Michael Moore has always been a showy, in your face documentary maker from the very start with his scathing indictment against General Motors CEO Roger Smith and the corporate downsizing that destroyed Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan in 1989’s “Roger & Me.” He made an enormous splash, last year, with his anti-gun treatise, “Bowling for Columbine.” Now the documaker takes on the biggest CEO of all, President George W. Bush, in his controversial, Cannes Film Festival’s Palme D’Or award winner, “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
I haven’t taken to Michael Moore’s style of documentary filmmaking (although I admire his chutzpah). His assaulting, confrontational technique emerged in “Roger & Me” and carries on in his on-the-cheap “The Big One” (1997) where he expanded on his diatribes against the corporate rape of America. He really put his name on the map with his Oscar-winning “Bowling for Columbine,” leading a spate of other, mostly fiction, films investigating the Colorado high school killing spree. It was effective in its information and statistics about guns and violence in America but also reps Moore’s ambush docu style that I don’t appreciate.
He takes a more even handed tack with his latest tirade against corrupt power, this time with the leader of the free world as his target. He starts off with the highly contested 2000 presidential election in Florida. He shows, ironically, Vice President (and President of the Senate) Al Gore – the one who would benefit the most from a contested election - refusing to hear the testimonies by the black members of the House of Representatives because none of them could get a single signature from a US Senator endorsing their contesting the Florida election results. Moore segues into the presidential inauguration where we see an angry protest against the Bush election and, at the point he should have been walking past the crowd in triumph, the president is rushed away in his limousine by the Secret Service as the crowd pelts eggs at the car. This is one of the more frightening, little known facts – I cannot recall any news coverage at the time, correct me if I’m wrong - that “Fahrenheit 9/11” brought to light.
Moore uses the events of 9/11 effectively and leads up to that day’s horror by following Bush through his first months of office where, we learn, he had been on vacation a total of 42% of the time – fishing, golfing and playing cowboy. His clueless response to a reporter’s question about his lack of presidential work, during his respites, is both amusing and extremely disheartening. This piece lays the groundwork of Michel Moore’s attempt to show just how unprepared and unqualified George W. Bush was to lead his country when the planes struck their targets.
In a tasteful handling of the graphic events of that fateful September day, Moore uses black screen with the oft-heard and familiar audio when the twin towers were hit and, soon after, collapsed. (This sequence is done much along the same line taken by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu in his powerful segment for “11’9”01 – September 11” – which I encourage the reader to seek out.) The immediate, tragic aftermath of the devastation is shown through the faces of the people in the streets, the ashes floating down upon them in a surrealistic snowstorm. This provides the docu its emotionally most tragic moment but does not give any new insight.
Moore uses footage from the now-infamous presidential photo-op at a grade school in Florida at just the time the hijacked planes started their strike on the Twin Towers. The president’s, when he is told about the second strike (he had already hear of the first crash, it is reported) on the towers is to sit there for minutes on end, looking blank, with his attention taken by the children reading the book, My Pet Goat. At a time when action was needed, Moore shows, President Bush sat inert. Moore’s claims of the president’s inaction have been well documented in other publications, too.
The film proceeds to discuss the Bush family’s longtime involvement in the Saudi Arabian Bin Laden clan. The inference is that Osama Bin Laden is just the tip of the iceberg and that the wealthy Arab family holds enormous and dangerous economic influence over the US economy. “Fahrenheit 9/11” moves on to other things, including President Bush’s agenda to pick up the fight his dad, George H.W., started with Desert Storm; the corporate control over the US government at the highest levels and current President Bush’s involvement therein; the (obvious) revelation, by Moore, that poor people join the army, poor people fight the wars and poor people die in them; and, for the gut-wrencher, he follows a mother who was proud of her family’s military service - until she learns of her own son’s death. This is a cheap shot – how do you expect a mother to feel and behave in the wake of such tragedy?
This is all poignant stuff but Moore approaches it with a scattergun style that covers a lot of area but fails to follow any path to a fulfilling, insightful conclusion. Most of the “insight” that Moore provides are facts and figure that I already knew with a few surprises thrown in. Obviously, copious amount of file footage is used and Moore cuts some of it to hammer the point that our president is cunning but clueless, a dangerous combo for a man holding the single most powerful office on earth. The director shows a deft hand selecting archival material to push his viewpoint forth.
Moore’s confrontational style can be grating, as in a couple of sequences in “Bowling for Columbine.” One, where he charges K-Mart corporate headquarters to demand that they stop selling firearms and ammunition, only to be told that the company has already stopped said sales. The other is the badly handled bushwhacking of then-NRA president (and cinema icon) Charleton Heston in his home at the conclusion of “Bowling.” But, in “Fahrenheit 9/11,” when Moore goes after powerful members of the House of Representative for an interview, it is laugh out loud amusing to see these politicos scatter like frightened rabbits.
