Burning Bush

Congressman John Tanner and Michael Moore.Photo: Lionsgate

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.

Moore has made his career by pitching his politics to a more mainstream audience than do many of the liberal potentates whose views he largely shares. What this leads to in his movies, at their worst, is a dumbing-down that skirts condescension; for all his vaunted populism, he may not trust his constituency to get the point. When he shows us an Iraqi woman wailing to Allah after an attack has reduced her world to rubble, it’s offensive, really, to cut to a clip of Britney Spears telling an interviewer that she “trusts the president.” I suppose that Moore, in an attempt to make a movie that would win over rank-and-file undecideds instead of just preaching to the choir, felt compelled to include moments like these, but they backfire. (Among other things, there goes the Spears vote.) More often than not, he goes for the guffaw, and as enjoyable as that can be, it falls short of producing the kind of devastating, in-depth analysis that might really challenge the hearts and minds of all audiences, left and right. At the very least, this approach undercuts the effectiveness of Moore’s own case. For example, in full facetious voice-over, he rubs in the fact that, according to the Washington Post, Bush was on vacation for 42 percent of the first eight months of his presidency. But clearly the bigger (and scarier) joke here is that Bush doesn’t even need to be in the White House. He has plenty of people who already run the country for him.

On the other hand, since Moore’s stated intention with this movie is to drive Bush out in November, perhaps he is right in pushing agitprop over art. So allow me to rescind all my objections and state unequivocally that everybody should see Fahrenheit 9/11 because it is the greatest movie ever made.

Whatever helps.

Richard Linklater’s 1995 Before Sunrise followed Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine, who meet on a train and decide to stay together, from mid-afternoon to the following dawn, in Vienna. Before they separate—he to catch a plane to New York, she to her home in Paris—they agree to hook up in Vienna in six months. No addresses or phone numbers are exchanged. Nine years later, Linklater has reunited Jesse and Celine in Before Sunset. Jesse, now a novelist, encounters Celine, with whom he has had no contact for nine years, at a book signing in Paris. He has two hours to catch a plane, and in that time they have coffee, stroll through the streets, take a sightseeing boat down the Seine, sit in a park. Nothing much happens, and yet everything happens. For those of us who loved Before Sunrise, this sequel is a great gift. (Best to see it right after seeing, or reseeing, the first.)

A lot of blather is exhaled in Hollywood about the “chemistry” of co-stars, but Hawke and Delpy (who also co-wrote the film with Linklater based on improvisations) possess it in surplus. They express all the hesitations and parries and feints of two people who are self-consciously aware of their ongoing attraction to each other. It’s a richer experience than Before Sunrise, which captured like no other movie the exhilaration of being footloose and in love in a strange place with a strange (and yet mysteriously compatible) person. In Before Sunset, Jesse at first seems pulled down by the intervening years; Celine, who crusades for environmental issues, has a beauty that has gone a bit blowsy. But as they reconnect and talk about their lives, in long, unbroken takes, they start to look they way they used to—infused with youthful ardor. The delicate Parisian sunlight anoints them. Jesse, who has a wife and 4-year-old son, tells Celine that when you are young you think you will have many deep personal connections, but later you realize there are only a few. Celine says it’s better that she no longer “romanticizes things so much anymore.” But, of course, she does. Before Sunset is infinitely sad and joyous—a small masterpiece.

Burning Bush