Sit back, grab a beer/cocktail/coffee/soda/juice/water, put your feet up and relax. We're going to be here for a while. I've gone back and forth about my reaction to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and exactly what I have to say. I hope you'll bear with me, and I encourage everyone's thoughts and comments, as long as they are actually thoughts and not simple rhetoric such as "Michael Moore is a liar." As I mentioned in my post late last night, I wanted to approach the film as just that – a film. Not a polemic; not an op-ed piece; not a investigative journalism – just a documentary film, which does not mean that it needs to be balanced.
Well, that couldn't happen. September 11, 2001 is still fresh in all our memories; the war in Iraq is ongoing, regardless of any turnovers of sovereignty -- whatever that means considering that nearly 140,000 American troops are still there; and the myriad of issues addressed in this film, whether one agrees with Moore's take on them or not, are at the forefront of everything we as American citizens – and more importantly voters, because history proves that while all the latter must be the former, the opposite is hardly true – need to investigate and contemplate between now and November 2, 2004.
Still, I want to try to address the filmmaking, because the technique and artistry utilized by Moore is brilliant. I'm sorry to say I completely disagree with Filmbrain's assessment in which he says "Moore hasn't created an aesthetic around his message." Of course he has. His very ability to manipulate the laughs and tears from the audience comes from this aesthetic. Deliberately juxtaposing Bush-isms with contrary images or recreating the opening credits of Bonanza while replacing Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Pernell Roberts and Dan Blocker with Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and British Prime Minister Tony Blair is most definitely creating an aesthetic and not just a montage. His hysterical presentation of selected members of the "Coalition of the Willing" does the same thing
But so what? That's what filmmakers do. All filmmakers, I would argue. And in fact, all filmmakers with a point to get across propagandize, whether they are documenatarians or fictional storytellers. The word "propaganda" carries a negative connotation these days due to how propaganda has often been used but that is not really a part of its definition. According to Merriam-Webster, "propaganda" carries the following three definitions:
- capitalized: a congregation of the Roman curia having jurisdiction over missionary territories and related institutions
- the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person
- ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause; also : a public action having such an effect
Excluding the first, the other two indicate that propaganda is really committed by every pundit, every op-ed columnist, every documentary filmmaker, and every politician who has an argument and seeks to prove it. The very thought of Robert Novak or Rush Limbaugh calling Moore's film propaganda without acknowledging that everything they comment on is simply laughable. And it's true on both sides of the coin. An opinion seems to become propaganda only once the person reading or listening to it does not agree with its concepts. And everything the Bush administration tells us is "propaganda," but I don't mean that as a criticism. It is a simple fact. Kerry's entire campaign is propaganda as well because propaganda is how you win an election.
So let's just disregard the whole concept of propaganda as a criticism because it is an invalid one. If people want to criticize the ideas in Moore's film, go ahead. If they want to refute the "facts" he presents, they should. Unfortunately, the only criticisms I've heard regarding the content of the film itself involves personal attacks on Moore or rhetoric calling him a liar. I have yet to actually see, hear or read about any individual "facts" proved incorrect.
But see … there I go getting away from the film … sort of. Ironically, I think the reason so many on the right think it's easy to criticize Moore for simple Bush-bashing is because in editing all of this footage the way he does, the easiest thing to see without actually thinking about what you're watching or recognizing what you're feeling is Bush looking arrogant and/or foolish. But Moore's film attacks the audience on a much deeper level by shifting from the seemingly comical and unbelievable to the tragic and sorrowful. The beginning of the movie is a recap of the 2000 election. Nobody who criticizes Moore's Bush-bashing seems to also discuss how foolish he makes every Senate democrat (and remember, the dems held a Senate majority at the time) including Vice-President Al Gore look during a long sequence showing that not one senator (and one was the minimum required) would sign an objection to the election results brought forward by black members of the House of Representatives who were fighting for their disenfranchised constituents. Not one senator – democrat or republican..
So after getting the audience a bit riled up in disbelief and showing how Dubya's inauguration was anything but a smooth operation, he finally takes us into the opening credits comprised of simple white lettering over black screen title cards intercut with shots of Bush and other administration officials all preparing for various TV appearances. How do they prepare? By getting makeup applied or having their hair fixed. These shots had the audience at my screening cracking-up. Look at them, getting ready to talk about going to war yet they're putting on makeup, I imagine people were thinking. Or, They're so trivial and obviously do not understand the gravity of their actions.
