Fahrenheit 9/11: Bush-Whacked
By Fernando F. Croce

Godard once said cinema is truth, twenty-four times a second. But is it? One of the fallacies of the documentary is the built-in "objectivity" that it supposedly shoulders. No documentary is (or should be) objective -- way before that great moment when Nanook turned to smile at Flaherty's lenses, the camera has always changed its subjects simply by focusing its gaze upon them. Even if focusing on "reality," the presentation is inevitably colored by the maker's choice of what to include and what to omit, where to put the camera and how to cut it together, to say nothing of his own beliefs, agendas, quirks, axes, etc. To describe a documentary as slanted is not to demean it -- after all, the keystone of filmmaking (or any other art, for that matter) is built not on impersonal verity but on subjective expression, on which the mantle of objectivity falls about as comfortably as a straitjacket.

Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore's look at the George W. Bush administration and the Sept. 11 events, is an unrepentantly biased work, and both its power and its flaws are inescapably bound to Moore's emotions toward the material -- emotions too direct to adhere to the cooling mystique of "objectivity." When the picture waltzed away with the Palm d'or at last May's Cannes Film Festival (trumping entries by Wong Kar-Wai and Emir Kusturica), I groaned. Never a big fan of Moore's previous work, I chalked it up as a fluke of politics over art, preaching to the converted. Though I happen to share most of Moore's ideals, I developed a dogged resistance to the movie before even seeing it, a feeling fed by the scrambling media hype surrounding its release and the parade of celebrities hailing it as the most powerful film ever.

I was pleasantly surprised, then, at how good Fahrenheit 9/11 turns out to be. It is strident and simplistic in its finger- wagging, yet shaped by urgency and genuine white-heat indignation. Gorge-rising polemics are Moore's meat, and snarky montage is his groove: he has collected vast amounts of footage, a good deal of it hitherto unseen publicly, and molded it into a torpedo. His filmic flair has also grown exponentially since Bowling for Columbine, and the movie's first movement, swaying from the bamboozled 2000 elections (the audience I saw the picture with gave Bush's braying entrance a hissing fit for a silent-movie villain) to a devastatingly evoked 9/11 (whooshing sounds over a black screen, downpouring debris, dismayed faces), is probably the director's most powerful filmmaking yet. What follows, flawed as it is, still grips and prods.

Moore wants to shake you up, and the film's most valuable achievement is its pussyfooting-free jabbing of issues that in the past have been neatly tucked away behind fear, ignorance and blinkered patriotism. There's a flood of info, connections and ideological links: the government's cozy relationship with the Saudis and the bin Ladens, the oil interests of Bush and Cheney, the imperialistic invasion of another country on ridiculous charges, the incestuous closeness of war and business, the resulting atrocities of the campaign to "free Iraq and its people," the media's contribution to public control via fear and hysteria, and the torture and humiliation of prisoners, to list just a few of the subjects brought to surface. Dubya, looking off into the distance while groomed for the cameras, is the movie's slack-jawed stooge-cum-despot, and Moore grills him under harsh lights. The editing is rope-tight, the ideas (even when reduced to soundbite) accumulate pungency, and the music hints that Moore may have been studying Errol Morris.

How I wish he had also studied some Marcel Ophüls, whose documentaries (The Sorrow and the Pity, The Memory of Justice) are masterpieces of implication and ambiguity. By contrast, Moore uses footage not to ask questions, but to pile on what he is already sure about, each image a brick on a wall of rhetoric. Though he for the most part keeps his stunts behind the camera this time, he can't resist the lure of the cheap shot -- hanging on to Paul Wolfowitz using spit on his comb, or cutting from a distraught Iraqi matriarch to a gum-snapping Britney Spears saying everyone should trust the President. When he caustically morphs Operation Iraqi Freedom into an episode of Bonanza, Moore's limitations glare: what could have been a needling comment on how entertainment can feed hawkish indoctrination becomes a Naked Gun gag instead. Finally, his use of a Flint, Michigan mother whose soldier son died in combat, though undeniably heartbreaking, ruthlessly milks personal tragedy for emotional money shots.

Then again, nuance and subtlety are the farthest things from Moore's goal -- like Hearts and Minds and Vietnam in the '70s, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a document made very much in the heat of a conflict, and it aims to hit audiences like a bowling ball to the stomach. As that, it is invaluable, especially since American movies usually avoid explicit political involvement like the plague. In the end, for all its power, I admire rather than like it, more a matter of here-and-now relevance than of art for the ages. I loath the war and the atrocities committed in the name of 9/11, and I want Bush out of the office, yet the truth is, I wouldn't trade one The Dreamers for ten Fahrenheit 9/11s. If it helps end the madness of King George come November, Moore will have my heartfelt salute. Of course, the question remains whether voters will turn out to be dutifully enlightened or simply sneak into White Chicks.

Reviewed June 28, 2004.


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