Fahrenheit 9/11

on June 23, 2004 by Mark Keizer
Audiences waiting for something to talk about at a buzz-free 2004 Cannes Film Festival finally got it with the premiere of Michael Moore's new documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11," which received a 20-minute standing ovation after its premiere at the Grand Théâtre Lumière before going on to win the Palme D'Or. However, the picture could be run backwards with no sound and Moore fans will still think it's the greatest film in American history. Throwing all pretense of impartiality to the wind, he bombards us with facts, figures and footage to support his one and only contention: Bush bullied the world into an immoral war in Iraq. Fans of the Flint native will have no interest in questioning anything their hero says, while those who would appreciate even the tiniest shred of context, objectivity or fairness will just have to suffer. So, in pure filmic terms, "Fahrenheit 9/11" is a second-rate documentary, but it is first-rate entertainment and top-notch muckraking.

Unlike most documentaries, where the book is already closed on the subject at hand, the war in Iraq is more controversial then ever, giving the movie an added vitality. The film begins with a recap of the 2000 election which, while funny enough, is like Jay Leno carting out another Monica Lewinsky joke. Moore is particularly proud of his assertion that President Bush spent 42 percent of his first eight months in office on vacation. How he came upon that number is never explained, but Moore fans won't care if his claims are true or completely fabricated as long as the president is being pilloried. Turning to the World Trade Center attacks, the picture goes black and the viewer only hears the audio of the planes crashing into the buildings, which proves a very effective device. Then, for the first and only time in the film, Moore tries to build a plausible case for one of his allegations: that the Bush family has extensive and intimate business dealings with the Saudi royal and bin Laden families. To help back his claim, he plays his biggest trump card: a recently declassified document involving Bush's military service. Although the document contains a blacked-out name, Moore has a copy of the original and the name turns out to be one James Bath, with whom Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard. Moore claims the name was blacked out because Bath would later have business dealings with the bin Ladens.

Later, the picture temporarily loses focus as Moore interviews one of only eight troopers patrolling the entire state of Oregon on a given day, proof that Bush is doing nothing to protect the country. His rant on the Patriot Act (highlighted by hilarious footage of Attorney General John Ashcroft singing a self-penned song called "Let the Eagle Soar") includes an interview with an older man who was visited by the FBI after giving his opinion too loudly at the gym. It's all a bit off-topic, a problem that temporarily paralyzed his 2002 Oscar-winning documentary "Bowling for Columbine."

The second half is dominated by the story of Flint, Michigan, mother Lila Lipscomb, whose son was serving in Iraq. When we first meet Lila, she's an unabashed war advocate who raises an American flag in front of her home every morning. However, a particular event in Iraq forces her to change her opinion, and this transition is extremely emotional and effective. For a documentary maker, Lipscomb's story is gold and Moore justifiably wrings all he can out of it.

Also effective is footage of American troops in Iraq that has not been seen by domestic audiences. They include vile and shameful footage of American troops ridiculing an Iraqi prisoner. There is footage of U.S. soldiers patrolling on Christmas Eve that is also quite good. Moore never specifies who shot any of the Iraq footage (in the press conference he said the footage was shot by "stringers"), but assuming he can't afford a platoon of CGI coalition forces, we'll just consider the footage authentic.

Moore is on-screen much less than usual this time, though he does turn up on the streets of Washington D.C. to ask congressmen if they'd let their children enlist in Iraq. It's funnier in theory than practice. As always, his trademark humor and creative editing techniques advance his theories (watching Bush read the children's book "My Pet Goat" during a classroom photo-op on 9/11 instead of rushing to the aid of his country is damn funny) but there is always that nagging feeling that Moore cannot be completely trusted. Apolitical or Republican viewers will question some of his facts, which can come in such a headlong rush there is no time to consider their validity.

While "Fahrenheit 9/11" scores good, solid points against Bush and is extremely watchable, one must now concede that Michael Moore no longer makes documentaries. He makes Michael Moore films (the same sort of thing could be said for Leni Riefenstahl). After his Oscar win and the controversy surround this new release, Moore is spending too much time believing his own press. He embraces his shaggy dog style and reputation as a provocateur, but stepping back from his own rage would have made "Fahrenheit 9/11" resonate with those who don't completely buy what he's selling. Directed and written by Michael Moore. Produced by Kathleen Glynn and Jim Czarnecki. A Lions Gate release. Documentary. Rated R for some violent and disturbing images, and for language. Running time: 120 min

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