'Fahrenheit 9/11': When a Film Held up the Mirror To the Great American Establishment
Though its immediate context is the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on New York and elsewhere, the documentary traces the contours of America’s political economy with remarkable clarity.
DVD cover of 'Fahrenheit 9/11'.
Writing in his memoirs, the Oxford historian Tapan Raychaudhuri wondered if any country other than the US could have anointed someone like George W. Bush its president. In fact, he was convinced there wasn’t another such country. Professor Raychaudhuri was a lucky man: he didn’t live to see Donald J. Trump ensconced in the White House. Indeed, if there was one man beside whom Bush could hope to look ‘presidential’ (to borrow from the American phrase-book), it had to be Trump. Much like a time in the future if Aditynath becomes India’s prime minister, Narendra Damodardas Modi may begin to look like a statesman.
But the Trump presidency lay buried in the middle future yet and Michael Moore didn’t have a crystal ball in his hand when, in June 2004, he released his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 . George Bush’s first term in office was drawing to a close, and it seemed a good time to take stock of what Moore doubtless hoped would be a one-shot presidency, like the Senior Bush’s had been in its time. In the event, Bush swept to power once again, and Fahrenheit 9/11 did not prove to be the epitaph on his presidency that the final flourish of the film – “ You have fooled me once, and you can fool me never again” – held out the promise of being.
And yet – or perhaps because of this – Michael Moore’s great documentary remains such compelling viewing even today, when Trump’s shenanigans have begun to show even George Bush in a somewhat kindly light. For Fahrenheit 9/11 not only pillories the Bush presidency, it is an indictment of the political economy of post-World War II US, indeed, of the entire system around which American society is organised.
And what a damning indictment it is! A crony of the president loses a Congressional election and is promptly appointed by the president as the country’s attorney general. Next, the AG refuses to be briefed on issues of national security, even though there is credible intelligence of an impending terror attack (which takes place soon after, on 9/11). A vice president relentlessly pursues his private business interests – which are clearly at odds with the country’s – in full public view and at humongous cost to the national exchequer.
The defence secretary lies through his teeth about Saddam Hussein’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’, a myth in which he himself evidently doesn’t believe. The president’s father, a former president himself, insists on regular ‘security’ briefings by the CIA, travels like royalty when on business trips, and makes sure all uncomfortable questions about the Saudi Arabian connection to the September 11 attacks on New York are effectively stymied – for he has solid business links to that country, indeed to also the wealthy bin Laden family itself. And above all, a preening dimwit of a president who loves nothing better than golf, avoids all responsibility, and fumbles for words even at routine public engagements.
Also Read: America’s First Date with 9/11 Was Not on US Soil
Unmasking the system
But as inviting as these character sketches happen to be – and Moore treats us to virtually the who’s who of the mandarins of late-20th century American power – the remarkable thing about the film is that it unmasks the system in which they thrive and prosper. For all his hyperpatriotic rants against ‘America’s enemies’, George Bush avoided the draft and as president, got away with putting out redacted copies of documentation showing his brief tryst with the military. No doubt his father’s excellent contacts in Washington – Bush Senior had been a diplomat, a Congressman, chair of the Republican National Committee, director of the CIA, and vice president for eight years before he became president – smoothed his own passage through the corridors of power.
George H.W. Bush (R) and his son George W. Bush in October 2010. Photo: REUTERS/Brian Snyder
He cocked a snook at the Securities and Exchange Commission by undertaking massive insider trading in the stock of a company he sat on the board of, and he was never called to account over this crime. He entertained members of the Taliban in Washington DC just a few months before the 9/11 attacks, showing them around the State Department and letting Americans ‘know’ that the Taliban was a trusted ally.
And yet, at the end of the day, no one – not his political opposition, nor even the media – thought of calling him out on his numerous acts of omission and commission. At every twist and turn of public life in the US, Moore suggests, a person of privilege and/or with a deep pocket could have their way anywhere with the minimum of difficulty. The great American system could be so wildly manipulative precisely because manipulation had been written into its very DNA.
Moore speaks witheringly of the American media which played along with Bush’s ‘Either you’re with us, or with the Enemy’ nonsense cheerfully. That there were too many holes in the narrative put out by the president and his lackeys about why 142 members of the extended bin Laden family were safely flown out of the US just two days after the Twin Towers horror (though the FBI wanted to question some of them), was as plain as daylight.
But the great liberal media willingly put their blinkers on and refused to look. Later, when a mendacious, criminally cynical administration invaded Iraq, basing its case on one of the greatest swindles in recent history, the same media played the smarmy patriotic card, proudly declaring its resolve to stand by the government, no matter what. It was, Moore suggests, not even a ‘manufactured consent’. It did not need to be, for the media consented even before it had been asked.
Systemic corruption and deliberate disenfranchisement
The systemic corruption and skulduggery is brought home to the viewer via one of the movie’s early sequences. Bush’s election in 2000 was a very, very close call, with many believing the result was stolen from Al Gore, the Democratic Party candidate. The counting went down to the wire and sizeable black communities in Florida – the state that finally gave Bush the job – had erupted in protest against what they alleged was deliberate disenfranchisement.
In a joint Congress-Senate session called to ratify the president’s election, at least ten representatives to the Congress rose to challenge the final result, citing voter fraud. But, for the debate to proceed, there was a statutory requirement to be met: at least one Senator needed to endorse the Congressmen’s demand – and none was willing. These Congressmen were all men and women of colour, and they made no secret of their disgust at the way their colleagues in the Senate – Democrats included – had torpedoed their cause. But for Moore showing the whole murky episode at length, this great betrayal of the African-American community by the privileged segments of American citizenry would have been buried deep in the official records of the American legislature.
A view of the US Capitol. Photo: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Fahrenheit 9/11 has several more similarly potent visuals which hit home with such force that even the voiceover – handled to great effect throughout – seems altogether redundant. One is the quite eerie episode showing Bush and senior members of his administration ‘rehearsing’ their facial expressions before they went live on a broadcast to the nation about 9/11.
Another foregrounds Bush’s reaction – or the lack of it – to the planes ramming into the World Trade Centre. Bush was visiting Florida and was scheduled to drop in at an elementary school in the morning of 9/11. On his way to the school, he heard of the first plane crashing, but went ahead ‘with his photo-op nevertheless’, as Moore helpfully reminds us. Then, as the president sat inside a classroom reading aloud from My Pet Goat to the kids, a member of his entourage entered to whisper into his ear the news of the second plane. Incredibly, Bush did not react even then. For seven whole minutes after terrorists had staged the biggest attack ever on American mainland, the American president sat with tiny tots reading about the exploits of a goat, and this though he fully knew what had happened. This is surreal, and Moore makes fabulous use of the footage.
A third clip shows Bush addressing an after-dinner get-together, presumably of his donors in Washington. Suitably expansive after an excellent meal, Bush glides from one killing witticism to another. “Some people”, he says to the worthies, “call you the elite. I call you my base.” The speaker guffaws and his guests respond with uproarious laughter.
Weaponising a whole range of humour
Michael Moore has weaponised the whole range of humour here, from acid sarcasm to straight-faced needling to gentle chafing. His snarky voiceover negotiates this range with wonderful felicity. And yet, when convinced he needs to plunge into the action himself, he does so with his poker face and his somewhat grimy coat.
Confronted with the 342-page-long legislative monstrosity called the USA PATRIOT Act (acronym, incredibly, for Uniting and Strengthening Americans by Providing Appropriate Tools for Restricting, Intercepting and Obstructing Terrorism Act, 2001) which Bush signed into law a mere 45 days after 9/11, Moore tries to find out how many US law-makers had studied the Act before signing off on it. When he realises that perhaps not even one Congressman or Senator had taken the trouble, Moore commandeers an ice-cream truck standing near Capitol Hill and begins reading out the Act on a loudspeaker for the legislators’ benefit.
Another time, accompanied by a US Marine who had refused to do military duty because he believed he was being pushed into an unjust war, Moore stands near the Hill, collars lawmakers who happen to pass by, and tries inducing them to send their children to the ‘patriotic war’ in Iraq, a war they delivered rousing speeches about on a daily basis. Scandalised or plain incredulous, the lawmakers wave Moore off with alacrity.
Moore with a soldier on Capitol Hill. Photo: Screengrab/Fahrenheit 9/11
But Fahrenheit 9/11 doesn’t only nail the government’s lies or expose an inept and essentially corrupt presidency; it also unveils the horror, the pathos of a macabre war which was as illegitimate as it was immoral. We see graphic images of bodies mutilated, limbs torn off civilians, poor people’s houses blown into smithereens, prisoners tortured, body bags piling up on sidewalks even as the world’s most powerful killing machine – the US army – wreaks havoc on Iraq, a country that had neither attacked the US, nor even harboured the terrorists who had.
At the same time, Moore shows how raw recruits from the poorest, most disadvantaged communities in the smaller US towns filled the military’s ranks simply because they had no sensible livelihood options open to them. Also how, even as Bush gushed over ‘our heroes in uniform’, he systematically cut back on disability pension and healthcare support for war returnees. In one case, the administration had docked five days’ wages off a dead soldier’s monthly salary because he had died in action in Iraq on May 26, 2003.
Also Read: The Time Machine: 9/11 and the Space Between Grief and Analysis
Moore repeatedly juxtaposes facts on the ground with the administration’s/ military’s claims – lies, more often than not – about something at issue, an exceptionally useful fact-checking method in the circumstances. In the film’s last few minutes, there is an extended quote from George Orwell about why and how wars must be waged by hierarchical, exploitative societies so that the privileges and prosperity of those societies’ ruling classes are never threatened or undermined.
A lot of water has flown under the bridge since the presidency of George W Bush. Moore himself, in 2018, crafted a kind of sequel to Fahrenheit 9/11 around the presidency of Donald Trump. Called Fahrenheit 11/9 (the American notation of the date in 2016 on which Trump was declared the winner of the presidential race), it traces what Moore believes is the US’s path of self-destruction and the hollowing-out of the ‘American dream’.
But substantively the issues underlying the Bush presidency have been carried over into Trump’s tenure. Carried over, it is true, with sharper edges and shriller proclamations, but essentially the same contradictions, the same conflicts of interest and the same faultlines that racked the American body politic in 2004 continue to harrow it in 2020 also. And a better visual guide than Fahrenheit 9/11 to these contradictions and these conflicts, to their genesis and their ripening, does not exist yet. No wonder it won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2004, or that it remains, to this day, the highest-grossing documentary film made anywhere.
