful moments.

Moore presents Bush as golfer, a bird hunter, a horse-rider, a witty entertainer–everything and anything but a responsible, authoritative leader. The strategy is to catch Bush off-guard in his weakest moments, to discredit him completely. At a gathering of the rich and famous, Bush says with a smile, “Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.” In another scene, Bush assumes a serious faade when he tells reporters that “terrorism must be destroyed,” then running off, he says, “Now watch this drive.”

Moore claims that the Bush administration was failing until 9/11, and that it exploited the event to create an atmosphere of fear, a theme that was also explored in his previous, Oscar-winning documentary, “Bowling for Columbine.” In discussing the culture of paranoia, he suggests that the president and his men have spent more time frightening the country’s innocent citizens than pursuing terrorists.

Moore describes himself as a documentarian but at heart he is a sensationalist satirist. Indeed, as a documentarian, he doesn’t make many discoveries that informed and politically savvy Americans don’t already know, though he should be getting credit for presenting them in a seductively entertaining package.

Seeking to amuse at all costs, any method will do for Moore. Some cheap techniques that leave a bad taste even for Bush’s detractors are used along the way. For example, the Afghanistan War is turned into a TV Western a la “Bonanza,” in which politicians like Tony Blair appear in cowboy hat.

Yet you can’t deny Moore’s witty personality and shrewd humor. He has constructed a public persona as a discontented American Everyman that’s reaffirmed by his appearance–heavy belly and baseball cap. Watching Moore attend the glitzy premiers in Cannes (one of the few formal occasions left), while wearing a tuxedo and sneakers is a riot.

Moore’s work cashes in on his celebrity status as an influential figure in pop culture: Author of best-selling books, maker of Oscar-winning doucmentaries, producer of TV shows. Though playing the ordinary man, Moore is full of paradoxes. He is at once a product and a beneficiary of a capitalistic economy driven by marketing and profits. Would Fahrenheit 9/11 become such a blockbuster without Miramax’s aggressive marketing machine Would his books become best-sellers without his smoothly organized book-signing tours Would his movies create uproar without the media blitz that accords international film festivals

His tactics of harassing officials by asking them literal-minded but intimidating questions works well in a sequence in front of the Capitol. Holding out recruitment posters, Moore asks congressmen if they would send their own sons into the war. It turns out very few officials have sons in combat, which may be the reason why, when confronted, most dismiss his question or brush him away.

In the most factual sequence, Moore documents how the Iraq War is fought by the underclass: ethnic minorities and poor whites. Unskilled and unemployed, they have no choice but to fight. But, again, the thesis that the Army is dominated by the working class might apply to any country in which military service is not compulsory. Was the Army’s demographic profile any different during Vietnam

Some of the arguments are debatable. Hence, Afghanistan was invaded in part to facilitate American oil interests. Similarly, Iraq was attacked to bolster the military contracts of Bush’s friends. And the teasing comes off as easy shot, as when a goofy Bush is making faces at the camera while makeup is applied before a TV interview.

Other charges against Bush, as if he’s solely responsible for them, are unfair. As the recently published 9/11 Report shows, major warnings of terrorist attacks were ignored by the Clinton administration as well. As a shrewd politician, Bush is doing what other presidents have done before him: Boosting the American morale in times of crisis, diverting attention from serious to more trivial matters. He encourages the public to remain indifferent and uninformed; the percentage of eligible Americans who vote has been low for years.

About half of the film’s footage recycles material drawn directly from television, though not necessarily American. Moore got hold of footage from British and Canadian TV, which shows a messier and bloodier view of the Iraq War seldom broadcast in America due to self-censorship, according to Moore.

Calculating and manipulative, Moore’s approach is anything but balanced or subtle. To his credit, it’s a conscious decision. Moore continues to claim his main goal is to remove Bush from the White House. That’s the only thing he will concede to his detractors, that his film is an overtly political pamphlet designed to change votes in a fateful election.

Fahrenheit 9/11 achieves its strongest emotional note in the last reel, in which the center is not Moore or Bush but an ordinary American citizen, Lila Lipscomb, who lives in Flint, Michigan, Moore’s hometown. Lila’s testimony gives the Iraq War a universal, humanistic face likely to touch anyone who has lost a loved one in war. Working at a non-profit agency that helps the unemployed, Lila is a mother of several children, two of whom serve in the Army. In the first interview, Lila describes herself as a conservative Democrat (“I hated antiwar protesters”) and her family as the “country’s backbone.”

Then a second interview reveals that Lila’s son, Sergeant Michael Pedersen, died in Iraq. In deep grief, she reads a letter from Michael that expresses serious doubts about the motivation to invade Iraq. With Moore’s blessing (since he follows her with his cameras), Lila goes to Washington seeking solace around the White House. Her visit is interrupted by a passer-by, a skeptical woman who’s obviously pro-War since she says, “It’s all staged.” Losing control, the devastated Lila cries, “Why My son A parent is not supposed to bury his child!”

Moore claims that his documentary is telling “The Truth,” but there’s no such thing. In fiction and non-fiction, there’s always a point of view, a perspective from which a story is told. The fact that Moore doesn’t permit Bush to present his arguments or defend his policies turns the film into a one-sided platform.

A lot has been written about the 20 minutes standing ovation at Cannes. I saw the film at its first press screening, in the morning, but colleagues who attended the gala claimed that the ovation got prolonged because Moore himself applauded the audience and was slow in leaving the stage. Like other journalists, I wonder whether the French-dominated audiences applauded Moore’s documentary as a film or as a self-congratulatory salute of their own contempt for American foreign policy; after all, France was never part of the Coalition Forces.

The motivation for making “Fahrenheit 9/11” was strictly political, though the success of this documentary, along with that of Moore’s “Roger and Me” and “Bowling for Columbine,” have elevated the visibility and changed the public perception of the entire non-fiction genre. For decades, documentaries, even the good ones, were considered to be the illegitimate children of the American film industry, the kind of fare that’s mostly shown on Public TV and select Cable channels.

But no more: American audiences have proven that they are willing to pay full-price tickets to see a provocative and entertaining documentary. The combination of a serious discussion of issues (not necessarily political) and entertainment values has helped many other documentaries, such as “Winged Migration,” “Spellbound,” and “Super Size Men.” (See Film Comment).

As for the potential impact of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Moore seems to be in a win-win situation. If Bush is defeated in November, Moore will take credit for that. If Bush is reelected, Moore will claim that the American public continues to be indifferent to issues that matter, that the average citizen is more interested in economics than in politics perse. A war-driven economy benefits the entire military-industrial complex, not just the ruling elite.