Last month, just after the announcement of Michael Moore’s Palme D’or win at Cannes, I wrote a defense of Moore as a filmmaker and artist. The argument I presented was that Moore’s subjectivity as a documentarian is not only a wonderful feature of his filmmaking, but a natural part of the artistic process and one that should be recognized not as a fault, but as a vital part of his aesthetic. I also wrote that I was presenting this argument without having seen Moore’s new film Fahrenheit 911. Having now seen the film, I not only stand by my words, but I think Moore deserves even greater praise. Fahrenheit 911 is not only the most powerful film of the year, it stands as one of the most important indictments of our culture that has yet been recorded.
Of course, many people who have their minds made up about the war in Iraq and about the nature of America in general will dismiss the film as being ‘factually inaccurate’ and guilty of taking things out of context. And certainly, they would be correct. Moore takes quotes and phrases and splices them together, using footage from one speech to respond to some other, seemingly unrelated, event. But this is par for the course. The news channels, mixed media artists, and storytellers have been doing this type of satire for as long as they have been in business. It is the nature of the sound bite age. However, much like The Daily Show (the standard bearer of quality satire), the effect of this editing and sequencing in Fahrenheit is not intended to illustrate a chronology, but more to establish tone. The most surprising aspect of Fahrenheit is how accurately Moore captures the chilling tone of our time, and the dismissive, cocky posturing of our political leaders. It is shocking to see the President announce his serious call to other nations to help fight terrorism and follow it up with a request to the members of the media to watch him tee off on the golf course. Images like these, and those of the President at rest and at play in the months prior to 9/11, may or may not be in context, but it does not diminish their cumulative power. It is a stinging indictment of an Administration asleep at the wheel, a group of men and women who ultimately seize upon the patriotic fervor inspired by the terrorist attacks in order to invade the nation of Iraq.
What Fahrenheit does signify, however, is a huge shift in tone for Michael Moore as a filmmaker. The film is a far more patient record of events than Moore’s traditional (and often hilarious) muck-racking style, favoring long passages of silence and some artfully delivered sequences (most notably, the sequence where Moore lets the audio at Ground Zero run without rehashing the images of the planes hitting the World Trade Center) that, along with a lovely score by Jeff Gibbs, create a devastating effect on the audience. In Bowling For Columbine, Moore played the security camera tapes that showed the Columbine massacre against the audio of 911 phones calls to the police. That haunting sequence seems to have taught Moore an important lesson, because the same technique of allowing the images to speak for themselves is utilized here with such force that when Administration officials are later shown making casual and smirking remarks about such dire, heart wrenching scenes, it only leads to the shaking of one’s head. How could they?
Without question, Fahrenheit 911 is a document of outrage. In past films, Moore’s anger has been guided by a philosophy of common sense, and films like Roger and Me and Bowling for Columbine stand as examples of his populist views and down to earth, everyman stance. Those films inter-cut rock and roll, humor, and Moore’s own on-screen persona against the bland backdrop of American business interests. In all of his previous films, the collective vitality of working men and women (with Moore placing himself as their representative) seeking economic justice always trumped the dispassionate privacy of economic self-interest. It is one thing to be confronted with the faces of middle managers trying to prevent Moore from gaining access to the CEO. It is entirely another thing altogether to have access to a massive, filmed public record of officials in action. It is the power of that record that gives Fahrenheit its initial draw, sucking the viewer into the story of a government run amok with self-interest.
If the film were only a clever presentation of the public statements of Bush Administration officials spliced together to underscore the outrage of the artist, Fahrenheit 911 would be at best a partisan bon-bon, a record of one man’s disillusionment with the powers that be. Instead, the film uses the chronology of events to save the most powerful moments for the final hour. In a film based on the juxtaposition of ideas and images, no two characters stand further apart than President George W Bush and Lila Lipscomb, mother of Sergeant Michael Pedersen who was killed in the war in Iraq. Mrs. Lipscomb, a Flint resident, bears the suffering of losing a child in the war with such grace and dignity that she becomes the emotional center of the film. Moore is wise enough to get out of the way and allow Mrs. Lipscomb’s voice to be heard. And she has plenty to say. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Mrs. Lipscomb, who professed a disgust for war protestors in the past, travels to Washington D.C. for a conference, and decides to visit the White House. Upon meeting a protestor, Mrs. Lipscomb begins to empathize with and seek solace in conversation with her before being confronted by another woman, who calls the event ‘staged.’ Mrs. Lipscomb’s response to this ridiculous intrusion is pure poetry, and underscores the central problem the film seeks to confront; without real empathy for the human losses of war, be it from average citizens or from political leaders, how can we possibly justify the costs?
This question is further underscored by Moore’s inclusion of some incredible footage from Iraq, showing American soldiers under attack, their wounds and injuries paralleled with wounded and injured Iraqis, all combined with footage of Iraqi prisoner abuse. In interviews with several soldiers, doubt about the goals and intentions of the Iraq war are legion, as is the sense that, if there is an ultimate mission for the country, it is lost on those who are charged to implement it. What is most powerful about these interviews is not so much the disillusionment of the troops, but the fact that we haven’t seen anything like this anywhere else since the war began. In the past, particularly in Viet Nam, the news media was responsible for showing the true costs of war so that Americans could decide if the benefit was worth the sacrifice being asked of men like Sergeant Michael Pedersen. With all of the flag waving and patriotic jingoism passing itself off as newsgathering today, the most outrageous fact about Moore’s film is that Fahrenheit 911 is the only film to date that gives voice to the loss and the costs of war. These stories and ideas are vital to our national understanding of the reality of the war, yet they remain absent from our televisions and newspapers. Meanwhile, instead of taking the media to task for not exploring the reality of the war and the toll of our losses here at home, literal minded critics take exception to the sequencing and context of the film’s events. To discredit Michael Moore is a waste of time. Instead, I encourage critics to attempt to discredit Mrs. Lipscomb and the voices of the disillusioned American troops in Iraq. If their feelings and ideas are not legitimate and true, nothing is.