Anjan Basu can be reached at [email protected] .
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Fahrenheit 11/9 review: Michael Moore v Donald Trump = stalemate
In his latest documentary, Moore’s bewildered fury at the president is powerfully evident, but he fails to deliver a knockout blow
M ichael Moore is still reeling at the news of Donald Trump’s presidential victory. Who can blame him? There is integrity, even heroism, in this outright refusal to come to terms with it, to normalise it in his mind. That custard pie in America’s face landed on 9 November 2016 – 11/9. The date gives Moore a cute numerical reversal of his great movie from 2004, Fahrenheit 9/11 , and that’s still a documentary that must be respected for calling it right on the war on terror, long before disbelieving in WMD became a bland article of faith among precisely those critics who disparaged Moore’s film at the time.
Moore’s understandable rage and bewilderment perhaps account for the flaws in this vehement but incoherent film. It restates bits and pieces of all the great polemic he’s given us over the last 20 years – guns, corporate mendacity, community betrayal, beltway culpability – and actually repeats his opening line from Fahrenheit 9/11. “Did we dream it?” he moans, to nightmarishly vivid TV footage of Hillary Clinton preparing for her coronation in 2016, like Al Gore in 2000. But Moore never quite settles on a single, compelling riposte to Trump, never really hones his arguments to a piercing arrowhead of counterattack. Instead, he rambles over almost everything … entertainingly, but confusingly, ending on an image of Parkland School shooting survivor Emma González.
First, he has to admit to fraternising with the enemy, in the days when Trump was just an unthreatening media joke. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner organised a launch party for one of his movies, and Fahrenheit 9/11’s VHS release in the US appears to have been managed by the grisly Steve Bannon, that dabbler in film production and distribution. And affecting to admire Moore became fashionable in the Trump camp, if only to discomfit Jeb Bush. Had he dwelt on this subject, Moore might even have wondered if the Trump-ites were effectively inhaling some of the Michael Moore spirit, mobilising for their own ends the outlaw scepticism that Moore did so much to encourage. It’s as if they took his trademark cap – and slapped the Make America Great Again logo on it.
This film’s strongest section shows him going back to his roots in Flint, Michigan. Moore is passionately angry at the way Michigan’s Republican governor Rick Snyder poisoned the water supply for Flint’s working-class communities in 2014, by insisting on a new, pointless pipeline for no reason other than to enrich his corporate cronies; Moore is of course angry at Snyder’s admirer Donald Trump , crucially emboldened by Snyder’s banditry, but also angry at President Barack Obama, for Obama’s failure to do anything to help while in office, and for fobbing off the residents with a dismayingly supercilious and patronising speech. Maybe the whole film should just have been about this. That Obama speech was indeed a shocker. Yet attacking Obama now feels like such a futile and self-harming thing for Moore to do.
Moore then moves on to Bernie Sanders, mightily messed about by the Democratic hierarchy, which conjured “superdelegates” to keep his name off the ticket. They assumed Sanders was unelectable. Trump’s victory makes that assumption look glib, and the Sanders presidency is now one of the great what-ifs of modern times. But Moore gives us post-Sanders signs of hope, by crying up the new wave of grassroots activism, as epitomised by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the fiercely intelligent and undaunted socialist congressional winner from the Bronx. Ocasio-Cortez and other bold activists are showing America the way. But Moore slightly clouds that issue, too, by noting mournfully that the electoral college system is rigged against them.
Then there is the question of the media, authentic news, and the queasy intimations of fascism. Trump incessantly attacks what Goebbels called the Lügenpresse , the lying press (although Moore is himself not above denigrating the poor old New York Times for misrepresenting Sanders’ fanbase), and, in his most studiedly outrageous provocation, Moore gives us a clip of Hitler with Trump dubbed over it. It leads to an interesting interview with Timothy Snyder, the historian and author of On Tyranny. But there again, Moore hits a false note. He talks about Hitler and his followers setting fire to the Reichstag to create a spurious crisis that would legitimise their seizure of power. Then he comes worryingly close to implying that 9/11 was the same thing. “Truther” conspiracy? Something else that isn’t helping the fight against Trump.
So, to quote Lenin: what is to be done? I think it will take some time for the penny to drop about Trump not creating a single new job in America. Moore tells us to keep the faith, keep fighting the good fight. That message is just about discernible in the fog of pain.
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The Politics of 'Fahrenheit 9/11'
The Michael Moore documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11 is harshly critical of President Bush's response to the events of Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq. But supporters and opponents of the president both see ways to use the movie to their advantage. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.
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Michael Moore is angry again. In fact, Michael Moore may be angrier than he’s ever been. And while a lot of that rage is directed at Donald Trump , it’s probably less than people who have already commented on this review without seeing the film may expect if they ever choose to watch it. Moore’s outrage machine is not aimed directly at the 45 th President of the United States, but at, well, pretty much everyone. In asking how we got to this point in American history, a point in which some people are questioning how much longer we will have a democracy (or if we even still do), Moore points the finger everywhere, castigating a system that disenfranchises voters, mistreats its poor, and allows corruption to flourish. He basically paints a portrait of a society that laid out the red carpet for Trump, and practically doesn’t even blame him for choosing to walk it. The scattershot approach sometimes works to the detriment of his message, but “Fahrenheit 11/9” is ultimately Moore’s best film in years because its message is really simple and nonpartisan: get mad about something and do something about it.
Here’s another fact about “Fahrenheit 11/9” that those who have partisan hatred for Moore probably don’t believe: its Trump material is actually its weakest. It starts with the days just before the election, when the world was told that Hillary Clinton was going to be the next President. There was no doubt. Footage of women crying after casting votes for her borders on cruel, and we’ve seen the nightmare that unfolded at her “victory” party over and over again. If I never hear “Fight Song” again it will be too soon. With a long lead-up, Moore asks the question, “How the fuck did this happen?”
Moore then rushes through the history of Trump with such a manic approach that it’s almost hard to follow. From the role Gwen Stefani played in his Presidency to how creepy Trump can sometimes be with his daughter Ivanka to his history with the Central Park Five, there’s a bam-bam-bam approach to the first few sequences in “Fahrenheit 11/9” that had me nervous that the entire film would unfold in this scattershot manner. With the Trump Presidency being analyzed in real-time, what could a documentary about him possibly add to the conversation?
The good news is that Moore doesn’t exactly take the approach you might expect. “Fahrenheit 11/9” improves when it settles down in a place that Moore knows very well: Flint, Michigan. There’s a doc-within-a-doc here about the water crisis in Flint that’s some of Moore’s best work in years. He presents the case of the downright criminal behavior that went down in Flint in stark, terrifying terms, speaking to a pediatrician about the lead levels in the water and even trying to perform a citizen’s arrest on Governor Rick Snyder. He ties this to Trump by pointing out that Snyder got away with it, and wondering if that inspired Trump to operate in previously unimaginable ways in plain sight. Snyder basically allowed citizens of his own state to be poisoned and lied when confronted about it. It does seem to be out of the Trump playbook. And Moore doesn’t let Obama off the hook either, pointing out how horrendously he handled the situation when he finally decided to visit Flint. Moore even points a finger back at himself, showing a great clip during which he was a guest on Roseanne Barr ’s show with, believe it or not, Donald Trump. He played along with the Trump routine then, as so many did in the years before he became President. Moore's point is that we all knew who Trump was, we just didn't seem to care.
“Fahrenheit 11/9” gains focus and strength when it expands to other issues that clearly matter to Moore, and really should matter to everyone, including a teachers' strike in West Virginia and the Parkland kids. Of course, Moore is too inherently polarizing for some people to see this film, but there are more outright inarguable points here than in a lot of his other work. Shouldn’t issues like water that doesn’t poison our children, teachers making enough money to be above the poverty line, and a way to stop school shootings be issues that everyone , regardless of party, gets behind? Moore is basically saying to people that the system—both Republican and Democrat—is broken . Whether it’s the Bernie Sanders voters defeated by a superdelegate system they deem unfair or the disdain with which Moore views the complacency of the Democratic power structure, he takes no prisoners here. The answer to the “how did we get here” question is really that we have a system that has disenfranchised voters at an alarming rate. If you can’t do anything when my kid is lead-poisoned by his drinking water, what good is a vote going to do?
While I can relate to Moore’s frustration and admire his passion, it does feel like there’s a tighter, more focused version of “Fahrenheit 11/9” buried within this two-hour one. And yet the messiness of Moore’s film starts to feel appropriate for the times we’re in. With a new issue being debated every day, is it any wonder that “Fahrenheit 11/9” has an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach? After all, Moore argues, rather convincingly, that what matters is that we care about something . It’s when people stay quiet and issues become white noise, that societies crumble and despots rise to power. And that’s true no matter your political affiliation.
This review was originally filed from the Toronto Film Festival on September 7th.
Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.
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Fahrenheit 9/11 (Review)
Article by Brian D. Johnson
Published Online July 9, 2004
Last Edited December 12, 2013
This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on July 1, 2004. Partner content is not updated.
MICHAEL MOORE came to Canada last week to take a break from the war. Not the one in Iraq, but the one brewing in the United States over his new documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11 . He'd just weathered an abrasive interview with Matt Lauer of NBC's Today show. A number of U.S. theatre chains were under pressure to boycott the film. And he said that Karl Rove, George W. Bush's senior adviser, had launched an e-mail campaign to discredit him. "This is unlike anything I've seen with my work," Moore maintained as he rode an airport limo into Toronto, his bodyguard in the front seat. "They're coming after me with everything they've got. So I called up the Fellowship." He's referring to the "coalition of the willing" that Miramax's Bob and Harvey Weinstein formed to distribute Fahrenheit after Disney, their parent company, blocked them from releasing it. "I said, 'Look, I haven't asked for any perks, but it would do me a lot of good if I could watch this movie with a Canadian audience. I'll do some interviews to justify the trip, but I just want to relax and see it with an audience that's going to get it - and them some."
Moore, the populist renegade from Flint, Mich., is a kind of honorary Canadian, a Yank who's learned to hop our border like a backyard fence. In Flint, he grew up watching the Vietnam War on the CBC. And he owes his career to Canada, from the discovery of Roger & Me in Toronto, to the Halifax producer behind Bowling for Columbine . He even made a movie about the border, casting John Candy in the ill-fated Canadian Bacon . Like us, Moore likes to observe America from an ironic distance, with a high-octane blend of journalism and satire that's as Canadian as Mary Walsh.
