I’ll say this for Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11: These days it’s rare that I go into a high-profile, much-discussed-in-advance movie completely unsure of how I’ll feel about it coming out. With F9/11, though, I genuinely felt my reactions to the film could range anywhere across the spectrum from hugely positive to direly negative.
That’s another way of saying that I’m not an automatic supporter of Moore. Granted, the hefty lefty journalist-turned-filmmaker has injected sharp political humor into the popular arts with a success that probably has Mark Twain, Will Rogers and Lenny Bruce grinning enviously from the great beyond. In so doing, Moore has helped turn the once humble documentary form into a box-office dynamo that now offsets Hollywood’s thumb-sucking fantasies with a healthy dose of reality-based dialectic.
On the other hand, Moore looks at the world with a dogmatic narrowness that, no matter how amusingly articulated, can be as meretriciously reductive as any preordained polemical stance, whether leftist, rightist or Martian. There’s also the sense that his strengths as an entertainer sometimes get the better of his acuity as a cultural analyst; and that his trademark mixture of polemic and documentary, with all its risks of glib demagoguery, further erodes a boundary between fictional and non-fictional filmmaking which is already under assault on various fronts, most notably in the cesspool of atavistic imaginings known as reality television.
For my money, Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, the most successful documentary ever at U.S. box offices, exemplified too many of his weaknesses to be called a great film. Its popularity was at once refreshing, given the extreme inanity of the cinematic context it entered, and troubling: I fully understood the objections of those who felt that its Oscar for Best Documentary reflected a victory of politics and showbiz over art, and came at the expense of better films that had more solid claims on the term “documentary.”
Given these trepidations, I was surprised to emerge from Fahrenheit 9/11 as favorably impressed as I did. Though not anyone’s Platonic ideal of a great film, and certainly no purist’s documentary, Moore’s latest strikes me as a fine and much needed political instrument, one whose obvious purpose is to contribute to the electoral defeat of George W. Bush in 2004. The film’s power and value reflect not only Moore’s filmmaking skills and (more to the point) the unique platform he has achieved as a celebrated entertainer/provocateur but also, sadly, the horrible geopolitical crisis the United States now finds itself in and the ways the mass media, apart from mavericks like Moore, have contributed to that catastrophe. If in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, in the land of wall-to-wall corporate and government sponsored mendacity, even an erratic and partisan truth-teller deserves his due as a prophet.
The central truth Moore has latched onto here is most piercingly conveyed in F9/11‘s scenes with a woman named Lila Lipscomb, who appears three times in the film. The first occasion comes after the U.S. war on Iraq is under way and Moore returns to Flint, Mich. to see how things are going in his famously blue-collar hometown.
Lila is a middle-aged, middle-class wife and mom. In other words, a quintessential Middle American. As she and Moore chat over coffee in her kitchen, he says, “This is a great country,” and she agrees. If Moore’s statement is partly humbug necessary to his populist shtick (which is not to say he doesn’t believe it, only that he’s playing to the cheap seats), the comments it elicits from Lila are self-evidently genuine. A self-described conservative Democrat, she’s religious, tolerant and patriotic. Two of her kids, she relates proudly, have served in the military. A daughter was in the Gulf War. And now her son is in Iraq.
You know where this is going. The next time we see Lila, she’s seated on a sofa in her living room surrounded by family and devastated by the death of her son. She reads from a letter he wrote, not long before being killed, in which he voices the belief that U.S. troops have been snookered by the nation’s politicians. He also expresses the hope that George Bush will be defeated at the polls. But this isn’t the key to the scene, the film’s emotional apex.
The essential thing is Lila’s grief. She is stricken to the core, stricken in the way that only a parent who has lost a child can be. No written words can convey this kind of emotion as a film can. Indeed this is what cinema is for, you think, despite the thought’s discomfort: to give us, in the contortion of Lila’s face and the quake of her voice, the terrible reality of her suffering. And that agony is compounded by the knowledge that her son’s death resulted from the betrayal of many Americans by a few.
Is it unfair or “exploitative” of Moore to use this woman’s pain in this way? Only if Lila thought so would that complaint hold water, and she evidently believes there’s some purpose in having her ordeal made public. So do I. Because it is clarifying in a way that few things that’ve passed across our cluttered news screens in the past two years have been.
Leading up to the war, I asked people who were belligerently for it, “Would you sacrifice your life or that of one of your family for this cause? Which child would you see die in order to depose Saddam Hussein?” I never got a straight-out affirmative to such questions. And I still think that any war supporter–of any war–who can’t reply affirmatively is either a fool or a hypocrite. When a war gets approved as long as it’s some other American’s child who dies, the person doing the approving is dangerously abstracted from fundamental human reality. Just ask Lila.
Such abstraction is part of the context in which Moore must operate. Here’s a larger part, in case you hadn’t heard: The Iraq War was a fraud from the get-go. There were no WMDs. There was no Iraq-al Qaeda connection. Saddam Hussein was a monster but he represented no threat whatsoever to Americans. The tragedy of 9/11 was doubled when a clique of zealots in the Bush administration hijacked the U.S. government and used the terrorist attacks on the United States as a pretext to launch a war that had been planned well before 9/11. In the process they effectively let Osama bin Laden escape, and caused the deaths of thousands upon thousands of innocent people, including American soldiers like Lila’s son.
