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."

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?)

Like no movie to date, Fahrenheit 9/11 shuttles between the big official story and dozens of flyspeck-sized personal accounts with the crazy stealth of a low-flying bomber. Where the extraordinary documentary Control Room studies a handful of personalities with the acuity of a Balzac novel, Fahrenheit seems to invent a new narrative form for the 21st century. Moore's tone veers from coldblooded humor (a soldier in a Halliburton promo video yells to his mates, "Hey, guys--it's a girl!") to unbridled terror (an Iraqi girl sobs as American soldiers traipse through her house, saying nothing to calm her) and shattering pathos, then sometimes veers in yet another direction within the same sequence. The emotions we experience daily as Americans living in the toxic psychological landscape we've inherited--stoic trudging-on mixed with grim humor and moments of irrational exhilaration--have finally been captured. Watching the film, one feels a shiver at Moore's uncanny reflection of the moment--a distillation of the essence of our psychic coordinates. It's what you imagine the first viewers of Bonnie and Clyde or Easy Rider felt in the late '60s.

Moore's movie also packs an emotional wallop: It makes audiences tremble and rage and cheer. The Cannes Film Festival's "apolitical" president Quentin Tarantino actually got it right when he said Fahrenheit 9/11 deserved a prize as a movie. And because Moore has made a great motion picture, he has also created a populist polemic that may well change history as cinema has never managed to do before. Fahrenheit 9/11 will electrify audiences and embolden them to commit to making change. In that outcome alone, its mission is accomplished.

 

Moore's Hodgepodge Works Despite Itself

By Terri Sutton

Director/provocateur Michael Moore makes one very shrewd choice in his first movie after that clumsy Academy Awards shout-down: The kid stays out of the picture. Oh, not completely: There's still the obligatory chasing -down -VIP -prey -to -ask -impertinent -questions scene--and the odd bit of self-promotion. For the most part, though, Moore asks the ordinary people for whom he has always claimed to be speaking to speak. And they do. Soldiers, parents of soldiers, underemployed black youth, families of 9/11 victims, white-haired voters, and Iraqi civilians describe their experiences since 9/11 with extraordinary fervor and understanding. In this manner, Moore effectively makes the case that "the people" are on his side in crying, "Shame on you, George W."

Of course, another documentarian could find equally "ordinary" people to speak with fervor and understanding against Fahrenheit 9/11's theme: the disgrace of Bush's presidency. But this movie, coming four months before November 2, presents a pretty sickening view of what they'd be arguing for. What's nauseating--and Moore's film finally allows it to be seen in public--is the terrible distance between elite decisions to make war for whatever reason is currently being floated and the material cost of it in people's lives. Fahrenheit 9/11 movingly illustrates the losses--of life, physical and emotional health, and economic security--that the Bush administration has done its best to minimize.

In other words, this is a film rife with grief and anger. A measure of the potential power of that expression can be seen in the level of Republican vitriol rising up to condemn both the film and the man. I stumbled on a conservative internet bulletin board discussing Moore, and was stunned at the personal attacks involving various scatological functions. Christopher Hitchens's Slate "review" of Fahrenheit 9/11 is slightly more politic in language, but not in intent; revealingly, Hitchens slams Moore for factual and ideological missteps in the film (and in life), yet never confronts the emotional message--except to argue that Moore "condescends" to his interviewees and exploits their grief. I can't figure how documenting people's concerns is condescending or exploitative, especially given that most other people in the media are ignoring them.

I do wish that Moore was a better filmmaker--if only because his richly topical subjects are so undermined by sloppily passionate arguments that practically invite dismissive attacks. As many before me have noted, a bitchy discourse of Moore versus Limbaugh does nothing but leave everyone feeling misunderstood and pissed (on). Moore's Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine hopscotched across explanations for the American habit of violence without investigating any one of them in meaningful depth. It seems Moore would rather chase down Charlton Heston with a camera than dig into the historical record of a country founded on genocide. (And why not? He wins awards for it.) Moore's idea of proof is too often a visual gag followed by an info-dump of facts never sorted into coherence. (Amid all the comedy sketches, the funniest line is inadvertent: "Do something," the end credits implore--followed by Moore's web address.)

The part of Fahrenheit 9/11 that tries to build a factual case against Bush offers either well-known evidence or more dubious allegations that don't add up to much. Given that lots of U.S. voters still believe in the fictional al Qaeda-Iraq relationship (and aren't aware of al Qaeda's real relationships with Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, none of which we invaded), and given that lots of voters still believe we took down Saddam's murderous regime (but never North Korea's or Sudan's) as a humanitarian mission, I can't argue with the coverage of established facts. But I wish Moore had explored them with more focus and more patience.

Instead, he belabors the Bush family and administration's ties to the ruling Saudi family, stating evidence with mounting horror, yet offering no salient reasons why this evidence is significant. And he presents Iraq as an innocent victim of our strafing bombs, just a country of typical citizens like us. Moore's simplistic good-versus-evil constructions are no more insightful or helpful than Bush's. His sarcastic voiceovers feel as inappropriate in the context of such grievous events as Bush's golf game.

Fahrenheit 9/11 can be most generously understood as Moore's attempt to expose what hasn't been widely seen: U.S. citizens (even white males!) reported to the FBI for expressing dissent, the gap between what Homeland Security professes to do and the underfunded attempts by local authorities to do it, the disconnect between the administration's military aims and the small, vulnerable armies sent to accomplish them. Perhaps the film's most riveting footage is of minority U.S. representatives for Florida, protesting the voting rights abuses inflicted on their African American constituents in the 2000 election; their protests were not considered in Congress's vote to crown George president because no single senator would sign onto their testimony. (What would Wellstone do? Sit on his hands, apparently.)

Again, these truths flit by too rapidly to absorb. Fahrenheit 9/11's hodgepodge of unsustained narratives leaves it, like Bowling for Columbine, a great discussion starter, but not really a great movie. Yet, like that earlier film, it's powerful almost despite itself: because it shows people asking why things are as they are. I keep thinking of one young black man in the movie, speaking of a future in the military; politely, without heat, he wishes that he could enjoy the experience of college "without having the possibility of dying." Answer that, critics.

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