While the buzz on “Fahrenheit 9/11” is high and the interest will be record-breaking, I don’t think it is going to change all the minds about Bush as some would suggest. The audience for this is going to be big in liberal areas but will not likely turn many conservative heads. There are a few things that surprise in Moore’s doc but, for the most part, it was all familiar territory and his political heart is on his sleeve. The conservatives who even deign to see this – I can’t imagine most to shell out the 10 bucks for the “privilege” - are going to call it muckraking liberal propaganda bull***. I know it will do quite well in Cambridge MA but I’d really like to see what it takes in Middle America.
As I write this review, “Fahrenheit 9/11” is heading to be the top box office grosser for the weekend and will make film history as the first documentary to be number one at the theaters on release, ever. I am a fan of the genre and hope that the interest in Moore’s work will spark some to seek out other, better docu works like “Fog of War,” “Power Trip,” “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Bus 174.” I don’t think “9/11” is going to change the 2004 presidential election but, heck, one can hope. I give it a B-.
A Republican with well seeded connections stole a presidency. The Bush family and their close circle have close ties to the Saudis and oil interests. George W. Bush was a lousy businessman before becoming president. The Bin Laden family was rushed out of the country after 9/11. The Patriot Act makes freedom negotiable when dealing with potential terrorists. The Iraq War has nothing to do with hunting Al-Qaeda or terrorism. Young men fighting in dubious wars may exhibit barbaric behavior. Mothers who lose sons to war grieve. Brittany Spears is not an intellectual. All of these things should be known by now to the American public, but filmmaker Michael Moore presents them with a magician's flourish in his anti-Bush screed, "Fahrenheit 9/11."The success of Michael Moore's film at the Cannes Film Festival may only be explained by the current popularity of Bush bashing and unpopularity of the Iraq War. While his presence in his latest effort is more restrained and less obnoxious than in his Oscar winning "Bowling for Columbine," his mocking tone and savvy media manipulation remain - as does his scattershot approach. Moore serves up maybe two to three interesting tidbits in 120 minutes and does a thorough job tying the Bush family to the Saudis, but his film loses focus in its second half when he turns his sites on the Iraq War.
Moore opens with a swift reflection on the most contested presidential election in U.S. history, ending with an astonishing bit ignored by the American media - the near riot and assault on the presidential limo on Bush's inauguration day. A quick recap of the president's first days in office paints a picture of a man who took a lot of vacation and ignored warning signs of a terrorist attack. Then, lifting the technique of "21 Grams" director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's segment of the "September 11" omnibus, the horrors of the day are heard over a black screen. (Moore has been praised repeatedly for this approach with very few references to Inarritu's initial authorship). The now infamous 7-9 minutes of presidential inaction in a Florida schoolroom would have been more effective had Moore not deigned to give voice to Bush's possible thoughts. Then Moore gets conspiratorial with his audience, using the old "Dragnet" TV series to point out how obviously stupid it was to hustle the bin Laden family out of the country without even questioning them - the only problem here is that he condescends to his audience at the same time - how much public protest was there about this at the time?
Moore's best work is how he puts the Bushes in bed with the Saudis. He's quick on his feet when, conducting an interview across the street from the Saudi Embassy in D.C. he's questioned by the Secret Service. 'Does the Secret Service usually protect foreign embassies?' asks Moore. He then ruminates on why Bush was so slow to go after Osama in Afghanistan by tying in the little known visit to Houston by a Taliban leader over an oil pipeline deal (this was only reported by the UK press). Moore does a side by side comparison of the discharge doc from the National Guard he obtained in 2000 with one released by the White House in 2004 - the 2004 doc obscures the name of George's fellow officer, Major James R. Bath, who became the Texas money manager for the Bin Laden family. (An amusing cheap shot - when highlights George W.'s name, it is accompanied by a few bars of Eric Clapton's "Cocaine.")
Yet, Moore ignores the Saudi tie-in when he addresses the war in Iraq and begins to veer all over the map, from the economy in his hometown of Flint, the subject of his first film fifteen years ago, to how the Bush Government got the American people to buy into a military attack by using fear tactics, the factor he pointed to in his last film "Bowling for Columbine." (Shouldn't the incidence of gun violence have increased dramatically since 9/11 then?) The media is also blamed in a montage using such snippets as Katey Couric proclaiming 'Navy Seals rock!,' a sentiment that has nothing to do with being pro-war. The dubious behavior of many of the young men and women fighting in Iraq is somewhat balanced by sympathy for their predicament, but when Moore shows a Christmas Eve raid of a Baghdad home, it is all about the terrorized women inside and not at all about why the man they are searching for is wanted. An aside addressing the lapses and transgressions of Homeland Security questions question why passengers are allowed to bring butane lighters and matches on flights after the shoe-bomber incident by implying that the tobacco industry is behind it, but not a shred of evidence that this is the case is produced.
The success of Moore's tactics is evidenced when he attempts to question congressmen and the lawmakers and their staffs scatter like frightened pigeons on the DC sidewalks, but he clearly considers the 'gotcha' entertainment factor with higher priority than backing up many of his statements. Moore would, in fact, have us believe that Baghdad under Hussein was a utopia of children in playgrounds and happy, smiling people everywhere before the U.S. moved in.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" certainly contains a message or two worth listening to, and his very last Bush sound bite is a hilarious kicker, but this barrage of fist-pumping propaganda should not be mistaken for a well made film.
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