Back in the ‘80s—the era of Reagan and Bush 41, when milquetoasts Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis were the ineffectual Democratic candidates and Jimmy Carter was off building houses for poor people, when Anthony Lewis was writing oh-so-temperately in the New York Times, which was then leaning neoconward under the stewardship of Abe Rosenthal, when there was an explosion of dirty Republican tricksters like Lee Atwater and trash-talking right-wingers, from Morton Downey Jr. to the fledgling Rush Limbaugh—I found myself wishing, wishing fervidly, for a blowhard whom the left could call its own. Someone who wouldn’t shrink before the right’s bellicosity. Someone who would bellow back, mock unashamedly, and maybe even recapture the prankster spirit of counterculture figures like Abbie Hoffman.
Yeah, I know: Be careful what you wish for.
In 20 years of writing about film, no movie has ever tied me up in knots the way Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit9/11 (Lions Gate) has. It delighted me; it disgusted me. I celebrate it; I lament it. I’m sure of only one thing: that I don’t trust anyone—pro or con—who doesn’t feel a twinge of doubt about his or her responses. What follows might be broadly labeled as “waffling,” but I hope, at least, that it is bold and decisive waffling.
Needless to say, Fahrenheit 9/11 never waffles. The liberals’ The Passion ofthe Christ, it ascribes only the most venal motives to the other side. There is no sign in the filmmaker of an openness to other interpretations (or worldviews). This is not quite a documentary—which I define, very loosely, as a work in which the director begins by turning on the camera and allowing the reality to speak for itself, aware of its complexities, contradictions, and multitudes. You are with Moore, or you are a war criminal. The film is part prosecutorial brief and part (as A.O. Scott has noted) rabid editorial cartoon: a blend of insight, outrage, and sniggering innuendo, the whole package threaded (and tied in a bow) with cheap shots, some of them voiced by Moore, some created in the editing room by intercutting stilted images from old movies. Moore is largely off-screen (no pun intended), but as narrator he’s always there, sneering and tsk-tsking.
Here are the salient points: that Bush stole the presidency from Al Gore (who, in one of the film’s best scenes, must certify his opponent’s election and quell a movement to stall that certification); that Bush and his family had been in bed with the Saudis, which made him less responsive to the danger of al-Qaida terrorism; that a pipeline in Afghanistan promised billions if the Taliban was on board, which was one reason that the threat of Osama Bin Laden (black sheep of a family with whom daddy did business) was swept under the rug. Better to concentrate on Iraq, the administration felt—it had unfinished Saddam business, it was rich in oil, and it was a potential goldmine for U.S. corporations.
Moore ranges far and wide: He apes Apocalypse Now (1979) with footage of bucolic Baghdad before the bombings, then cuts to soldiers explaining the way they hook their iPods to the tank speakers: “You have a good song playing in the background, it gets you really fired up.” (I’m surprised he didn’t go ahead and play “Ride of the Valkyries.”) Then there’s graphic footage of dead Iraqi women and small children killed in what the Pentagon said were surgically precise bombings. A grieving old woman shrieks curses at the United States, while U.S. soldiers with missing limbs rail at the administration. On the home front, Moore suggests that the Patriot Act was unread by the legislators who passed it and harps on its absurd applications, like the agent who infiltrated a septuagenarian cookie-baking peace collective in Fresno, Calif. Then he chases hawkish congressmen outside the Capitol. Would they send their own sons and daughters to fight in Iraq? he asks—often to their backs, as they flee.
As I watched California Congressman John T. Doolittle take off from Moore’s camera, arms and legs bobbing spastically, I was troubled by the cheapness of Moore’s interviewing techniques. But I laughed my ass off anyway. And I felt better about laughing when I checked the warlike congressman’s Web site, which mentions his graduation from high school * in 1968 but, predictably, no Vietnam service.
All right, you can make anyone into a goofball with a selection of unflattering shots and out-of-context quotations, but it is so very easy to make George W. Bush—with his near-demonic blend of smugness and vacuity—look bad. Or is this in eye of the beholder? Perhaps when Bush speaks of hunting down terrorists, then gets down to the real, golfing business—”Stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive”—you see an honest, plainspoken leader unfairly ridiculed. But what can even Bush partisans make of those seven minutes in the elementary school classroom after he received the news that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center and the nation was under attack? In one of the few lapses in an otherwise virtuoso rant, Christopher Hitchens argues that Moore would have made sport of a martial, Russell Crowe-like response. Nice try, but that blow wouldn’t have landed, and this one does, spectacularly. It is downright spooky to watch the nominal commander in chief and “leader of the free world” behave, in a moment of crisis, like a superfluous man.
Moore is best when he doesn’t stage dumb pranks (like broadcasting the Patriot Act in D.C. out of an ice-cream truck) but provokes with his mere presence. When he interviews the author of House of Bush, House of Saud in front of the Saudi embassy and the Secret Service shows up to ask what he’s doing, it’s a gotcha moment: What’s the Secret Service doing protecting non-U.S. government officials? He has a light touch there that’s missing from the rest of the Fahrenheit 9/11. In one scene, his camera homes in on a Flint, Mich., woman weeping over a son killed in Iraq, and the effect is vampirish. After the screening, a friend railed that Moore was exploiting a mother’s grief. When I suggested that the scene made moral sense in the context of the director’s universe, that the exploitation is justified if it saves the lives of other mothers’ sons, my friend said, “When did you become a relativist?”
I’m troubled by that charge—and by the fact that we nearly came to blows by the end of the conversation. But when it comes to politics in a time of war, I think that relativism is, well, relative. Fahrenheit 9/11 must be viewed in the context of the Iraq occupation and the torrent of misleading claims that got us there. It must be viewed in the context of Rush Limbaugh repeating the charge that Hillary Clinton had Vince Foster murdered in Fort Marcy Park, or laughing off the exposure of Valerie Plame when, had this been a Democratic administration, he’d be calling every day for the traitor’s head. It must be viewed in the context of Ann Coulter calling for the execution of people who disagree with her. It must be viewed in the context of another new documentary, the superb The Hunting of the President, that documents—irrefutably—the lengths to which the right went to destroy Bill Clinton. Moore might be a demagogue, but never—not even during Watergate—has a U.S. administration left itself so open to this kind of savaging.
Along with many other polite liberals, I cringed last year when Moore launched into his charmless, pugilistic acceptance speech at the Academy Awards. Oh, how vulgar, I thought—couldn’t he at least have been funny? A year later, I think I might have been too hard on the fat prick. Six months before her death in 1965, the great novelist Dawn Powell wrestled in her diary with the unseemliness of political speech during an “artistic” event: “Lewis Mumford gave jolt to the occasion and I realized I had gotten as chicken as the rest of America because what he said—we had no more right in Vietnam than Russia had in Cuba—was true but I did not think he should use his position to declaim this. Later I saw the only way to accomplish anything is by ‘abusing’ your power.” Exactly. Fahrenheit 9/11 is not a documentary for the ages, it is an act of counterpropaganda that has a boorish, bullying force. It is, all in all, a legitimate abuse of power.
Addendum, June 25, 2004: It is now apparently part of the Secret Service’s mandate to protect foreign diplomats in the nation’s capital. Why they’d have dispatched an agent to quiz Michael Moore on camera is a mystery, though. They knew who he was. Did Prince Bandar just want to let him know he was being monitored?
Correction,June 25, 2004: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that U.S. Rep. John T. Doolittle graduated college in 1968. He graduated high school that year. (Return to the corrected sentence.)