Where the resemblance ends is in his demeanour. Moore is not polite, he's pugnacious. He has the killer instinct of the picked-on fat kid getting even with the schoolyard bully. If Bush is the smirking frat boy, Moore is the avenging underdog, with a mean sense of humour. Behind the joker in the ball cap, you sense a deep reserve of anger.
I first ran into him on a Toronto sidewalk in September 1989. Back then he was unknown, but somehow he'd gathered a crowd. As this big scruffy guy walked to the premiere of his first movie, Roger & Me , at the Toronto film festival, he looked like he was leading a small demonstration. There was already some buzz, the screening had been vastly oversold, and it was pandemonium. The fire marshal was ready to shut down the event, until the mob jamming the aisles was finally persuaded to leave. The next day the local press reported a near-riot, which Moore found hilarious. "What a Canadian would call a riot, we'd just call moving forward," he told me. "For a riot in the U.S., you have to have some gunfire and arson going on. You can't just nudge people."
After the festival, the self-made phenomenon turned down a $1-million deal from Disney, and $1.5 million from Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein - who, as Moore recalls, "literally chased us down the hallway with scrambled eggs on his Mickey Mouse pyjama top." In the end, Warner Bros. forked out $3 million to distribute Roger & Me , which became the most successful documentary in history, a record now held by Moore's Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine (2002).
Fifteen years after igniting his career, and alarming a fire marshal in Canada, Moore is the most influential leftist on the planet. And with Fahrenheit 9/11 - which Disney financed through Miramax, and then dropped like a hot potato - he's lighting a bonfire under George W. Bush. Over the next few weeks, the movie will reach 140 screens in Canada and 500 to 1,000 in the U.S. - depending on the boycott. Either way, it's a record release for a documentary. Fahrenheit , which won the Palme d'Or in Cannes last month, is the most controversial movie to inflame North America since The Passion of the Christ - but a lot easier to watch.
It's Moore's best movie. With Columbine , he targeted gun-crazy America and the National Rifle Association while mounting an oblique argument that a racist culture of fear, not firearms, was at the root of American violence. Fahrenheit 9/11 takes direct aim at President Bush, and plumbs the moral quicksand on which he built the foundations of the war in Iraq. Uncharacteristically, Moore stays off camera for most of the movie, letting Bush serve as the star of this screwball tragicomedy. But what makes Fahrenheit so essential is the timing. Moore has made a film that incarnates the current groundswell of anti-Bush sentiment. And with the presidential campaign in full swing, it could have a serious impact.
The film tries to cover a lot of ground. It begins with the Florida ballot debacle that brought Bush to the White House, then goes on to explore the Byzantine intrigue of his family connections with arms dealers, Saudi oil tycoons and the bin Laden clan. Moore ponders the astonishing fact that up to 142 Saudis, including 24 relatives of Osama bin Laden, were flown out of the U.S. while most air travel was grounded after Sept. 11. The film's momentum sags a bit in the middle with a looping digression about the absurd hysteria of homeland security - a nursing mother explains how she had to drink from a bottle of her own breast milk before boarding a plane to prove it wasn't lethal. But then it moves to the war in Iraq, with images of civilian carnage and glimpses of a U.S. military we haven't seen on television - from tank gunners discussing the heavy metal music they listen to while enjoying "the ultimate rush" of wasting Iraqis, to embittered soldiers condemning the war as an outrage.
As an investigative documentary, Fahrenheit takes a scattershot approach, and many of its revelations are not new. But it's one thing to read about them, and quite another to see them on screen. The accumulated images have tremendous power. And the picture of Bush that emerges is devastating. Moore depicts him as a lazy dolt who spent 42 per cent of his first 11 months in office on vacation, a guy who would rather play golf and fish than take a meeting on terrorism. He also shows mind-boggling footage of the President in that Florida elementary school classroom on Sept. 11, being informed of the second attack on the World Trade Center, then continuing to read My Pet Goat for nearly seven minutes while America burned.
With Fahrenheit 9/11 , Moore's guerrilla filmmaking is no longer a one-man show. He draws on a broad arsenal of footage - pirated clips of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz lubricating his hair with spit before going on TV, freelance interviews with dissident troops in Iraq, an anonymous crew following Marine recruiters as they hustle indigent blacks outside a Michigan mall. Moore still delivers some onscreen antics, such as ambushing congressmen to ask if they'd enlist their kids to fight in Iraq. But he lets Bush drive the comedy, then shifts gears from satire to dire pathos as a bereaved mother from Flint reads a protest letter from the grave - her son, who later died in combat, insists the Iraq war, and Bush, be stopped.
Some of Moore's harshest critics are on the left. I keep meeting cinephiles, especially Americans, who share his politics but find his manipulation of sentiment as vulgar as Steven Spielberg's. But that's why his documentaries get shown in the multiplexes. Moore is crafty. By embracing the troops, and accusing Bush of betraying them, he captures the high ground of patriotism. With his Joe Lunchbucket persona, Moore has perfected the deadpan art of being disingenuous. But with each movie, his filmmaking becomes more sophisticated. To convey the events of Sept. 11, he lets the screen go black for over a minute while we hear the sound of the planes hitting the World Trade Center. Then he cuts to a montage of faces gazing up in horror and disbelief. It's an elegant interlude of pure cinema amid the dirty business of popcorn agitprop. It may say something about the current state of the left that its most prominent voice is a comedian. But as a descendent of the sixties revolution, Moore integrates the conflicting personalities that once tore the movement apart back in the '70s. He preserves the giddy satirical spirit of the Yippie pranksters, while embodying the blue-collar stoicism of a working-class hero. He's America's clown prince of the proletariat.
Moore grew up in an Irish Catholic household, with a father who worked on a GM auto-parts assembly line in Flint for 33 years. An activist since grade school, he toyed with becoming a priest. And he remains a practising Catholic. In fact, he admits having sat through Mel Gibson's Passion twice, although "I come from the other extreme of the Catholic Church." Moore's movie could have the same polarizing effect as Gibson's, but with something more tangible at stake. At this rate, the U.S. election may not be waged on facts or issues, but as a war of righteous values. And as Fahrenheit 9/11 raises the temperature of America's moral outrage, it could affect the outcome. "This thing has now reached into the White House," says Moore. "Karl Rove, Bush's puppeteer, is personally involved in trying to spin the attacks on the film. Kerry hasn't been out there much. Now they've got a target."
As Moore prepares to leave the limo and face the TV cameras, he takes off his sunglasses, apologizing. "The reason I'm wearing them is because I was doing Letterman last night and I got some makeup in my eyes." Back at the airport, that didn't stop everyone from recognizing him, including Canadian border officials. The supervisor even came out to shake his hand, and told him, "You're always welcome here." Moore replied, "I know that. My fear is, will I be able to get back to where I just came from?"
Maclean's July 1, 2004
Helen mussallem, british commonwealth air training plan, raymond collishaw.
Film Review: Michael Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 11/9’
It starts off as nose-thumbing, then takes a deep journalistic dive into the horror of Flint, but Michael Moore's Trump documentary turns into a powerful warning about fascism. The message: Yes, it could happen here.
By Owen Gleiberman
Chief Film Critic
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The title of Michael Moore ’s “ Fahrenheit 11/9 ” clearly suggests that it’s going to be a sequel, of sorts, to “Fahrenheit 9/11.” And since the earlier film was Moore’s freewheeling satirical grab-bag essay about the presidency of George W. Bush, it seemed likely that Moore would take something of the same tack with the presidency of Donald Trump . I went in expecting a fair amount of finger-in-the-eye newsreel satire, with Moore offering a clever rehash of Trump’s greatest hits of infamy.
For 20 minutes or so, that’s exactly what it is. Moore replays all the pre-election liberal smugness about how America couldn’t possibly elect Donald Trump (there’s a funny clip of Hillary Clinton, on stage at a Beyoncé/Jay Z concert, beaming with overconfidence as she thanks all these rappers who, as Moore points out, she has obviously never heard of). Then comes Election Night, and Moore replays, once again, how hope collapsed like air draining out of a balloon. He makes the point that Donald Trump has always committed corruptions and outrages in plain sight. It’s not that we don’t see them; it’s that he has a gift for getting people not to mind them.
Moore sums up just how true that is by concocting a deeply creepy montage of all the times Trump has mentioned his daughter, Ivanka, as if he coveted her sexually. We get the comments, along with films and photographs of him cradling her body too closely, and it adds up to something decidedly unseemly. Yet as Moore himself has declared: We know all this! We’ve seen and heard it before. Moore details his own bizarre media-world run-ins with members of the Trump clan — like how he played the role of good soldier when he was invited onto Roseanne Barr’s talk show along with Donald (who said that he loved “Roger & Me”), or how, later on, Jared Kushner was such a fan of “Sicko” that he threw a premiere party for it.
But then Moore takes a left turn (pun intended, kind of) by returning to his hometown of Flint, Mich., to offer a piece of in-depth reporting about the scandalous water crisis there, which resulted in the lead poisoning of thousands of children.
The crisis pre-dated Trump’s election, so you may wonder why it’s so relevant to his presidency. But Moore answers that question with his ominous portrait of Rick Snyder, the autocratic Republican governor who, as Moore tells it, staged a de facto coup d’état when he declared a state of “emergency management” in Flint, using the crisis to neuter elected officials and put his own people in place. He did it because the poisoning of Flint’s water supply was the result of a corporate cash grab. A profitable but completely unnecessary new pipeline was built, and during that time the city stopped getting its water from Lake Huron and, instead, used water from the rancid, polluted Flint River.
As night follows day, people got sick. Which we’ve all read about. But Moore’s point — a profound one — is that the poisoning happened because the government structure had been eliminated. The message of what took place in Flint is that our safeguards are disappearing.
For a while, the Flint story takes over the movie, and that’s disquieting in two ways. The events themselves are horrific beyond words, but the viewer starts to wonder where this is all heading. Maybe Moore should have made an entire movie about the Flint water crisis. His best films (“Sicko,” “Bowling for Columbine,” “Roger & Me”) have always had a devastating focus . “Fahrenheit 11/9” veers from Trumpian nose-thumbing to muckraking exposé to a bunch of other things that feel like tangents, and not always reliable ones.