Facing up to such a reality is obviously incredibly difficult. Americans have an essential trust in the honesty of their leaders, and a warier but still workable confidence in the basic accuracy of the major media. In this case, though, and in a way without any exact parallel in history, they were betrayed by both groups. The war was constructed on a foundation of lies, lies and more lies, perpetrated by the government and relayed unchallenged by all of the major media without one notable exception.
Yet it would be sentimental equivocation to deny that too much of the public played a willing, active part in the fraud. Polls showed that over half of Americans believed that Saddam had played a role in 9/11 even though no one in the Bush administration directly claimed as much. Clearly, there was not only massive deception at work here. There was also, in a way that psycho-historians will be analyzing for years to come, a huge amount of collective self-deception.
It’s weirdly fitting, then, that the title of Moore’s film nods to a famous sci-fi movie of the ’60s. In the future depicted in Francois Truffaut’s adaptation of the Ray Bradbury novel, government rules by mass media and people have largely internalized the lies projected at them; anyone who reads is a renegade and books are illegal (Fahrenheit 451 refers to the temperature at which paper combusts). If we haven’t quite reached that point yet, we’re at least at a juncture where the televisual blitzkrieg–with its official liars, embedded dupes and pandering pundits–is perhaps most effectively combatted by a cinematic sharpshooter with a sure aim.
If Moore, like a rifleman firing at a tin can from across a Wal-Mart parking lot, hits his target most squarely when he focuses on Lila Lipscomb reading her son’s letter, the public may also be able to claim a measure of credit for F9/11‘s ultimate bull’s-eye. Recent polls indicating that a majority of Americans now don’t believe the Iraq War was justified suggest the beginnings of a general awakening to the Great Betrayal. Bushite Republicans thus have good reason to mess their pants and raise a hue and cry as the movie enters America’s malls: Conceivably, Moore only has to change a fairly small percentage of undecided minds in certain key locales to help assure a Democratic victory in November.
Given that the objective is regime change, there’s no surprise that Moore’s cine-tract has a blistering ad hominem animus. But when was there ever a more open and deserving target than George W. Bush, this smug fratty-bagger with his ersatz folksiness and patronizing patter, this glazed and powdered Alfred E. Newman of the Texas plutocracy? Moore doesn’t detail that virtually none of the top “chicken hawks” who sent other people’s kids to die in Iraq ever saw combat duty themselves, but you hardly need such facts when Dubya’s demeanor spells it out clearly.
He gives Moore plenty of ammunition. Beyond the ridiculous aircraft-carrier victory speech, the chumming with fat cats and the data that he spent 42 percent of his pre-9/11 time on vacation (he looks far more comfortable in a golf cart than a flight suit), F9/11 zeroes in on Bush’s blank-eyed expression in the seven long minutes during which he gaped at Florida school children after being told America was under attack. Is that gaze pure, stunned stupidity, you wonder, or something more malign? Only history will tell.
While F9/11 crams a lot of information into under two hours, and skillfully integrates argument, data and the anecdotal excursions into everyday America that are Moore’s specialty (it must be said that he’s remarkably restrained in deploying his own comic persona this time), it also reminds you how much must be left out of any feature-length documentary on a big topic. Someday we’ll surely get an American The Sorrow and the Pity providing an epic-length treatment of the past three years’ horrific phantasmagoria. Yet some of F9/11‘s lacks are, I’m afraid, less excused by the film’s length than explained by Moore’s polemical bent.
He lets two targets off far too easily: the Democrats (who mostly voted to back the war and the administration’s assaults on civil liberties) and the major media (whose complicity in these debacles is only glancingly alluded to). More seriously still, he spends a big chunk of the film’s opening section probing connections between the Bush and bin Laden families and the fact that various Saudis and bin Ladens were hurried out of the United States after the 9/11 attacks. All of this really proves nothing except that the super-rich guard each other’s backs (duh). It’s included here, I believe, mainly as a way of bolstering a predictable delusion of paint-by-numbers leftists, namely that the war was really “about oil.”
Two words are blazingly missing from Moore’s analysis: ideology and Israel. It’s impossible, of course, to understand the war on Iraq without examining the plans for it that were drawn up during the 1990s by a small group of mostly Likud-connected U.S. ideologues, now identified as neoconservatives, whose motives included assisting Israel’s territorial ambitions and continued subjugation of the Palestinians. But I must give Moore the benefit of the doubt here. I’m sure he knows the history alluded to, but also knows that he stands to lose out if he alienates too much of his core audience (Democrats, Hollywood and media types, Israel backers, etc.) while reaching toward those crucial undecideds.
You can’t do everything with one movie, after all. Let Moore use F9/11 to defeat Bush. There’ll still be plenty of targets once that job is done.