Fahrenheit 9/11 opens with footage of an upbeat Al Gore on Election Night 2000, over which we hear the plaintive words of director Michael Moore—“Was it all just a dream?”—followed by a devastating précis of the Florida and Supreme Court machinations that greased George W. Bush’s way to the White House. “None of this was a dream,” he concludes. “It’s what really happened.” This, however, is nothing compared to what follows: Fahrenheit 9/11 turns into a dissection of a new national nightmare, and Moore’s patented jocularity, such as his insertion of old Dragnet and Bonanza clips to punch up his points, only reinforces the underlying dread—he’s cackling in the crypt. Although he provides much voice-over narration in that faux-folksy style that seems equal parts MAD magazine and The Nation, Moore himself appears far less in this movie than he did in Roger & Me or Bowling for Columbine, and that’s all to the good; the baseball-capped populist with the beady eyes and aggressive waddle is pretty tired shtick. And yet even with Moore rarely on camera, Fahrenheit 9/11 is his most “personal” documentary. He clearly has a mission in mind—to evict Bush.
I can’t think of any American movie that has ever seriously affected a political race, but with the DVD of Fahrenheit 9/11 supposed to come out in October, who knows? (The Los Angeles Times recently reported that nearly a dozen other highly critical docs will be rushed into theaters before the election, including the Karl Rove–themed Bush’s Brain and The Oil Factor Behind the War on Terror.) Moore’s movies may not be blockbusters by Harry Potter standards, but as documentaries go they do extremely well, and presumably the readers who have made his books best-sellers will pack the theaters—among whom must be at least a few fence-sitters. Fahrenheit 9/11 is, in fact, a kind of visual aid to Moore’s latest book, Dude, Where’s My Country?, especially those chapters that deal with Saudi investment in America, the not-so-independent news media, and the administration’s lies about Iraq. (He mercifully leaves out the book’s straight-faced endorsement of Oprah for president.) The film also has the PR advantage of having been very publicly denied distribution by Disney, the parent company of Miramax, which financed it. At Cannes, upon winning the Palme d’Or, Moore used the occasion to make it sound as if the documentary had been in danger of never being shown in America. “You’ve put a huge light on this movie,” he told the jury. “You will ensure that the American people will see this movie.” Actually, the klieg lights were already on, and the only stumbling block was that Moore and Miramax were dickering for the best deal. (Lions Gate and IFC Films are releasing it.)
As an indictment of the Bush administration’s policies leading up to and following the 2001 terrorist attacks, Fahrenheit 9/11 doesn’t really cook up any fresh exposés. It doesn’t pretend to. Still, this is the most comprehensive diatribe ever filmed against Bush and his cronies (even though, by necessity, it is focused primarily on Iraq). Moore plies us with emblematic moments, such as the fat-cat gala at which Bush refers to his audience as “the haves and the have-mores,” adding, “Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.” Will anyone, I wonder, foolishly argue that this sequence is lifted out of context? Throughout the movie, we’re brought up short: It’s one thing, for example, to read about the chummy photo op between Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein back in 1983; it’s another to actually see the hearty handclasp. Later, we see a clip of Rumsfeld at a news conference singing the praises of surgical strikes in Iraq—“the care that goes into it, the humanity . . . ” Surely even those who supported the invasion have a responsibility to spread the news—war is hell.
“Fahrenheit 9/11 is the most comprehensive diatribe ever ﬁlmed against Bush and his cronies.”
And in the film’s most valuable contribution, Moore reveals a piece of that hell in a way that has been largely withheld from the American public. We are shown the blasted, charred bodies of U.S. combatants and Iraqis, including children. We hear American soldiers talk disgustedly of their mission, and we see the flag-draped coffins the Pentagon tried to keep out of sight. Moore incriminates the media—primarily the television networks, although he could easily have pilloried the major press, too—as sycophants and cheerleaders, not just the Fox News Channel crowd but also such éminences grises (and blondes) as Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Katie Couric (who tells a Navy SEAL he “rocks”). The manipulation of the shocked-and-awed press deserves a movie of its own.
The overarching idea in Fahrenheit 9/11 is that the poor and marginalized in our society—those who have been most affected by Bush’s economic policies—are fighting our wars for us. In one gloriously cheap-shot scene, Moore approaches congressmen on Capitol Hill about getting their sons to sign up for Iraq. (Only one, we are informed, has a son over there.) Moore has a streak of demagogic sentimentality that sometimes works against his message—I doubt whether the poor in the military would agree with his characterization of their service as their “gift to us”—but he’s one of the few filmmakers who has consistently pointed up the deep class divisions in America. He does this even though, at times, he lapses into caricature. He makes a big issue in Fahrenheit 9/11 about how Homeland Security cynically activates the color-coded alerts in order to dupe the American public into thinking there’s a terrorist cell lurking in every burg; and then he shows us the rubes who take it all seriously. Aside from the fact that Moore may well be too complacent about the actual threat at home, he might have demonstrated more sympathy for the terrorized.