Fahrenheit 9/11

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BUSH CULTURE REVIEW. Fahrenheit 9/11 does to George W. Bush what John Kerry should be doing.

Directed by Michael Moore

Joe Lockard

Fahrenheit 9/11 does to George Bush what John Kerry should be doing. It is a savage thrashing of the Bush administration, one that delivers humor alongside pathetic and angering Iraq War footage. While Kerry, one more Skull and Bones Yalie who supported the war, occupies himself with statesmanlike campaign speeches, Moore is busy going for the junior pledge's jugular. There is an unspoken center-left division of political labor going on here and Moore has the meat-eating role.

Because it is a documentary unique among political documentaries for the public attention it has received even before release, Fahrenheit 9/11 has become the whipping boy of right-wing cultural gatekeepers. The marketing opposition of Michael Eisner and Disney, or right-wing mob operations like Citizens United and Move America Forward that tried to stifle the film, constitute a collective tribute to the power that Michael Moore has brought to the documentary genre. Even Christopher Hitchens has left off his role momentarily as an Iraq War kettle-drum banger in order to foam deliriously about 'Unfairenheit 9/11,' declaiming that 'To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental.' Any documentary film that can excite such orgiastic rhetorical antagonism is by definition a great film.

It's a marvel to see prime-time TV ads for a left-wing political documentary playing in packed local Cineplex theaters. It's just as much a marvel that a documentary film is a top-grossing film in the United States, where documentaries nearly always play in a handful of art houses to miniscule audiences. A host of fresh new documentaries will be lifted by the tide of Fahrenheit 9/11's success. Two of the picks of this crowd are Joel Bakan's The Corporation and Jehane Noujaim's Control Room, both of which have achieved more critical than commercial success. Documentaries are creating the forefront of anti-Bush culture, the current cultural wave propelled by political nausea towards the Bush administration.

Fahrenheit 9/11 represents the most direct challenge to the self-glorifying history that the Bush administration and its supporters want to tell in order to grab the brass ring of a second term. Moore's masterful put-down of the media pretenses involved in that self-glorification begins in the opening credits sequence, with shots of pre-broadcast make-up work on Bush and other leading administration officials. George Bush comes off as a weird high-school student pretending to be president, and ' given the audience's disgusted groans at Paul Wolfowitz's grooming techniques ' his coiffure will never be seen in quite the same light again. A presidential administration that has relied so heavily on media manipulation has provided entire archives of videotape available for its own mockery and critical detonation.

Tracing the course of the Bush administration, the film opens with footage of the Florida 2000 results and a heartbreaking parade of African American congressional representatives protesting an election decision based on denial of votes and civil rights. Moore pans the first year of the Bush administration, pointing out that Bush spent 42 percent of his first eight months of office on vacation and that his administration did nothing to prepare against terror attacks that its own reports predicted. The seven minutes that Bush spent dull-faced watching a class read a story while the World Trade Center towers were under attack are an indictment in their own right.

For the most part, Moore uses the Bush administration record effectively. The post-September 11 historical revision that Moore attempts, however, is the least successful part of the film. It relies on desperately weak evidence to suggest that the Bush family conspired with the Saudi royal family to engage in a cover-up of Saudi elites' collaboration with al-Qaeda in the attacks. The film's early narrative suffers from substituting factuality for plausibility. Moore's failure (or refusal) to register that Saudi elites with Western ties are anathema to bin Laden and al-Qaeda is an ironic mirror reversal of similar nonsensical right-wing insistence on viewing Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda as linked partners.

This reality-free imaginative re-location of Middle Eastern political actors according to immediate explanatory needs of domestic US politics is a political game of both right and left in the United States. What Moore does manage to prove is that he doesn't know much about Middle-eastern political alignments. A much more plausible understanding is that the footage of Bush the Elder embracing the Saudi leadership, the Carlyle Group connection and their September 10 investors conference, and 'Bandar Bush' lounging in the White House speaks to commonality within a global elite. They have shared interests in shaping repressive societies that consolidate their corporate wealth, and the September 11 events were used for political and financial advantage.

Once he stops sounding like Oliver Stone intuiting an international conspiracy deep-fried in Texas, Moore does vastly better. The latter two-thirds of the film are superb op-ed cinema, even if punctuated by occasional eyebrow-raisers. Moore has a masterful command of American film culture and uses visual quotes from old film and television to comment on the domestic cultural origins of a militaristic foreign policy. Moore is not known for having a single consistent opinion and sometimes his contradictions wear combat boots.

A Bonanza-remake satiric opening for the war in Afghanistan leaves the audience in stitches, but if Moore opposes that war why does the film criticize the Bush administration for not fighting it aggressively enough? If there is any merit to the suggestion that the Afghanistan War's secret motivation was in laying a natural gas pipeline across that country, rather than attacking al-Qaeda's staging grounds, it could only be if Moore meant laughing gas.

Mood swings intertwine with political history. The humor that Moore uses so effectively quickly fades with the painful sights of the human devastation in Iraq. An elderly Iraqi woman sobbing and screaming for divine retribution against Americans for killing her family and destroying their home has a shrieking element of justice in her call, sufficient to make even middle-of-the-road American viewers feel sympathetic and distinctly uncomfortable. One reason that Moore appears less in Fahrenheit 9/11 than in his previous films is that the cast of characters whose lives have been so devastated by the Iraq War leaves little room for him. The life of a Flint, Michigan mother who has lost her son is equally as shattered as that Iraqi woman.

Moore has turned making comfortable people feel uncomfortable into a professional specialty and part of his technical repertoire. Audiences sit waiting for his next 'let's do an in-your-face stunt' version of political Candid Camera. This time it takes the form of acting out the role of Marine recruiters who pursue teenagers through shopping mall parking lots in Flint, but outside the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill. By accosting congressional representatives, informing them that there is only one son from a congressional family serving in Iraq, and then asking them to recruit their own children for military service, Moore points out the class structure where working-class people ' especially in communities of color -- die for the decisions of a political class that protects its own children.

Michael Moore has a history of going assertively overboard on occasion, but he gains more admirers than he loses doing so. The antagonism that George Bush generates needs a cultural anti-Bush, a figure that the rotund working-class-identified Moore embodies. George may be the lean MBA-boy jogger, but Michael turns out to be much swifter on his feet. Michael Moore is the alter ego of the privileged son; he is the funny fighter who a whining Daddy Bush condemned in the New York Daily News for 'a vicious personal attack on our son.' Even if some of the attacks do not hold up under scrutiny of evidence, one shrugs and grins at a film where a vicious rich-boy global bully gets his comeuppance. George W. Bush still gets more fairness than he deserves, because when was Bush fair to anyone?

For more information on Michael Moore, drop by michaelmoore.com 

Copyright © 2004 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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