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Fahrenheit 9/11   B+

Lions Gate Films / IFC Films

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Moore
Writer: Michael Moore
Cast: Michael Moore, George W. Bush.

Review by Rob Vaux

Passion is the enemy of objectivity and a work as passionate as Fahrenheit 9/11 confounds any attempts to render an objective opinion. The viewer's personal politics will invariably color his or her perceptions, as will any feelings about director/malcontent Michael Moore. The outspoken muckraker has been on a tear since his controversial Oscar acceptance speech, culminating in this, the Palm D'Or-winning polemic for domestic regime change. It's a cry of rage against our current foreign policy, a blast leveled straight at President Bush and his handling of the war on terror. Anyone with a brain has already formulated an opinion on the subject, and Fahrenheit 9/11 isn't likely to change it. Those who share Moore's views will see a justification of their discontent, while foes will see little more than distorted agitprop from a narcissistic shill.

And it is agitprop, like most of Moore's work. It makes no claims to objectivity and its stated purpose is nothing less than the defeat of an incumbent U.S. President. This proves something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gives Fahrenheit 9/11 steely resolve and a sense of moral outrage. But true to form, Moore's overwhelming bombast sometimes glosses over key details, and presents a picture too friendly to his own interests to totally convince us. And unlike his earlier Bowling For Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11 is released amid a fiercely divisive national atmosphere, coming across less like a brave voice in the wilderness than further fuel for an already blazing inferno.

He assembles his arguments with a typically wandering eye, crafting episodic forays into several loosely connected topics. In a departure from his previous work, Moore ratchets down his personal appearances, allowing his targets to hoist themselves on their own petard. Fahrenheit 9/11's greatest strength is not in its construction but in the astonishing raw footage itself, showing the Bush administration in a dark and decidedly ugly light. It starts with the contested election of 2000; while touching on the Democrats' hoarse "we wuz robbed" arguments (which wore out some time ago), it wisely focuses less on the dispute itself than on a little-seen offshoot that speaks volumes about the ensuing years: Congress's African-American membership, appearing one-by-one to helplessly protest Bush's de facto election. The Haves are in control, the sequence says, and the Have-Nots -- even duly elected ones -- are powerless to challenge their will.

From there, Moore springboards into an examination of George W. Bush's background, his reaction to the terrorist attacks on September 11, and his reasons for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. The arguments are fairly old, and easily predictable given Moore's avowed liberalism: Dubya's family is in bed with Saudi oil, his business connections have led to obscene corruption, and the hunt for Al Qaeda has been effectively sidelined in favor of a dangerous and ill-conceived attack on Iraq. It proves a surprisingly effortless satire. The President, we must acknowledge, is not the most camera-savvy politician ever to hit the trail, and Moore takes savage advantage of the deficiency, depicting Bush as (alternately) a dim-witted prat, a back-slapping nepotist, and -- in some of the film's most chilling material -- a lost little boy without the first idea how to proceed.

As Fahrenheit 9/11 develops, it slowly shifts focus from the nation's leadership to the troops on the ground in Iraq -- poor kids, many from districts represented by those black Congressmen -- whom Moore views as martyrs to the administration's greed and incompetence. He culls pictures from embedded camera crews in the field, presenting scores of young soldiers as both hubristic and remorseful, courageous and terrified. We're never allowed to forget the situation they're confronting, as the camera lingers on lost lives (both Iraqi and American), and takes us to a veteran's hospital where maimed troops are trying to rebuild their shattered selves. Fahrenheit 9/11 hits its most stunning note when it posits that these men and women -- who have been given so little of the American dream -- are the ones who have volunteered to sacrifice the most... and whose faith we may be subjecting to a monstrous betrayal.

As usual, however, Moore occasionally undermines his better instincts with sloppiness and grandstanding. His few pointed appearances hearken back to Roger & Me's confrontation tactics, which this film neither requires nor benefits from. Important facts are overlooked -- such as a sequence mocking the "coalition of the willing" that conveniently ignores significant contributors such as Great Britain -- and his depiction of the U.S. military as bloodthirsty ogres sometimes goes overboard. Clichéd images of a happy Iraq (complete with little children playing on swings) destroyed by bombs from the Evil Americans does a grave disservice to the sociopolitical realities in that country, and subtly encourages the exact sort of simplistic thinking the film is presumably trying to dispel. Moore also has a hard time resisting exploitation, most distressingly in the case of a patriotic mother whose son was killed in combat. The woman's grief make a potent point (especially since we never see such anguish on the evening news), but it also feels unduly intrusive, and cheapens her inconceivable loss by putting it on display like a circus exhibit.

Whether that will help or harm Moore's efforts to sway the public is anyone's guess. But despite its flaws, Fahrenheit 9/11 is still a powerful argument. More importantly, it may represent an unprecedented advance in the annals of political filmmaking. It doesn't dissect events after the fact (as The Battle of Algiers or the more recent Three Kings did) nor does it constitute state-sponsored propaganda in the vein of Sergei Eisenstein. It's proactive populism engaged against an existing power base. It acts not to reflect or reinforce, but to literally change the course of our political future. Who before now has ever had the freedom or the means to undertake such an effort? And yet despite the fact that it skewers the most powerful people in the world, it sits unharmed at the top of the box office, occupying multiplexes alongside the likes of Harry Potter and Spider-Man. Its very existence is testament to the plurality upon which freedom is based, and to the values that it claims are under such insidious attack. Many will disagree with Fahrenheit 9/11. Some will hate it. But regardless of where you stand, the implications of its presence are both humbling and hopeful. This is still a country where free expression has value; if nothing else, this movie is an unflinching affirmation of that precious, precious commodity.

Review published 06.29.2004.

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