Trump bashes The New York Times for being in the tank with the government agenda (using, as his example, Thomas Friedman’s combative pomposity on a talk show), yet that’s too easy a condemnation. For those of us who feel that the Times has been bold, and essential, in its reporting on Trump, the whole mainstream-media-is-just-a-corporate-tool argument feels kneejerk and false. Moore makes a big show of branding prominent media figures (Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin, etc.) as sexual predators who were brought down by #MeToo. But it’s an utterly specious argument to suggest that because these famous figures were secretly corrupt, that undermines the integrity of media itself.
For good measure, Moore tosses in a riff on the Electoral College (he thinks it’s an absurd anachronism, and he’s right), and he replays his own defining gambit by showing up at the Michigan State Capitol to make a citizen’s arrest of Gov. Rick Snyder. Talk about seen it before! Yet even as you’re taking in these sometimes serious, sometimes snarky documentary jigsaw pieces, and thinking they look just fine on their own but wondering what they add up to, Moore starts to pull the movie together. “Fahrenheit 11/9” is long and unwieldy, in a way that may hurt its chances with mainstream audiences. The days when even the liberal faithful would turn out in droves to see a Michael Moore movie are gone, and this one, despite its title, lacks a catchy dramatic angle.
Yet if you stick with the movie, it starts to acquire a potent chill. Because “Fahrenheit 11/9” is truly about something, and that’s Michael Moore’s fearless — and I would say accurate — perception that what’s going on in our government today is more sinister than even a lot of liberals think. In “Fahrenheit 11/9,” Moore captures how the groundwork is being laid for a full-scale destruction of democracy. Moore’s point is that democracy has always been a frail blossom, never entirely here to begin with (as Leonard Cohen put it: “Democracy is coming … to the USA”). He’s saying that those of us who look at Trump and think that the Constitution, or Robert Mueller, will save us may be kidding ourselves.
In the last half hour, Moore takes the leap into his real message: that Trump truly is a dictator, and that he has already gone a long way down that path by neutering the entire Republican Party. That’s half our elected representatives! Moore lunges right for the ultimate comparison — Hitler — but his point is not to bash Donald Trump by likening him to the most evil mind of the 20th century. It’s to say: Here’s how it happened, back when no one thought it could happen. Not thinking it could happen is how it happens.
How do we stop it? The short answer — still my favorite — is elections. Vote the destructive racist sociopath out of office. But Michael Moore is in thrall to his vision of a people’s uprising. He’s right that any true democracy comes from the people, but that perception, in his case, is too wound into dogmatic ideals of action: a new generation of candidates who call themselves socialists and won’t back down. A lot of us would say, without necessarily being tools of the corporation: That’s admirable, but is it really going to win over the kinds of middle Americans Moore claims to be the champion of?
He has always had a hifalutin romantic vision of them — that they’re blessedly ordinary, but also dogged and instinctive Marxists. (I don’t think that’s accurate on Moore’s part; I think it’s projection.) Moore thinks the whole system has to be tossed out, and he gives us a resonant piece of evidence: a clip of Barack Obama, back when he was president, visiting Flint, and doing an I’ll-have-a-glass-of-water stunt that feels like corporate cover. You may never feel the same way about Obama again. (Some of us gave up on him when he wouldn’t fight for Merrick Garland.) Yet Michael Moore is a purist. He rejects the corruption of the contemporary world, and in “Fahrenheit 11/9” he uses the suppression of primary vote totals in West Virginia as evidence that Bernie Sanders would have been a more popular candidate than Hillary. The movie says: He just wasn’t allowed to be.
I find that unconvincing. We live in a middle-of-the-road country, and that bothers Michael Moore because he’s a secret hipster; he doesn’t want to acknowledge how morally fuddy-duddy most people are. “Fahrenheit 11/9” would be better if it didn’t romanticize the new wave of progressive action (which, incidentally, I believe in) as if it were the second coming. Yet the movie, in its way, summons something ominous and powerful. It’s not a screed — it’s a warning. It says, quite wisely: Take action now, or you may no longer have the opportunity to do so.
Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Opening Night), Sept. 6, 2018. Running time: 130 MIN.
- Production: A Dog Eat Dog Films, Midwesterm Films, State Run Films production. Producers: Carl Deal, Michael Moore. Executive producers: Basel Hamdan, Tia Lessin.
- Crew: Director, screenplay: Michael Moore. Camera (color, widescreen): Luke Geissbuhler, Jayme Roy. Editors: Doug Abel, Pablo Proenza.
- With: Donald Trump, Michael Moore.
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‘fahrenheit 11/9’: film review | tiff 2018.
Michael Moore's satirical documentary probes the reasons why Donald Trump got elected and records dissent against the political system from all around America.
By Deborah Young
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Michael Moore fans who go into Fahrenheit 11/9 expecting to see a masterful takedown of the current U.S. president will be in for a disappointment. Although he does cook up some typically tasty morsels and makes astute considerations of the man, Donald Trump is not the main thrust of the film, which could more accurately be described as a preoccupying state of the union review.
The multiple targets and multiple threads which weave in and out of Fahrenheit 11/9 make it feel jumpy at times and less focused than Moore’s docs on health care, the automobile industry and the Columbine high school shootings. Nonetheless, there is much food for thought in the film, shot with the director’s characteristic passion, flair, wicked sense of humor and willingness to push the envelope. Among the risks he takes is a direct comparison of Trump to Adolf Hitler, which leads him to speculate that a further, frightening erosion of democratic process and constitutional rights could be in the making. The film was heartily acclaimed at its world premiere in Toronto ; out in the real world, though, it is unlikely to travel far beyond the director’s regular audiences.
The title is a play on Fahrenheit 9/11 made in 2004, Moore’s top-grossing, Palme d’Or-winning documentary attacking the war in Iraq, and refers to the historic date, Nov. 9, when in the early morning hours the 2016 presidential election was called in favor of Donald J. Trump. With all the media attention currently focused on Trump, he is probably both too easy a target and his outpourings have already been thoroughly raked through the coals. That could account for Moore’s decision to cast his net wider to include the Parkland High School shootings and the rising students’ movement, strikes by underpaid teachers and the poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, his hometown. Most strikingly, perhaps, is his scathing criticism of the Democratic party establishment, including Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama.
The filmmaker is known for his uncannily accurate prediction that Trump would win the election, despite Hillary Clinton’s large lead in all the polls. While people on TV talk shows laughed at the very notion of a President Trump, Moore got it right. The film touches on most of the points he made in that prescient article, “5 Reasons Why Trump Will Win,” because they are still politically valid: the loss of jobs in states like Michigan to NAFTA countries (supported by Clinton), fear of a woman president, Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity, disappointment in the Bernie Sanders’ camp and general anger against a broken political system.
The opening scenes rehearse the pre-election illusion among most Democrats and Republicans that Clinton was destined to win, and the shock when she did not. Moore plays the operatic “Ridi, Pagliaccio” (laugh, clown) over the tears of Clinton supporters and the not-so-happy faces of the winners. Moore himself had a strange encounter with the young realtor Trump back in 1998 when the two of them were scheduled to appear together on Roseanne Barr’s talk show, an experience that left him with the conviction that Trump was a smart manipulator.
Michael moore plays his trump card: a new movie, modern fascism and a 2020 prediction.
A distasteful sequence of photos shows Trump with his arms all over his daughter Ivanka, concluding with his famous comment that he would date her if she wasn’t his daughter. “He’s always committed his crimes in plain sight,” goads Moore, with more illustrations of racism and misogyny which made the Toronto audience gasp.
At this point, the film takes off in an unexpected direction to review the nightmarish decision of Michigan’s Republican governor Rick Snyder to switch the water supply of four predominantly black cities from the pure Lake Huron source to the highly polluted Flint River. Lead poisoning resulted in widespread sickness, especially among young children, but the governor refused to acknowledge the danger. When President Obama flew into Flint like a superhero on Air Force One, everyone expected him to save the situation; instead, he is shown asking for a glass of tap water and raising it to his lips to show how safe it is, to general dismay. Later, tanks arrive in Flint along with the army, who begin blowing up empty buildings as target practice — without any warning to residents, stresses Moore.
It’s an unsettling account and, though at first it seems peripheral to the film’s subject, Moore shows that it led straight to a fall-off in Democratic voters in the next elections, causing Hillary to lose by a small margin. His point is that it’s not apathy that keeps most people from voting, but disillusionment with party politics. He believes that the majority of Americans favor progressive laws but are thwarted by the conservative, compromise-oriented professional politicians and by the so-called liberal media. ( The New York Times is specifically called out.)
Toronto: Michael Moore's 'Fahrenheit 11/9' Could Divide Academy's Doc Branch
Back to Trump. Moore is adept at satirizing his subject through editing and sound bites, but it doesn’t prepare the viewer to see Hitler dubbed to speak at a mass rally in Trump’s voice. The parallels he makes between the two leaders are numerous and provocative.
A ray of hope, or something more, is offered in interviews with determined West Virginia teachers who went on strike against the decision of their union. Other women activists are singled out, like young progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated an incumbent to win the Democratic primary in the Bronx and Queens, along with the high school students behind the recent huge student protest marches.
Production companies: Midwestern Films Director, screenwriter: Michael Moore Producers: Michael Moore, Carl Deal, Meghan O’Hara Executive producers: Basel Hamdan, Tia Lessin Directors of photography: Luke Geissbuhler, Jayme Roy Editors: Doug Abel, Pablo Proenza World sales: AGC International Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Docs) 121 minutes
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FILM REVIEW; Unruly Scorn Leaves Room For Restraint, But Not a Lot
By A. O. Scott
- June 23, 2004
Respect for the president is a longstanding American tradition and one that is still very much alive, as the weeklong national obsequies for Ronald Reagan recently proved. But there is also an opposing tradition of holding up our presidents, especially while they are in office, to ridicule and scorn.
Which is to say that while Michael Moore's ''Fahrenheit 9/11'' will be properly debated on the basis of its factual claims and cinematic techniques, it should first of all be appreciated as a high-spirited and unruly exercise in democratic self-expression. Mixing sober outrage with mischievous humor and blithely trampling the boundary between documentary and demagoguery, Mr. Moore takes wholesale aim at the Bush administration, whose tenure has been distinguished, in his view, by unparalleled and unmitigated arrogance, mendacity and incompetence.
That Mr. Moore does not like Mr. Bush will hardly come as news. ''Fahrenheit 9/11,'' which opens in Manhattan today and in the rest of the country on Friday, is many things: a partisan rallying cry, an angry polemic, a muckraking inquisition into the use and abuse of power. But one thing it is not is a fair and nuanced picture of the president and his policies. What did you expect? Mr. Moore is often impolite, rarely subtle and occasionally unwise. He can be obnoxious, tendentious and maddeningly self-contradictory. He can drive even his most ardent admirers crazy. He is a credit to the republic.