Well, this is one of those instances where I have to call "Bullshit" on Michael Moore. It's absurd to place any actual importance on this sequence because the truth is that everyone goes through those preparations. If they didn't, TV viewers would wonder why Paul Wolfowitz hadn't combed down his alfalfa hair, or why Rumsfeld's face was so shiny and flat. I guarantee that every member of the Clinton administration did the same thing before every on camera appearance. If you go backstage at Crossfire, Paul Begala and James Carville will probably have the tissues tucked into their collars just like Tucker Carlson and Robert Novak. But Moore very effectively uses this montage to set-up his argument that every member of this administration is a cocky, arrogant and flip son-of-a-bitch who cares more about his/her own vanity than American soldiers. Personally, I can't stand this administration's arrogant, world-be-damned attitude, but this is a manipulation that Moore does not need to make. He does so for comic effect, and it works if you buy into it. But at the same time, these are the moments that allow the conservative critics to say Moore is simply malicious.
As soon as the credits are over, the screen blacks out and for the next couple minutes (at least it felt that long) it remains black as we listen to the sounds of the two planes hitting the World Trade Center towers as well as the accompanying cries and screams of onlookers. This is a very deliberate choice; Moore knows we've all seen this footage 1000 times. He knows that at this point letting audience members' individual memories of that day take over will be more powerful than simply showing the footage again. Sound is often the forgotten but most powerful element of filmmaking, and if you aren't drawn into Fahrenheit 9/11 yet, you will be now. When he finally gives us something to look at again, it is a close-up of a woman, crying in fear and terror. Ultimately it widens to show her in the midst of others on that street, and then we see another montage that lasts for several more minutes with no voice-over commentary, just music and the cries of the onlookers. (Considering the points he puts forth later in the film regarding what segments of the population, primarily poor and black, are enlisting in the military, I don't think it's accidental that the first image he shows us is that of a black woman.) He lets us start with our own image and memory of that day, and then he reminds us of the chaos that ensued, that we all experienced through our televisions.
It is extremely powerful, and it perfectly sets-up the audience for the litany of information with which he's about to bombard us, such as the connections between the Bush family, the Saudi royals and the Bin Ladens. This included Saudi money managed by a Texas National Guard buddy of Dubya's and invested in several of his failed oil companies in Texas. There was also the administration's fulfillment of a Saudi request to transport Bin Laden family members out of the country, purportedly for their safety and comfort, on 9/13 without questioning any of them whatsoever. At this point in the film, those who already believe everything Moore is about to say (whether they already know about it or not is actually irrelevant) or those open to the possibility that Bush hasn't been such a great leader are emotionally ready to almost accept anything Moore presents. Those who come to the film just expecting that everything in it is a lie will probably by this point be ready to disregard the rest of the movie as unimportant because look at what happened on 9/11, and we have to get those motherfuckers!.
But again, Moore's excellence as a filmmaker comes into play. Although it may not seem as such from its narrative, Fahrenheit 9/11 actually sort of has a three-act structure, but it's an emotional one. The meat of this film is Moore's presentation of the "facts." I keep putting "facts" in quotes for the benefit of those out there who might disagree with them. The thing is, these connections and actions and trails of money do and did exist. Michael Moore is not the first to have reported them; he's just the first to put them all in a movie with semi-major distribution and advertising. The defense of these "facts" has been incredibly minimal, with many people attempting to refute the actions of The Carlyle Group or the Bin Laden family's escape, but not much else. (And if you go to michaelmoore.com, there is a page where Moore & Co. rebut these criticisms.)
Anyway, the core of the movie is one indictment of Bush, his family and his administrations after another. And then Moore takes us back to his hometown of Flint, MI, and we meet Lila Lipscomb, the woman who goes through her own personal transformation between her introduction and the end of the film. We also start hearing from more soldiers – those on the ground in Iraq as well as those at Walter Reed Medical Center rehabbing and learning to live without their appendages. Somewhere along the way, Moore pulls his bait-and-switch again, and slowly but surely, we move away from evidentiary proceedings and back into emotional storytelling.
