A correction was made to this review on May 20, 2004.
Its title notwithstanding, Michael Moore has delivered a film rather less incendiary than might have been expected — or wished for by his fans — in “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Designed as an indictment of the Bush administration’s domestic and international policies since the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., the sporadically effective docu trades far more in emotional appeals than in systematically building an evidence-filled case against the president and his circle. Thanks to Moore’s celebrity, project has been a publicity magnet since its inception, which assures plenty of continued media attention on the ramp up to its intended July U.S. release by an as-yet-to-be-determined distributor, as well as hefty returns both theatrically and in DVD/homevid release in October, a month before the election.
Pic fails to provide any hard facts or make any incriminating connections that a reasonably informed person doesn’t already know about, so intellectually Moore is largely preaching to the converted in this blatant cinematic 2004 campaign pamphlet.
Due to the way Moore has skewed his account to emphasize blacks, other minorities and the poor as the primary domestic victims of Bush’s policies, it would seem that the groups the filmmaker primarily hopes to influence in November are the disenfranchised who don’t normally turn out to vote in large numbers, and “patriotic” Middle Americans who might be convinced not to automatically vote Republican. In these respects, he might prove somewhat successful due to the emotionalism of his pitch.
It may then be of secondary importance that much of the film is constructed of recycled parts drawn mostly from television, and that it reveals Moore as an inadequate prosecuting attorney when it comes to collecting evidence, rationally laying out his argument and delivering the coup de grace in a masterly summation. Instead, his approach is scattershot and manipulative, his tone derisive, jokey and snide in regard to the administration and media, but earnest when it comes to regular folk.
If one agrees with Moore’s politics — and indeed, even if one doesn’t but longs for the professional gadfly to give Bush his best shot — there must be some disappointment that Moore hasn’t made better use of his ample materials and various witnesses who appear to have the goods on the administration, the Saudis and other matters. One has the feeling there’s a lot more beneath the surface that will eventually come out, but that Moore, in his haste to get this film done before the election, hasn’t gotten it.
Opening minutes once more stir the pot of the 2000 Florida election results controversy before pic sketches a portrait of George W. Bush as a do-nothing president who spent “42% of his time” during his first eight months in office “on vacation” (one wonders where that statistic came from, and if it includes weekends).
Exaggerated and repetitive footage of Bush holding a children’s book in a Florida elementary school class while the 9/11 attacks were happening are designed to make him look like a clueless dunce, but pic then jumps into the serious business of the connections between the Bush and Bin Laden families and the covert and seemingly outrageous way in which at least two dozen members of the Bin Laden family were allowed to fly out of the United States when all other flights were still grounded.
There’s a lot of meat here, and “House of Bush, House of Saud” author Craig Unger is briefly on camera to indicate as much. But Moore’s account consists mostly of innocuous archival footage of the first President Bush meeting and greeting Saudi dignitaries. These images may be pregnant with import, but on the surface are no different from similar ones that could be found of any modern U.S. president or top official.
Moore then comes up with a bit about a certain James R. Bath, a fellow member of the Texas Air National Guard with George W. who subsequently became a business associate of the Bin Ladens. Other financial ties are mentioned as well, and a Taliban leader is even shown being given a guided tour around Washington, D.C. But for all the negative impressions one is supposed to take away from all this, Moore completely fails to draw all this info together and propose what it means at the end of the day.
Moore shows a photograph of one brother of Osama Bin Laden with the implication that there might be something sinister about him. But the film doesn’t even spend one minute on backgrounding the Saud or Bin Laden families — Osama has more than 50 siblings, after all — or in dealing with realpolitik issues that would begin to explain the history of U.S.-Saudi relations under a succession of administrations.
A terrific entire film could have been devoted to detailing these ties — indeed, the Bush-Bin Laden link was mentioned as the subject of “Fahrenheit 9/11” when it was first announced — but Moore’s interest suddenly turns away from this in favor of a section ridiculing what he sees as the exaggeration of terrorist threats and hanging out with a lonely state trooper along an empty stretch of Oregon coastline to illustrate the vulnerability of U.S. borders despite the heightened alert.
Still, there is a very funny montage of administration honchos’ heads superimposed over the credits of “Bonanza,” priceless footage of John Ashcroft publicly singing a ludicrous song of his own composition seemingly entitled “Let the Eagle Soar” and some glibly effective montages that catch officials in doubletalk and lies.
Skipping quickly over Afghanistan — Moore never lays out his opinions about the legitimacy of that war — pic devotes its second half to Iraq. Loading up on the sort of gruesome images of the dead and wounded generally not shown on U.S. TV, Moore takes his cheapest shot when he follows extended coverage of a distraught Iraqi woman wailing about her lost relatives with a clip of Britney Spears supporting the war.
But against the backdrop of deteriorating conditions post-invasion, the film settles into humanist mode, focusing on the cost of the war in human terms rather than in the context of government miscalculations or rising rage in the Arab world. Moore returns to his native Flint, Mich., to look at the army’s recruiting efforts in areas of heavy minority and unemployed populations, and juxtaposes this with blunt interviews with G.I.s who openly wonder what the hell they’re doing in Iraq, express their distaste for the place or state their intention to oppose he war in the voting booth when the opportunity arrives. This, above all, is Moore’s message here.
Most moving interlude features a very brave bereaved mother, Lila Lipscomb, surrounded by her family and keeping it mostly together as she talks about her dead soldier son and reads his last letter home. She then travels to Washington seeking some solace by physically confronting the White House, a visit disturbed by a ranting protestor and a pro-war passerby, and by Moore’s silly sidewalk efforts to get members of Congress to get their children to enlist in the military.
Although he narrates, Moore himself is less of a physical presence in “Fahrenheit 9/11” than usual, which actually increases his effectiveness onscreen at certain moments, such as when he’s questioned by an officer when he’s filming outside the enormous Saudi Embassy across from the Watergate Hotel in D.C.
Although there is an ominous shot or two of hooded prisoners, chronology of the version shown in Cannes ends before the prisoner abuse scandal. Moore has indicated that he will update the film before U.S. release, and that the DVD will include extra footage and a commentary.