While his new film, awarded the top prize at the Cannes International Film Festival this year, has been likened to an op-ed column, it might more accurately be said to resemble an editorial cartoon. Mr. Moore uses archival video images, rapid-fire editing and playful musical cues to create an exaggerated, satirical likeness of his targets. The president and his team have obliged him by looking sinister and ridiculous on camera.
Paul D. Wolfowitz shares his icky hair-care secrets (a black plastic comb and a great deal of saliva); John Ashcroft raptly croons a patriotic ballad of his own composition; Mr. Bush, when he is not blundering through the thickets of his native tongue, projects an air of shallow self-confidence.
Through it all, Mr. Moore provides sardonic commentary, to which the soundtrack adds nudges and winks. As the camera pans across copies of Mr. Bush's records from the Texas Air National Guard, and Mr. Moore reads that the future president was suspended for missing a medical examination, we hear a familiar electric guitar riff; it takes you a moment to remember that it comes from a song called ''Cocaine.''
Not that Mr. Moore is kidding around. Perhaps because of the scale and gravity of the subject of ''Fahrenheit 9/11,'' perhaps because his own celebrity has made the man-in-the-street pose harder to sustain, Mr. Moore's trademark pranks and interventions are not as much in evidence as in earlier films. He does commandeer an ice cream truck to drive around Washington, reading the U.S.A. Patriot Act through a loudspeaker (after learning that few of the lawmakers who voted for it had actually read it), and he does stand outside the Capitol trying to persuade members of Congress to enlist their children in the armed forces. (The contortion that one legislator performs to avoid shaking Mr. Moore's hand is an amusing moment of found slapstick.)
Mostly, though, he sifts through the public record, constructing a chronicle of misrule that stretches from the Florida recount to the events of this spring. His case is synthetic rather than comprehensive, and it is not always internally consistent. He dwells on the connections between the Bush family and the Saudi Arabian elite (including the bin Laden family), and while he creates a strong impression of unseemly coziness, his larger point is not altogether clear.
After you leave the theater, some questions are likely to linger about Mr. Moore's views on the war in Afghanistan, about whether he thinks the homeland security program has been too intrusive or not intrusive enough, and about how he thinks the government should have responded to the murderous jihadists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11.
At the same time, though, it may be that the confusions trailing Mr. Moore's narrative are what make ''Fahrenheit 9/11'' an authentic and indispensable document of its time. The film can be seen as an effort to wrest clarity from shock, anger and dismay, and if parts of it seem rash, overstated or muddled, well, so has the national mood.
If ''Fahrenheit 9/11'' consisted solely of talking heads and unflattering glimpses of public figures, it would be, depending on your politics, either a rousing call to arms or an irresponsible provocation, but it might not persuade you to re-examine your assumptions. But the movie is much more than ''Dude, Where's My Country,'' carried out by other means. It is worth seeing, debating and thinking about, regardless of your political allegiances.
Mr. Moore's populist instincts have never been sharper, and he is, as ever, at his best when he turns down the showmanship and listens to what people have to say. ''Fahrenheit 9/11'' is, along with everything else, an extraordinary collage of ordinary American voices: soldiers in the field, an Oregon state trooper patrolling the border, and, above all, citizens of Flint, Mich., Mr. Moore's hometown. The trauma that deindustrialization visited on that city was the subject of ''Roger and Me,'' and that film remains fresh 15 years later, now that the volunteer army has replaced the automobile factory as the vehicle for upward mobility.
The most moving sections of ''Fahrenheit 9/11'' concern Lila Lipscomb, a cheerful state employee and former welfare recipient who wears a crucifix pendant and an American flag lapel pin. When we first meet her, she is proud of her family's military service -- a daughter served in the Persian Gulf war and a son, Michael Pedersen, was a marine in Iraq -- and grateful for the opportunities it has offered. Then Michael is killed in Karbala, and in sharing her grief with Mr. Moore, she also gives his film an eloquence that its most determined critics will find hard to dismiss. Mr. Bush is under no obligation to answer Mr. Moore's charges, but he will have to answer to Mrs. Lipscomb.
''Fahrenheit 9/11'' is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has graphic images of combat and its aftermath.
Written and directed by Michael Moore; director of photography, Mike Desjarlais; edited by Kurt Engfehr, Christopher Seward and T. Woody Richman; music by Jeff Gibbs; produced by Mr. Moore, Jim Czarnecki and Kathleen Glynn; released by Lions Gate Films, IFC Films and the Fellowship Adventure Group. Running time: 116 minutes. The film is rated R.
‘Fahrenheit 11/9’ Review: Michael Moore is Mad as Hell and Won’t Take It Anymore
By Peter Travers
You’ll cry laughing at Michael Moore ‘s new doc Fahrenheit 11/9, an unmissable provocation about the rise and rise of Donald J. Trump that should help get out the vote in November better than any limp recruitment outreach. One of Moore’s best and most incisively funny films — right up there with Roger & Me (1989), Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Sicko (2007) — his latest goes way past taking potshots at the Donald, though it does that with piercing intelligence and wounding wit. Rather, he wants to show us that this celebrity Commander-in-Chief didn’t just fall from the sky. The movie is Moore’s State of the Union message. And, damn, are we in trouble.
The title is a twist on Fahrenheit 9/11, the documentarian’s 2004 broadside against Dubya and the war in Iraq. The date 11/9 refers to the day in 2016 when Trump was officially declared the leader of this country, not according to the popular vote — which he lost to Hillary Clinton — but at the insistence of the Electoral College, a constitutional creation that Moore persuasively argues should be obliterated. He begins his film with clips showing the complete shock that overcame the populace (including Trump) when Hillary lost. Jay-Z and Beyonce held a benefit for her, along with rappers that Moore insists Hillary never heard of. George Clooney hit the airwaves to smugly declare that “Donald Trump will never be President.” The Orange One himself looked shell-shocked at his win. It was Moore, of all people, who saw it coming. In his home state of Michigan, he interviewed disillusioned voters fed up with losing jobs to workers outside our borders and who feared that a female President wouldn’t or couldn’t fix a broken system.
Moore suggests, only half-jokingly, that Trump got into the Presidential race initially when he learned that Gwen Stefani on The Voice made more money than he did on The Apprentice. He’d show NBC how popular he was … and now he’s showing us. Fahrenheit 11/9 presents a portrait of Trump as a bully, a liar, a racist, a hedonist, a father with a creepy closeness to his daughter Ivanka and a man who doesn’t even try to hide his baser instincts. The way that Moore sees it, Trump runs his country like one of his corporations, like a dictatorship. Cross him and you’re fired. He even compares Trump to Hitler, dubbing the President’s own words into the Fuhrer’s mouth.
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Outrageous? You be the judge. Midway through the movie, the film switches gears to a situation in Michigan that pre-dated Trump. Specifically, it takes a close look at the election of Republican governor Rick Snyder, who Moore sees as the basis for a crisis that saw thousands of children poisoned with lead. Thanks to the politician, the water supply for the region’s largely black population was switched from the clean source of Lake Huron to the polluted Flint River. How did Snyder handle the situation? This former venture capitalist declared a state of emergency and replaced elected officials with his own team interested in building its own pipeline. In other words, he treated his state like a Trump business and did as he pleased. President Obama visited the shellshocked city and, before a battery of cameras, raised a glass of Flint water to his lips — an event that filled the filmmaker, previously a staunch Obama advocate, with shock and indignation. The gonzo docmaker’s previous stunts against Snyder, like spraying the grass outside the Governor’s home with Flint water and attempting to make a citizen’s arrest, pales in comparison to Obama’s act of betrayal.
Moore does looks with favor, however, on the progressives currently fighting the good fight on the frontlines: West Virginia teachers who went on strike and won even when their union advised conciliation; the survivors of the Parkland school shooting who organized a youth march against gun violence; fearless young political up-and-comers as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won the Democratic primary in the Bronx and Queens. But mostly, Fahrenheit 11/9 is his wake-up call to the 100 million citizens who did not vote in the last election. That’s the army he wants to see marshal its forces against indifference. Otherwise Trump, who has already declared his CEO displeasure at two-term limits, might just declare himself King. Yes, the doc is unwieldy at times, but it’s also that rare beast at the multiplex these days: a movie that matters. Moore is mad as hell in Fahrenheit 11/9. He doesn’t want a single one of us to take it anymore.
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Fahrenheit 9/11 review
In Fahrenheit 9/11 , Michael Moore’s potent and infuriating fight-the-power documentary, the most memorable indictment comes early on. It’s the moment you’ve heard about, but probably never seen, of President George W. Bush sitting in a Florida grade school and reading the book ”My Pet Goat” for a full seven minutes after he’s been told that the second plane has hit the World Trade Center. The power of the footage transcends virtually any issue of left, right, or center. Bush wears a look of pale suppressed horror, yet an executive decision seems beyond him. He’s portrayed as a man who can and will not act, a President — a President! — who greets this most calamitous of events by waiting for others to tell him what to do. On the soundtrack, Moore guilt-trips Bush by speculating, mischievously, as to his thoughts. Moore’s voice is pitiless in its didactic sarcasm, yet he gets at something essential about the inner Dubya. Watching the footage, you don’t doubt that Bush’s anguish was genuine, yet you also can’t help but wonder if it reflected his ultimate slacker nightmare: that the job was now going to be exponentially harder than he’d bargained for.
At moments like that, ”Fahrenheit 9/11” offers a catharsis for the audience. Dazzlingly assembled, at once reckless and insightful, the movie filters the actions of the Bush administration through a nose-thumbing outrage that might have been irresponsible if Moore’s own words weren’t girded by images that spoke 1,000 more. Watching ”Fahrenheit 9/11,” you may find yourself rejecting one line of attack (like, say, Moore’s opening salvo about the Republicans stealing the election), chuckling at an irresistible cheap shot like clips of Bush on his ranch set to the Go-Go’s’ ”Vacation,” and responding to such richly evocative gambits as the movie following two Marine recruiters who seek out a working-class shopping mall to prowl for new enlistees. When the filmmaker hits the streets of Washington himself, wandering up to random congressmen to ask if they’d consider sending their own children to fight in the Iraq war, you’re reminded of how Michael Moore dramatizes, in a way no one else can touch, the distance and hypocrisy of power.