The third act is Moore's closing argument, and it works because even if you believe in Bush's leadership and actions, it's impossible not to take notice of Lila Lipscomb's tragedy or to the soldiers who feel betrayed. (And if you try, you'll just come off sounding like the clueless woman who encounters and tries to challenge Lipscomb in front of the White House and can't think of anything better to say other than, "Blame al-Queda." By the way, anyone else shocked that Moore's crew actually got her to sign a release??) When Moore regains his persona of attack dog -- clearly missing throughout most of this film -- and waits outside the Capitol in order to ask congressional members if they'd be willing to have their sons and daughters enlist in the military and go to Iraq (apparently only one of 535 senators and representatives has an enlisted child), it is impossible not to react viscerally and either giggle while simultaneously feeling appalled – at the congressmen and women if you agree with Moore, and of course at Moore if you don't.
None of this is to say that Moore's bias does not appear throughout the entire film; of course it does. In fact, one of the most interesting elements of Fahrenheit 9/11 to me was how a large part of it is a specific continuation of the main theme from Bowling for Columbine. Moore's earlier movie focused on the US being a country where everyone is afraid of everything and due to this culture of fear, according to Moore, we have developed into the gun-totting nation we are today. An entire segment of Fahrenheit 9/11 deals with Moore's argument that the Bush administration's best technique at getting popular support for attacking Iraq was by tossing more-and-more kindling on the bonfire of fear that already permeates our society. In the wake of recent developments, particularly the 9/11 commission's interim staff report, it's hard to dispute him in this case. Even those who currently argue that WMD may still be found or that Iraq was an immediate threat to our national security have to be operating on some level from this very same sense of fear Moore continues to discuss and support through miscellaneous footage and interviews with people, in this case from a small town in Virginia. One car mechanic has the brilliant line (which I don't remember word-for-word, but this is the gist) that he knows never to trust a stranger, and often he wouldn't even trust people he knows.
The reason why Fahrenheit 9/11 is a masterpiece of filmmaking, though, is simply because anyone who watches it will be affected by having done so. The film can't help but provoke an emotional reaction whether it is sorrow or anger or frustration or, at times, laughter. To whom these reactions are directed might be different depending on one's political slant, but nobody will walk out simply saying … "Eh."
The ultimate (and repeatedly stated by Moore himself) goal of Fahrenheit 9/11 is to push Bush out of office. I'm all for that, but I don't believe the movie alone can do that. For one thing, even with its astounding nearly $24-Million opening weekend (and by the way, original estimates being off by as much as $2-Million is something that virtually never happens), the attendance over the next couple weeks will be much more indicative of who is going to see this film. I believe that one difference between liberals and conservatives is that people on the left will occasionally read or watch somebody with whom they vehemently disagree in order to protest and debate them; on the other hand, people on the right believe they know everything someone like Moore will say and they would much prefer denounce it without ever seeing or reading his work than put $1 into his pocket. In this case, maybe I'll be wrong. But I'm not all that optimistic that conservatives will be flooding theaters en masse. Reportedly, audience numbers in the "red states" have been high, but keep in mind, even the "red states" had plenty of people voting for Gore.
The promise I see in this film, however, is not that it will change anyone's mind or convince anyone of something they didn't already believe. My hope is that with this large an audience seeing it, people will discuss the issues raised (agree or disagree), maybe pay more attention to the news and do a little research of their own, and most importantly when Nov. 2 runs around, they'll actually go to the polls and vote. If Fahrenheit 9/11 makes even a few people less apathetic and helps everyone realize that every single vote does count and the only way to make things better is for all of us to empower ourselves and do what we can to change things … well, then this movie has done everything any op-ed piece can realistically expect to do, and that's enough.
I could go on much further discussing/debating the content of this film. From the lack of protection of our coastlines to the aggressive recruiting tactics by the armed forces to the seemingly endless examples of Bush making himself look foolish with no help from Moore, there's plenty in there. But as I've already written a near-dissertation, I'll hold back … a bit. I have two final points, however, about which I have neither heard nor read much discussion.
