The Moore the Merrier: Two Appreciations of 'Fahrenheit 9/11'

Michael Moore Wages The War of Art

By Mathew Wilder

"I just have to tell you--I think Navy SEALs rock!" gushes a helmet-haired anchormodel to a sheepish, jut-jawed military hunk, while, one mouse-click away, some portly mandarin, his head lined up with a logo marked COMMON SENSE, inveighs lustily against the common wisdom. "Am I biased?" he asks rhetorically. "Damn straight I am!" Next we're whisked someplace else, seeing something we don't get to view on TV: an Iraqi child screaming as stitches are removed from his face. (Dear reader: I've seen a lot of things in a lot of movies, but take my word--this is the worst.) From there, I don't know how, it's but a hop, a skip, and a jump to Britney Spears, leaning forward in her interviewee's chair, looking luscious and chomping on gum as she confuses her civic and private life: "I think we really need to be faithful to our president."

Dude, where's my script? George W. Bush in 'Fahrenheit 9/11'
Lions Gate Films
Dude, where's my script? George W. Bush in 'Fahrenheit 9/11'

Where are we? Is this all, as the documentarian suggests, just a dream? Are we in hell? Or have we found ourselves, through some karmic somersault, in our own far-flung torture chambers?

What has been ignored in the op-ed cannonades surrounding Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is that the film is not just a powerful polemic, but also a great work of art. Moving at the speed of thought from the biggest of big pictures--Bush's dolllike stance on the aircraft carrier, kite-flying kids ducking Shock & Awe concussions--to moments so intimate they're like overheard thoughts, Moore's movie is the climax and culmination of a project begun by James Rosenquist's bazooka collages in the '60s and extended by Don DeLillo's novels and Oliver Stone's movies in recent decades. Now the project has crash-landed in Moore's virtuoso mix of found reportage and dizzying montage. Like the above-mentioned works, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a total vision of a corrupted world, viewed from the cellular to the macro. Like no artist before him, Moore (with his team of editors) has devised a way to make the inherently schizzy nature of 21st-century communication--the abrupt changes in image, tone, and temperature of 24-hour news television, the associative thought-leaps of net-surfing--into the woof and warp of his object. What Moore does uniquely is make this jagged, disorienting, and often oddly comforting format more than a style; he makes it part of the movie's subject itself.

At first, Moore appears to be chasing down History with a capital H. Starting with the unraveling of Al Gore's 2000 Florida win--prompted, it would seem, by a Bush cousin covering the election for Fox News--Moore paints a picture of a creeping virus more lethal than Jeb Bush's vote-tossing or the Supreme Court's connivance: the cowardice of the Left. In the first of the movie's many formal dazzlings, Moore slows down the slot-machine juggernaut of the first reel to watch Gore--regarded by one African American congressman and -woman after another as "Mr. President"--dismiss attempts to rebut the Bush coronation on technical terms. From there, Moore body-slams his way through Dubya's first year in office (between 15 and 40 percent of which was spent on the ranch) and into the presidential appointee's day of reckoning. Again, Moore brilliantly applies the brakes: We watch as Bush, informed of the second plane hitting the Twin Towers, sits in a grade-school classroom, stunned and befuddled for 10 minutes or so, unable to act or speak. He is temporarily bereft of a writer-director.

Like Lee Harvey Oswald in DeLillo's Libra and Stone's JFK, George W. Bush is the patsy of Fahrenheit 9/11: the man who wasn't there. Moore goes on to trace still more deeply buried superobjectives. Are we to believe that Saudis such as Prince Bandar--and the bin Laden family members who are co-participants with George Bush père in the Carlyle Group energy syndicate--have had less sway over both Bushes' policymaking than the much lower-paying United States of America? Moore keenly departs from the standard psychoanalytic reading of the occupation of Iraq (He's proving himself to his dad!) with the forceful suggestion that Iraq was a sideshow, a diversion from the real epicenter of terrorism: Saudi Arabia. (A few days before Fahrenheit was released, the 9/11 Commission coincidentally issued a statement that the Saudi government paid what could very charitably be called protection money to al Qaeda, along with our new best friends in Pakistan.)

Having set up his thesis--the exploitation of post-9/11 anxiety allowed the U.S. to get the Saudis off the hook and its own imperial leg up in the region--Moore doesn't choose to remain in the corridors of power. Instead, he investigates how these profit motives touch--and irreparably damage--the lives of ordinary people. While tracking the fake triumph and eventual disintegration of Operation Enduring Freedom, Moore hangs out with black teenagers from Flint, Michigan, who contemplate joining the Marines; listens to a returning serviceman with two blown-off hands as he attempts to rationalize (and tranquilize) his condition; and encounters a proud Army mom whose beliefs are challenged and then broken when her son dies. (In one of the most scalding scenes in memory, a Bushite confronts the mother on a Washington street with this hissing, offhand remark: "Go blame it on al Qaeda!" If this mom were on O'Reilly's show, would the host say anything different?)

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