”Fahrenheit 9/11” sharpens the focus on power, and it reveals the cataclysm of Iraq — the blood and the turmoil, the hidden doubts of the soldiers — in a way that makes the official news coverage look like a dryly censored press release. At times, I felt moved and manipulated at the same moment, notably when Moore interviews Lila Lipscomb, a Flint woman whose son was killed in Iraq. Her tears and anger bring the war home, yet Moore won’t let go. He follows Lipscomb to Washington and films her in front of the White House, where she gets into a shouting match with a woman on the street. The mix of grief and showboating reduces Moore’s empathy to a thin parody of empathy.
Moore portrays the Bush era as a series of sinister forces run rampant, with a puppet firebreather in charge. Yet what, according to the movie, is the essence of the administration’s corruption? That it used 9/11 as an excuse to increase oil profits? To frighten all Americans into giving up their freedom? To keep the workingman down? As analysis, ”Fahrenheit 9/11” is mostly a smash-and-grab polemic. It’s less cogent or searching than Moore’s ”Bowling for Columbine,” which looked at one issue — gun violence — from every angle, until Moore had surprised himself with what he discovered. In ”Fahrenheit 9/11,” Moore makes the devastating point that the attempt to hunt down Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan wasn’t as all-out as it pretended to be. Many more troops could have been deployed. Yet the scandalous explanation for this strategic botch — that the administration was holding back for the war in Iraq, already in the planning stages — is never even mentioned in the movie. Where to locate that ultimate damning analysis? Why, in any one of the countless TV interviews given by Richard Clarke more than two months ago.
”Fahrenheit 9/11” creates as much heat as it does light. Moore, however, does pull together the last four years by filtering them through the prism of Bush’s personality. He gets you to connect the theatrical snigger that’s meant to look manly but, instead, telegraphs a cushy insularity; the overreliance on others to stake out decisions; and, finally, the application of the slacker mind-set to warfare by the substitution of an easy target (Iraq) for a hard one (al-Qaeda). Scalding and glib, derisive yet impassioned, ”Fahrenheit 9/11” is highly resonant Bush-bashing, since the President does most of the work for it. The film depicts the war on terror as run by a man who turns taking a stand into the ultimate form of role playing. B+
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The lies of michael moore..
One of the many problems with the American left, and indeed of the American left, has been its image and self-image as something rather too solemn, mirthless, herbivorous, dull, monochrome, righteous, and boring. How many times, in my old days at The Nation magazine, did I hear wistful and semienvious ruminations? Where was the radical Firing Line show? Who will be our Rush Limbaugh? I used privately to hope that the emphasis, if the comrades ever got around to it, would be on the first of those and not the second. But the meetings themselves were so mind-numbing and lugubrious that I thought the danger of success on either front was infinitely slight.
Nonetheless, it seems that an answer to this long-felt need is finally beginning to emerge. I exempt Al Franken’s unintentionally funny Air America network, to which I gave a couple of interviews in its early days. There, one could hear the reassuring noise of collapsing scenery and tripped-over wires and be reminded once again that correct politics and smooth media presentation are not even distant cousins. With Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 , however, an entirely new note has been struck. Here we glimpse a possible fusion between the turgid routines of MoveOn.org and the filmic standards, if not exactly the filmic skills, of Sergei Eisenstein or Leni Riefenstahl.
To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental. To describe it as an exercise in facile crowd-pleasing would be too obvious. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of “dissenting” bravery.
In late 2002, almost a year after the al-Qaida assault on American society, I had an onstage debate with Michael Moore at the Telluride Film Festival. In the course of this exchange, he stated his view that Osama Bin Laden should be considered innocent until proven guilty. This was, he said, the American way. The intervention in Afghanistan, he maintained, had been at least to that extent unjustified. Something—I cannot guess what, since we knew as much then as we do now—has since apparently persuaded Moore that Osama Bin Laden is as guilty as hell. Indeed, Osama is suddenly so guilty and so all-powerful that any other discussion of any other topic is a dangerous “distraction” from the fight against him. I believe that I understand the convenience of this late conversion.
Fahrenheit 9/11 makes the following points about Bin Laden and about Afghanistan, and makes them in this order:
1) The Bin Laden family (if not exactly Osama himself) had a close if convoluted business relationship with the Bush family, through the Carlyle Group.
2) Saudi capital in general is a very large element of foreign investment in the United States.
3) The Unocal company in Texas had been willing to discuss a gas pipeline across Afghanistan with the Taliban, as had other vested interests.
4) The Bush administration sent far too few ground troops to Afghanistan and thus allowed far too many Taliban and al-Qaida members to escape.
5) The Afghan government, in supporting the coalition in Iraq, was purely risible in that its non-army was purely American.
6) The American lives lost in Afghanistan have been wasted. (This I divine from the fact that this supposedly “antiwar” film is dedicated ruefully to all those killed there, as well as in Iraq.)
It must be evident to anyone, despite the rapid-fire way in which Moore’s direction eases the audience hastily past the contradictions, that these discrepant scatter shots do not cohere at any point. Either the Saudis run U.S. policy (through family ties or overwhelming economic interest), or they do not. As allies and patrons of the Taliban regime, they either opposed Bush’s removal of it, or they did not. (They opposed the removal, all right: They wouldn’t even let Tony Blair land his own plane on their soil at the time of the operation.) Either we sent too many troops, or were wrong to send any at all—the latter was Moore’s view as late as 2002—or we sent too few. If we were going to make sure no Taliban or al-Qaida forces survived or escaped, we would have had to be more ruthless than I suspect that Mr. Moore is really recommending. And these are simply observations on what is “in” the film. If we turn to the facts that are deliberately left out, we discover that there is an emerging Afghan army, that the country is now a joint NATO responsibility and thus under the protection of the broadest military alliance in history, that it has a new constitution and is preparing against hellish odds to hold a general election, and that at least a million and a half of its former refugees have opted to return. I don’t think a pipeline is being constructed yet, not that Afghanistan couldn’t do with a pipeline. But a highway from Kabul to Kandahar—an insurance against warlordism and a condition of nation-building—is nearing completion with infinite labor and risk. We also discover that the parties of the Afghan secular left—like the parties of the Iraqi secular left—are strongly in favor of the regime change. But this is not the sort of irony in which Moore chooses to deal.
He prefers leaden sarcasm to irony and, indeed, may not appreciate the distinction. In a long and paranoid (and tedious) section at the opening of the film, he makes heavy innuendoes about the flights that took members of the Bin Laden family out of the country after Sept. 11. I banged on about this myself at the time and wrote a Nation column drawing attention to the groveling Larry King interview with the insufferable Prince Bandar, which Moore excerpts. However, recent developments have not been kind to our Mike. In the interval between Moore’s triumph at Cannes and the release of the film in the United States, the 9/11 commission has found nothing to complain of in the timing or arrangement of the flights. And Richard Clarke, Bush’s former chief of counterterrorism, has come forward to say that he, and he alone , took the responsibility for authorizing those Saudi departures. This might not matter so much to the ethos of Fahrenheit 9/11 , except that—as you might expect—Clarke is presented throughout as the brow-furrowed ethical hero of the entire post-9/11 moment. And it does not seem very likely that, in his open admission about the Bin Laden family evacuation, Clarke is taking a fall, or a spear in the chest, for the Bush administration. So, that’s another bust for this windy and bloated cinematic “key to all mythologies.”
A film that bases itself on a big lie and a big misrepresentation can only sustain itself by a dizzying succession of smaller falsehoods, beefed up by wilder and (if possible) yet more-contradictory claims. President Bush is accused of taking too many lazy vacations. (What is that about, by the way? Isn’t he supposed to be an unceasing planner for future aggressive wars?) But the shot of him “relaxing at Camp David” shows him side by side with Tony Blair. I say “shows,” even though this photograph is on-screen so briefly that if you sneeze or blink, you won’t recognize the other figure. A meeting with the prime minister of the United Kingdom, or at least with this prime minister, is not a goof-off.
The president is also captured in a well-worn TV news clip, on a golf course, making a boilerplate response to a question on terrorism and then asking the reporters to watch his drive. Well, that’s what you get if you catch the president on a golf course. If Eisenhower had done this, as he often did, it would have been presented as calm statesmanship. If Clinton had done it, as he often did, it would have shown his charm. More interesting is the moment where Bush is shown frozen on his chair at the infant school in Florida, looking stunned and useless for seven whole minutes after the news of the second plane on 9/11. Many are those who say that he should have leaped from his stool, adopted a Russell Crowe stance, and gone to work. I could even wish that myself. But if he had done any such thing then (as he did with his “Let’s roll” and “dead or alive” remarks a month later), half the Michael Moore community would now be calling him a man who went to war on a hectic, crazed impulse. The other half would be saying what they already say—that he knew the attack was coming, was using it to cement himself in power, and couldn’t wait to get on with his coup. This is the line taken by Gore Vidal and by a scandalous recent book that also revives the charge of FDR’s collusion over Pearl Harbor. At least Moore’s film should put the shameful purveyors of that last theory back in their paranoid box.
But it won’t because it encourages their half-baked fantasies in so many other ways. We are introduced to Iraq, “a sovereign nation.” (In fact, Iraq’s “sovereignty” was heavily qualified by international sanctions, however questionable, which reflected its noncompliance with important U.N. resolutions.) In this peaceable kingdom, according to Moore’s flabbergasting choice of film shots, children are flying little kites, shoppers are smiling in the sunshine, and the gentle rhythms of life are undisturbed. Then—wham! From the night sky come the terror weapons of American imperialism. Watching the clips Moore uses, and recalling them well, I can recognize various Saddam palaces and military and police centers getting the treatment. But these sites are not identified as such. In fact, I don’t think Al Jazeera would, on a bad day, have transmitted anything so utterly propagandistic. You would also be led to think that the term “civilian casualty” had not even been in the Iraqi vocabulary until March 2003. I remember asking Moore at Telluride if he was or was not a pacifist. He would not give a straight answer then, and he doesn’t now, either. I’ll just say that the “insurgent” side is presented in this film as justifiably outraged, whereas the 30-year record of Baathist war crimes and repression and aggression is not mentioned once. (Actually, that’s not quite right. It is briefly mentioned but only, and smarmily, because of the bad period when Washington preferred Saddam to the likewise unmentioned Ayatollah Khomeini.)