First, as I stated earlier, my biggest problem with this administration is the arrogant fuck-you we've presented to the rest of the world. Mandate or no (and the 2000 election was definitely close enough to say no), the difference between leadership and bullying is getting others to trust and follow you versus stepping over everyone's opinions and doing as you like. The Bushies have been bullies, not leaders. Like them or not, both Bush 41 and Reagan were leaders who were able to work with people even within the confines of multiple disagreements. In every way imaginable, Dubya has been a divider, not a uniter, both internally and externally, more so than any president in my lifetime, including Nixon. The administration has managed to convince our allies to basically be afraid of us, yet they still expect everyone to come running when we want them to. Of course, US national security should not have to wait for other countries to say it's OK, but rather than lie or spout rhetoric, show us and the world the proof that our security has been threatened. Quotes such as Bush's the other day when he stated, "The reason that I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and Al Qaeda, because there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda," simply don't cut it. Basically, that's the "because I said so" reasoning that a parent uses to a two year old, and neither American citizens nor the people of the rest of the world should be talked to in such a way.
The sequence early in the film in which Moore shows Bush at the elementary school in Florida, sitting with the class of children reading "My Pet Goat" for seven minutes after being told the second plane has hit is remarkably telling. Never before have we seen Bush so distracted, so lost. The confidence and determination that he projects with that annoying and conceited smirk was nowhere on his face in those moments. He was a man who simply didn't know what to do, and honestly, I can't fault him for that completely. Moore makes fun of him in those moments, but who among us would know precisely how to react? Might we have excused ourselves, sure, and he should have. In a way, it seems like everything Bush has done and his overconfidence in all things since that moment is overcompensation for not being sure when tragedy actually hit. He never wants to project that image again, so he can't have any doubts or regrets, and he certainly can't have made any mistakes.
But the most terrifying part of this film is virtually the same thing I found so scary in Errol Morris' stunning and brilliant Academy Award-winning documentary from last year, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara: the eerie similarities between the build-up to and ongoing war in Vietnam in the '60s and '70s and everything going on in Iraq. I know people don't like to compare the two, and everyone is troubled by the very usage of the word "Quagmire." There are plenty of differences between the two situations, so I'm not trying to say they're exactly the same, but too many elements do mirror each other
For example, there is an arrogant government utilizing a domino theory as justification and telling the public only things that will hopefully get them to support the government's actions, until, that is, those things are no longer relevant at which point the whole story changes. That's a log line for then and now. Then: we were terrified that if North Vietnam became independent, it would go communist, opening the door to every other country in Southeast Asia falling the same way. Of course, we now know that this was never the case; nationalism, not communism, was what spurred on the North Vietnamese. In Iraq, the administration seems to believe that creating democracy in this country will lead to the spread of democracy throughout the Arab world which will simultaneously crush all the terrorist groups. Realistically, we can't yet predict whether this will or won't be the case. But we do know that the entire population of Iraq has not welcomed us with open arms, we have no guarantee that democracy as we envision it will actually survive, and if anything, we've created a breeding ground for terrorism and terrorist groups inside Iraq where there wasn't one before.
But I digress. What I saw in Fahrenheit that was so scary was an interview with an American soldier who couldn't have been more than 20 years old. He was expressing his frustration and saying, "I hate this country," meaning Iraq. And then he said (and again I have to paraphrase as I did not write it down verbatim), We're here to help these people but they attack us and tell us to go away, and they act like they don't want our help, but then if something happens and we're not there, they cry to us where were you! I'm sure if you searched through the archives or interviews with soldiers from Vietnam, you would see similar quotes from a myriad of voices. They don't want us there, but we're there, and since we're there, if we're not protecting them, we're the bad guys. There's no way around that because as Bush himself has said, he's pretty sure they don't like being occupied. Well, as long as our military is there, to some degree we're occupying them, and just like with Vietnam, there are still too many people asking, "What for?"
Ultimately, Fahrenheit 9/11 can't be observed as "just a film," but as a film, it's a damn good one. I can't judge whether it was worthy of the Palmes d'Or in Cannes because I haven't seen any of its competition, and I'm not ready to proclaim it the best film of the year either. But it probably is the most important film of the year -- maybe the last four, along with The Fog of War. Everyone should see it regardless of your political persuasion, and hopefully it will get everyone talking and thinking.