Michael Moore Drops the Zaniness to Take Aim at Bush & Co. in “Fahrenheit 9/11”
by Peter Brunette
Michael Moore is back, once again striking fear into the hearts of Republicans everywhere. After the almost shocking worldwide success of “Bowling for Columbine,” which won an Academy Award and grossed millions of dollars more than anyone expected, Moore now lines up George W. Bush and Co. firmly in his crosshairs and fires pointblank. The result, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” is a powerful, timely, and convincing assault on the family and friends who brought us the current mess in Iraq. This time around, Moore drops the zaniness and high entertainment value evident in “Bowling for Columbine,” in favor of an elegiac approach that is less funny but ultimately, maybe, more politically effective. Only time will tell.
“Fahrenheit 9/11” begins with a recap of Bush’s theft of the presidency, as Moore presents interesting footage of Al Gore, as president of the Senate, ironically having to overrule the many African-American congressmen and congresswomen who were trying to officially protest the results of the election. Next comes the shocking events of September 11th, which Moore makes fresh by choosing not to show the planes crashing into the twin towers, but merely a dark screen, with the sound of the crashes, followed by riveting pictures of people in shock and dismay. Somewhat surprisingly, it turns out these images still have the power to wring tears from viewers.
Perhaps the weakest part of the film, ironically, is the part that presents the freshest revelations. These include the many complex financial ties between the Bush family and the Saudi royal family (who, it is estimated, have invested as much as $1.4 billion in Bush family oil enterprises over the years), but the dealings are so complicated that most viewers will only end up saying “huh?” Moore is at his worst here, relying, as he has in other films, on innuendo, and half-baked and unfair suggestion (lots of handshakes between Bush family members and Saudi royal family members, which of course prove nothing), and never quite makes his case. His estimate, backed up by an expert, that the Saudis have some $860 billion invested in the U.S. (meaning, in a sense, that they own 7 percent of the country) is, however, quite sobering.
Succeeding subjects like the war in Afghanistan (including some surprising footage of a high-up member of the Taliban being wined and dined by American officials prior to 9/11) and the perversities of the Patriot Act are handled much more effectively. Moore, shocked to discover that virtually no one in Congress actually read the act before voting for it, pulls off one of his trademark stunts by hiring a van to drive around Washington, broadcasting the act’s words over a loudspeaker. Then comes the invasion of Iraq and the macho victory-strutting accompanied by the now ironic shipboard banner “Mission Accomplished.”
The second half of the film, though it doesn’t really reveal anything new, is by far the most powerful. Troops stationed in Iraq talk about the kind of heavy-metal music they listened to during the more active part of the war (classics such as “Burn, Motherfucker, Burn”) and after demonstrating the awfulness of the conditions faced by U.S. troops in Iraq, Moore returns to where he started, in “Roger and Me,” his hometown of Flint, Mich., in order to determine where all the willing cannon fodder keeps coming from. Not surprisingly, he finds that the high recruitment rate results from poverty and high unemployment, which he estimates to be as much as 50 percent in his native city. The absolutely most chilling part of the film, for this viewer at least, comes in Moore’s brilliant juxtaposition of brutal troop activities in Iraq with scenes of Marine recruiters in full formal dress actually prowling Wal-mart parking lots looking for likely prospects. Just as powerful are Moore’s interviews with a (former) Republican woman whose son has been killed in Iraq and who has a fight with a Bush supporter in Lafayette Park in front of the White House. For once, Moore has enough sense (as he does throughout this film, which was not always the case in “Bowling for Columbine”) to not manipulate, not grandstand, not say “Hey, look at me!” and just let this powerful meeting occur.
This encounter is followed by a young Army captain in Iraq talking about winning over “the hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people, obviously sublimely unaware of the fact that this phrase became a standing joke during the Vietnam war, and a wonderful, if chilling, clip of George W. Bush, in a speech to wealthy supporters, saying “This is a gathering of the haves and the have-mores. Some call you the elite, but I call you my base.” One can only hope that the Kerry people have enough sense to get Moore involved somehow in the fall media campaign.