That this—his pro-American moment—was the worst Moore could possibly say of Saddam’s depravity is further suggested by some astonishing falsifications. Moore asserts that Iraq under Saddam had never attacked or killed or even threatened (his words) any American. I never quite know whether Moore is as ignorant as he looks, or even if that would be humanly possible. Baghdad was for years the official, undisguised home address of Abu Nidal, then the most-wanted gangster in the world, who had been sentenced to death even by the PLO and had blown up airports in Vienna * and Rome. Baghdad was the safe house for the man whose “operation” murdered Leon Klinghoffer. Saddam boasted publicly of his financial sponsorship of suicide bombers in Israel. (Quite a few Americans of all denominations walk the streets of Jerusalem.) In 1991, a large number of Western hostages were taken by the hideous Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and held in terrible conditions for a long time. After that same invasion was repelled—Saddam having killed quite a few Americans and Egyptians and Syrians and Brits in the meantime and having threatened to kill many more—the Iraqi secret police were caught trying to murder former President Bush during his visit to Kuwait. Never mind whether his son should take that personally. (Though why should he not?) Should you and I not resent any foreign dictatorship that attempts to kill one of our retired chief executives? (President Clinton certainly took it that way: He ordered the destruction by cruise missiles of the Baathist “security” headquarters.) Iraqi forces fired, every day, for 10 years , on the aircraft that patrolled the no-fly zones and staved off further genocide in the north and south of the country. In 1993, a certain Mr. Yasin helped mix the chemicals for the bomb at the World Trade Center and then skipped to Iraq, where he remained a guest of the state until the overthrow of Saddam. In 2001, Saddam’s regime was the only one in the region that openly celebrated the attacks on New York and Washington and described them as just the beginning of a larger revenge. Its official media regularly spewed out a stream of anti-Semitic incitement. I think one might describe that as “threatening,” even if one was narrow enough to think that anti-Semitism only menaces Jews. And it was after , and not before, the 9/11 attacks that Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi moved from Afghanistan to Baghdad and began to plan his now very open and lethal design for a holy and ethnic civil war. On Dec. 1, 2003, the New York Times reported—and the David Kay report had established—that Saddam had been secretly negotiating with the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il in a series of secret meetings in Syria, as late as the spring of 2003, to buy a North Korean missile system, and missile-production system, right off the shelf. (This attempt was not uncovered until after the fall of Baghdad, the coalition’s presence having meanwhile put an end to the negotiations.)
Thus, in spite of the film’s loaded bias against the work of the mind, you can grasp even while watching it that Michael Moore has just said, in so many words, the one thing that no reflective or informed person can possibly believe: that Saddam Hussein was no problem. No problem at all . Now look again at the facts I have cited above. If these things had been allowed to happen under any other administration, you can be sure that Moore and others would now glibly be accusing the president of ignoring, or of having ignored, some fairly unmistakable “warnings.”
The same “let’s have it both ways” opportunism infects his treatment of another very serious subject, namely domestic counterterrorist policy. From being accused of overlooking too many warnings—not exactly an original point—the administration is now lavishly taunted for issuing too many. (Would there not have been “fear” if the harbingers of 9/11 had been taken seriously?) We are shown some American civilians who have had absurd encounters with idiotic “security” staff. (Have you ever met anyone who can’t tell such a story?) Then we are immediately shown underfunded police departments that don’t have the means or the manpower to do any stop-and-search: a power suddenly demanded by Moore on their behalf that we know by definition would at least lead to some ridiculous interrogations. Finally, Moore complains that there isn’t enough intrusion and confiscation at airports and says that it is appalling that every air traveler is not forcibly relieved of all matches and lighters. (Cue mood music for sinister influence of Big Tobacco.) So—he wants even more pocket-rummaging by airport officials? Uh, no, not exactly. But by this stage, who’s counting? Moore is having it three ways and asserting everything and nothing. Again—simply not serious.
Circling back to where we began, why did Moore’s evil Saudis not join “the Coalition of the Willing”? Why instead did they force the United States to switch its regional military headquarters to Qatar? If the Bush family and the al-Saud dynasty live in each other’s pockets, as is alleged in a sort of vulgar sub-Brechtian scene with Arab headdresses replacing top hats, then how come the most reactionary regime in the region has been powerless to stop Bush from demolishing its clone in Kabul and its buffer regime in Baghdad? The Saudis hate, as they did in 1991, the idea that Iraq’s recuperated oil industry might challenge their near-monopoly. They fear the liberation of the Shiite Muslims they so despise. To make these elementary points is to collapse the whole pathetic edifice of the film’s “theory.” Perhaps Moore prefers the pro-Saudi Kissinger/Scowcroft plan for the Middle East, where stability trumps every other consideration and where one dare not upset the local house of cards, or killing-field of Kurds? This would be a strange position for a purported radical. Then again, perhaps he does not take this conservative line because his real pitch is not to any audience member with a serious interest in foreign policy. It is to the provincial isolationist.
I have already said that Moore’s film has the staunch courage to mock Bush for his verbal infelicity. Yet it’s much, much braver than that. From Fahrenheit 9/11 you can glean even more astounding and hidden disclosures, such as the capitalist nature of American society, the existence of Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex,” and the use of “spin” in the presentation of our politicians. It’s high time someone had the nerve to point this out. There’s more. Poor people often volunteer to join the army, and some of them are duskier than others. Betcha didn’t know that. Back in Flint, Mich., Moore feels on safe ground. There are no martyred rabbits this time. Instead, it’s the poor and black who shoulder the packs and rifles and march away. I won’t dwell on the fact that black Americans have fought for almost a century and a half, from insisting on their right to join the U.S. Army and fight in the Civil War to the right to have a desegregated Army that set the pace for post-1945 civil rights. I’ll merely ask this: In the film, Moore says loudly and repeatedly that not enough troops were sent to garrison Afghanistan and Iraq. (This is now a favorite cleverness of those who were, in the first place, against sending any soldiers at all.) Well, where does he think those needful heroes and heroines would have come from? Does he favor a draft—the most statist and oppressive solution? Does he think that only hapless and gullible proles sign up for the Marines? Does he think—as he seems to suggest—that parents can “send” their children, as he stupidly asks elected members of Congress to do? Would he have abandoned Gettysburg because the Union allowed civilians to pay proxies to serve in their place? Would he have supported the antidraft (and very antiblack) riots against Lincoln in New York? After a point, one realizes that it’s a waste of time asking him questions of this sort. It would be too much like taking him seriously. He’ll just try anything once and see if it floats or flies or gets a cheer.
Indeed, Moore’s affected and ostentatious concern for black America is one of the most suspect ingredients of his pitch package. In a recent interview, he yelled that if the hijacked civilians of 9/11 had been black, they would have fought back, unlike the stupid and presumably cowardly white men and women (and children). Never mind for now how many black passengers were on those planes—we happen to know what Moore does not care to mention: that Todd Beamer and a few of his co-passengers, shouting “Let’s roll,” rammed the hijackers with a trolley, fought them tooth and nail, and helped bring down a United Airlines plane, in Pennsylvania, that was speeding toward either the White House or the Capitol. There are no words for real, impromptu bravery like that, which helped save our republic from worse than actually befell. The Pennsylvania drama also reminds one of the self-evident fact that this war is not fought only “overseas” or in uniform, but is being brought to our cities. Yet Moore is a silly and shady man who does not recognize courage of any sort even when he sees it because he cannot summon it in himself. To him, easy applause, in front of credulous audiences, is everything.
Moore has announced that he won’t even appear on TV shows where he might face hostile questioning. I notice from the New York Times of June 20 that he has pompously established a rapid response team, and a fact-checking staff, and some tough lawyers, to bulwark himself against attack. He’ll sue, Moore says, if anyone insults him or his pet. Some right-wing hack groups, I gather, are planning to bring pressure on their local movie theaters to drop the film. How dumb or thuggish do you have to be in order to counter one form of stupidity and cowardice with another? By all means go and see this terrible film, and take your friends, and if the fools in the audience strike up one cry, in favor of surrender or defeat, feel free to join in the conversation.
However, I think we can agree that the film is so flat-out phony that “fact-checking” is beside the point. And as for the scary lawyers—get a life, or maybe see me in court. But I offer this, to Moore and to his rapid response rabble. Any time, Michael my boy. Let’s redo Telluride. Any show. Any place. Any platform. Let’s see what you’re made of.
Some people soothingly say that one should relax about all this. It’s only a movie. No biggie. It’s no worse than the tomfoolery of Oliver Stone. It’s kick-ass entertainment. It might even help get out “the youth vote.” Yeah, well, I have myself written and presented about a dozen low-budget made-for-TV documentaries, on subjects as various as Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton and the Cyprus crisis, and I also helped produce a slightly more polished one on Henry Kissinger that was shown in movie theaters. So I know, thanks, before you tell me, that a documentary must have a “POV” or point of view and that it must also impose a narrative line. But if you leave out absolutely everything that might give your “narrative” a problem and throw in any old rubbish that might support it, and you don’t even care that one bit of that rubbish flatly contradicts the next bit, and you give no chance to those who might differ, then you have betrayed your craft . If you flatter and fawn upon your potential audience, I might add, you are patronizing them and insulting them. By the same token, if I write an article and I quote somebody and for space reasons put in an ellipsis like this (…), I swear on my children that I am not leaving out anything that, if quoted in full, would alter the original meaning or its significance. Those who violate this pact with readers or viewers are to be despised. At no point does Michael Moore make the smallest effort to be objective. At no moment does he pass up the chance of a cheap sneer or a jeer. He pitilessly focuses his camera, for minutes after he should have turned it off, on a distraught and bereaved mother whose grief we have already shared. (But then, this is the guy who thought it so clever and amusing to catch Charlton Heston, in Bowling for Columbine , at the onset of his senile dementia.) Such courage.
Perhaps vaguely aware that his movie so completely lacks gravitas, Moore concludes with a sonorous reading of some words from George Orwell. The words are taken from 1984 and consist of a third-person analysis of a hypothetical, endless, and contrived war between three superpowers. The clear intention, as clumsily excerpted like this (…) is to suggest that there is no moral distinction between the United States, the Taliban, and the Baath Party and that the war against jihad is about nothing. If Moore had studied a bit more, or at all, he could have read Orwell really saying, and in his own voice, the following:
The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to taking life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists, whose real though unacknowledged motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration for totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writing of the younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States …
And that’s just from Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism in May 1945. A short word of advice: In general, it’s highly unwise to quote Orwell if you are already way out of your depth on the question of moral equivalence. It’s also incautious to remind people of Orwell if you are engaged in a sophomoric celluloid rewriting of recent history.
