Fahrenheit 9/11

In one of the more talked-about sequences in Michael Moore’s barnstorming Fahrenheit 9/11, President George W. Bush sits in a Florida classroom and reads along with second-graders. The book? My Pet Goat — fitting, since Bush, in this film, is Michael Moore’s pet goat, in the sense of the word meaning “a target of ridicule.” Bush sits there vacuously as the students read aloud; a timer on the screen tells us that he sat there for seven minutes, his expression blank and his manner untroubled, after hearing that the second World Trade Center tower had been hit and that America was under attack. Nothing Moore can say is more quietly damning than this footage.

Of course, those predisposed to agree with Moore’s thesis — that the presidency was stolen by a man up to his eyebrows in obligations to oil interests and Saudi Arabia — will likely have seen this footage (widely available online) and much else in Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore is angling, I think, for the folks who don’t trust Bush but don’t really know why — who aren’t avid readers of political blogs, which have supplanted the mainstream news media as outlets of information that often challenges the government’s official story. He’s also reaching out to the non-readers who may not have encountered this stuff in the many anti-Bush volumes to hit stores in recent months, including Moore’s own.

I am not Moore’s ideal audience, since I agree with the gist of what he’s saying and I’ve heard most of this material before. Ray Bradbury has made a fuss over Moore’s hijacking the title of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, but Moore is more indebted to the writings of Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Craig Unger, Ted Rall, and countless others who have made a similar case. Moore’s advantage here, aside from the free publicity the controversy over his film has generated, is that he’s working in a visual medium — and when he acts as a counterprogrammer to the sanitized official narrative of the war in Iraq, Fahrenheit 9/11 cuts deepest.

Consider the story of Lila Lipscomb, an employment-office worker in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan. Once again, Moore goes home and finds a goldmine: Lila, an average American in terms of her ideology (she resents war protesters because two of her kids are in the service), is not so different from the audience members Moore hopes to sway. Lila defends military service as a great opportunity for young people to better themselves. But then the narrative deepens: Lila’s son serving in Iraq, Sgt. Michael Pedersen, is killed when his Black Hawk chopper goes down. Grief turns this average woman into an activist filled with extraordinary rage, and her furious blast at a woman who accuses her of staging her mourning for the cameras is breathtaking.

Perhaps Moore should have stuck to The Lila Lipscomb Story. But his goal is broader and sometimes foggy. Much of the movie’s first hour deals with the ties between the Bush family and the Saudis — and, by extension, the Bin Laden family — and it may lose a part of the audience; the material is hard to sex up. By the second half, as Moore’s embedded camera crews catch the carnage and casual cruelty on both sides of the Iraq conflict, it’s an invaluable show-and-tell for those whose only exposure to this war has been from news networks heavily influenced by an administration that has refused to show us the coffins coming home.

Fahrenheit 9/11 isn’t quite the bullseye Moore’s supporters are hoping for and Bush’s supporters are dreading. On either side of the fence — those who want Moore to be the golden truth-teller to deliver them from evil, and those who see Moore as the Anti-Christ — the hysteria is a bit overblown. As a hype-soaked cultural moment, though, it’s of obvious importance; it is to the Left what The Phantom Menace was to Star Wars fans, and to the Right what The Last Temptation of Christ was to fundamentalist Christians. This hotly debated and politically charged document in a movie era otherwise known for White Chicks and Van Helsing — and the phenomenal success it will no doubt enjoy on its first weekend — speaks volumes about the country’s current agitated mood of discontent, intensified by ongoing tales of torture and corruption so blatant that even the mainstream media can’t put a happy spin on it. Moore has his own spin, and his movie sometimes gets dizzy from it, but there’s no doubt it will move audiences.

I don’t think Fahrenheit 9/11 is Moore’s best work; I prefer his messy, searching Bowling for Columbine, which grew humbler as it went along, as Moore realized the problem went deeper than guns. In Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore knows exactly what the problem is; he isn’t a questioner this time, he’s a lecturer. Sit down, class, and let Professor Moore tell you what’s what. As a Moore supporter and Bush detractor, I was grateful to have my prejudices stroked in this way. But I wished, for art’s sake, for a work less sure of its foregone conclusion.

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