Given the last word in the anti-capitalist documentary The Corporation, opening next week, Michael Moore asserts that his muckraking social satires have demonstrably changed the world. In the case of Fahrenheit 9/11, we can only hope he’s right.
Last winter, Moore fired a shot across the bow of our hijacked ship of state when he characterized George W. Bush as a Vietnam-era “deserter.” With his much ballyhooed, frankly partisan Fahrenheit 9/11, the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes last month, Moore launches a torpedo squarely at the ongoing campaign to finally get the president elected. As I reported from Cannes, Fahrenheit 9/11 is effective in undermining the administration’s rationale for invading Iraq, provocative in linking the House of Bush to the House of Saud (and bin Laden), and unrelenting in its caustic critique of official mistruths.
Indeed, the film’s long opening movement, which segues from the stolen election of 2000 and Bush’s 2001 summer vacation through the events of 9-11 and the cowboy invasion of Afghanistan to dwell on the oil politics uniting the Bushies with the Saudis, is the strongest filmmaking of Moore’s career. Moore shamelessly exploited 9-11 in Bowling for Columbine, but Fahrenheit‘s first half-hour, tightly edited and scored for maximum impact, is succinct and hilarious in making its points—as well as infuriating and tragic. The film, which runs approximately two hours, achieves this height only once more: A painful, gruesomely explicit montage of Battlefield Iraq appropriately salts the wounds with tough-guy inanities from our chicken-hawk secretary of defense.
In Cannes, where locals express incredulity at learning that, hardly a marginalized scribbler of samizdat, Moore is actually one of America’s bestselling authors, Fahrenheit 9/11 was wildly overpraised as filmmaking. (Moore was repeatedly hailed as a new Eisenstein—although, if anything, his wise-guy vertical montage is ultimately derived from Kenneth Anger’s underground biker doc Scorpio Rising.) Moore’s métier is not the scene but the shot—in context. Self-promotion aside, his most formidable talent has turned out to be editing found footage. In Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore wisely keeps his on-screen stunts to a minimum—this is the least grandstanding movie of his career. Still, he finds it difficult to resist his least attractive urge, namely the mocking of those ordinary Americans whom he purports to champion.
Such contempt is not his alone. Moore includes the president’s suggestion that ordinary Americans fight terrorism by visiting Disney World—if not Michael Eisner’s delighted in-house e-mail that hailed Bush as Disney’s “newest cheerleader.” (Refusing to allow subsidiary Miramax to release Moore’s movie was the least Eisner could do for Bush.) But a well-wrought account of the administration’s use of absurd terror alerts, an elaboration on ideas advanced in Bowling for Columbine, dissipates once Moore drops Bush to make fun of an assortment of terrorized Americans, hapless peaceniks, and befuddled state troopers. The flipside to this derision is Moore’s sentimentality—most apparent in his willingness to milk the grief of a Flint gold-star mother. And yet, if it registers 1,000 voters or swings 500 votes in Michigan . . .
Essentially the same as when shown in Cannes, Fahrenheit 9/11 is current enough to include the 9-11 Commission hearings and footage of (relatively mild) prisoner abuse. Although overlong and hampered by a rambling argument, the movie does make a compelling narrative. (It concludes with a chilling quote from neocon darling George Orwell: “The war is not meant to be won—it is meant to be continuous.”) It also succeeds as entertainment. Enough of a showman to recognize the old razzle-dazzle, Moore easily unmasks the administration’s officials as dogged, if inept, disciples of the patriotic bromide, military pageant, “big lie” combo pioneered by Nazi propaganda theorist Joseph Goebbels. Moore has his democratic aspects, as well as his demagogic ones. It’s in his satire of official rhetoric that he comes closest to functioning as a media tribune.
If Moore is formidable, it’s not because he is a great filmmaker (far from it), but because he infuses his sense of ridicule with the fury of moral indignation. Fahrenheit 9/11 is strongest when that wrath is vented on Bush and his cohorts. Let us not forget that Dana Carvey did more than anyone in America, save Ross Perot, to drive Bush père from the White House. There are sequences in Fahrenheit 9/11 so devastatingly on target as to inspire the thought that Moore might similarly help evict the son.