If Michael Moore had had his way, Slobodan Milosevic would still be the big man in a starved and tyrannical Serbia. Bosnia and Kosovo would have been cleansed and annexed. If Michael Moore had been listened to, Afghanistan would still be under Taliban rule, and Kuwait would have remained part of Iraq. And Iraq itself would still be the personal property of a psychopathic crime family, bargaining covertly with the slave state of North Korea for WMD. You might hope that a retrospective awareness of this kind would induce a little modesty. To the contrary, it is employed to pump air into one of the great sagging blimps of our sorry, mediocre, celeb-rotten culture. Rock the vote, indeed.
Correction , June 22, 2004: This piece originally referred to terrorist attacks by Abu Nidal’s group on the Munich and Rome airports. The 1985 attacks occurred at the Rome and Vienna airports. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)
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This Day In History : May 22
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Controversial documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” wins Palme d’Or prize
On May 22, 2004, Michael Moore’s documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11 beats out 18 other films to win the coveted Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It became the first documentary to triumph at Cannes since The Silent World , co-directed by Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle, won the Palme d’Or in 1956.
The director Quentin Tarantino, president of the Cannes jury, announced the winner in front of an appreciative crowd at the Grand Theatre Lumiere. The previous week, an audience in that same theater gave the film a standing ovation after its screening. It was a surprise win, not least because the Cannes festival had historically shunned documentaries. Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Silent World were two of only three nonfiction films to be allowed in competition in more than five decades.
Moore’s film was a fierce critique of the foreign policy decisions made by the presidential administration of George W. Bush , principally its response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 , and its decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld came under the harshest fire from Moore, who had caused a stir the previous year for his anti-war comments during his acceptance of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for Bowling for Columbine .
Miramax Films, the production company that financed Fahrenheit 9/11 , was originally set to distribute the film, until its parent company, Walt Disney, blocked it from doing so. The ensuing controversy reportedly led to the 2005 split between Disney and Miramax founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein. When it was eventually distributed by Lion’s Gate, Fahrenheit 9/11 earned some $119 million at the U.S. box office.
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A First Look at Fahrenheit 9/11
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A few years ago, Michael Moore spoke with then-Governor George W. Bush, who told the muckraker: "Behave yourself, will ya? Go find real work." Moore has made trouble for so many powerful people he has become a media power of his own. He can even make celebrities of mere movie reviewers: When his latest cinematic incendiary device, "Fahrenheit 9/11," had its first press screening Monday morning, American critics emerging from the theater were besieged by a convoy of TV and radio crews from networks around the world who wanted to know what they thought of Moore's blast at the Bush Administration.
Disney, for one, was not impressed. Earlier this month, the company ordered its subsidiary, Miramax Films, not to release the film. Moore says that his lawyer was told by Disney CEO Michael Eisner that distributing it would harm the company's negotiations for favorable treatment for its Florida theme parks from that state's governor, one Jeb Bush. Harvey Weinstein, co-chair of Miramax, is now trying to buy the film back from Disney and to fashion his own coalition of the willing other distributors happy to profit from Disney's timidity. The result of this internal agita will be to raise the profile and, most likely, the profitability of Moore's film, which he still hopes will open on the July 4th weekend.
So much for the controversy. How is it as a movie? Fahrenheit 9/11 the title is a play on the Ray Bradbury novel (and Francois Truffaut film) Fahrenheit 451 , about a future totalitarian state where reading, and thus independent thinking, has been outlawed has news value beyond its financing and distribution tangles. The movie, a brisk and entertaining indictment of the Bush Administration's middle East policies before and after September 11, 2001, features new footage of abuse by U.S. soldiers: a Christmas Eve 2003 sortie in which Iraqi captives are publicly humiliated.
Though made over the past two years, the film has scenes that seem ripped from recent headlines. Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Iraq and, to the cheers of his military audience, defiantly called himself "a survivor" (a word traditionally reserved for those who have lived through the Holocaust or cancer, not for someone enduring political difficulties). In the film, a soldier tells Moore's field team: "If Donald Rumsfeld was here, I'd ask for his resignation."
Moore's perennial grudge is against what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex: the collusion of big corporations and bad government to exploit the working class, here and abroad, for their own gain and in the process deprive citizens of their liberties. The Bush Administration's Iraq policy is handmade for Moore's grievances. Bush and his father have enjoyed a long and profitable relationship with the ruling families of Saudi Arabia, including the bin Ladens. The best-seller "House of Bush, House of Saud" by Craig Unger, whom Moore interviews, estimates that the Saudis have enriched the Bushes and their closest cronies by $1.4 billion.
Politicians reward their biggest contributors, and the Bushes are no exceptions. Fifteen of the 19 September 11th hijackers were Saudis; but when Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador who is close to the First Family, dined with the President in the White House two days after the attacks, the mood was collegial, not angry. In the Iraqi ramp-up and occupation, the Administration has rewarded its Saudi and Texas supporters with billions in rebuilding contracts. As Blaine Ober, president of an armored vehicle company, tells Moore: the Iraqi adventure is "good for business, bad for the people."
Bad for the people of Iraq, Ober means. But, Moore argues, bad for Americans as well. As he sees it, 9/11 was a tragedy for America, a career move for Bush. The attacks allowed the President to push through Congress restrictive laws that would have been defeated in any climate but the "war on terror" chill. Fahrenheit 9/11 shows some tragicomic effects of the Patriot Act: a man quizzed by the FBI for casually mentioning at his health club that he thought Bush was an "asshole"; a benign peace group in Fresno, Cal., infiltrated by an undercover police agent.
Two Bush quotes in the film indicate the Administration's quandary in selling repression to the American people. One: "A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier, no doubt about it." The other: "They're not happy they're occupied. I wouldn't be happy if I were occupied either." Moore's argument is that the U.S. is currently being occupied by a hostile, un-American force: the quintet of Bush, Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft and Paul Wolfowitz.
Moore is usually the front-and-center star of his own films. Here, his presence is mostly that of narrator and guiding force, though he does make a few piquant appearances. While chatting with Unger across the street from the Saudi embassy in Washington, he is approached and quizzed by Secret Service agents. Hearing from Rep. John Conyers that no member of Congress had read the complete Patriot Act before voting for it, he hires a Mister Softee truck and patrols downtown D.C. reading the act to members of Congress over a loudspeaker. Toward the end, he tries to get Congressmen to enlist their sons in the military. Surprise: no volunteers.
The film has its longueurs. The interviews with young blacks and a grieving mother in Moore's home town of Flint, Michigan, are relevant and poignant, but they lack the propulsive force and homespun indignance of the rest of the film. Fahrenheit 9/11 is at its best when it provides talking points for the emerging majority of those opposed to the Iraq incursion. In sum, it's an appalling, enthralling primer of what Moore sees as the Bush Administration's crimes and misdemeanors.
Fahrenheit 9/11 may be seen as another example of the liberal media preaching to its own choir. But Moore is such a clever assembler of huge accusations and minor peccadillos (as with a shot of Wolfowitz sticking his pocket comb in his mouth and sucking on it to slick down his hair before a TV interview) that the film should engage audiences of all political persuasions.
In one sense, Michael Moore took George W. Bush's advice. He found "real work" deconstructing the President's Iraq mistakes. Fahrenheit 9/11 is Moore's own War on Error.
Mary Corliss has covered the Cannes Film Festival for Film Comment and other publications since 1974. This year she is reporting for TIME.com.
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Review: Fahrenheit 9/11
The Manhattan preview of Fahrenheit 9/11 last week felt more like the opening of some hip eatery than that of a subversive political documentary that takes a full two hours to criticize the president. But then again, everything in New York is a little dressier. Hundreds of creatively coiffed and pierced twenty-somethings, tempered by a strong showing of Upper West Side middle-aged couples (read: my parents) queued up to see director and gadfly Michael Moore’s most controversial film to date. Oh and then there were a few others: the groups carrying signs and enlisting moviegoers to help protest the Republican National Convention in August; the well-spoken beggar who dispassionately argued his case to theater patrons (“My, you look nice tonight. I don’t drink or do drugs, but I do need some money”); and lastly two blonde men in pastel polo walking by. With a sneer, one said to the other, “You don’t believe Michael Moore’s version of America, do you?”
I’ll never know how the other fellow answered. But after seeing the film, most moviegoers will find it hard not to believe Moore’s version of America, or at least some part of it. What makes Fahrenheit so unique is not the message—who isn’t Bush-bashing, or at least criticizing the war in Iraq, these days?—but the passionate, brilliant craftsmanship that gets it across. Far, far across. Moore cuts deftly from hilarity to sobriety, from presenting dry onscreen evidence, often circled or pointed at with arrows, to composing artistic montages backed by perfectly-chosen music. Sometimes, he just lets the footage speak for itself.
It’s damn impressive footage, of almost four years’ worth of terrorism, war and misgovernance. And unlike the patrons at the New York preview, many of whom were born with Democratic Party membership in one hand and a silver spoon in the other, Moore doesn’t touch armchair liberalism with a ten foot pole. His leftism comes from, and on behalf of, working class middle America, an America he clearly loves. His dissent is an act of patriotism, and its fierceness takes one’s breath away.
Moore’s work is not just a look at the current dismal situation at home and abroad: throughout the film, he returns time and time again to a much broader story, that of the corrupting influence of money on American society. This has the potential to discomfit some moviegoers who think nothing of throwing 10 bucks away on a ticket (and an extra five on a latte and scone if it’s one of those “artsy” theaters). The film’s endless exposing of financial ties between the Bush family and the Saudi elite is easy to dismiss as mere “conspiracy theory” hoopla—and admittedly, some of it is confusing and can seem a bit overblown. But Moore is no conspiracy junkie. What he’s pointing out here is the less-than-paranoid observation that our president might be at least as interested in his own money as in any higher calling—and, Fahrenheit tells us, the same goes for a lot of corporations. This case is accompanied by brutal war footage and stark images of poverty at home, showing us the human toll taken by the self-interested actions of bigwigs.
Moore proves himself an expert at warming up his audience with pointed laughter before socking them with this serious message, just as he did in Bowling for Columbine , his 2002 documentary on violence and American culture. Much of Fahrenheit ’s humor arises from a barrage of shots of President Bush yachting, fishing and talking eagerly about his dog’s dirt-burrowing habits, plus a ready supply of verbal gaffes—“workin’ on some things” is how the president describes one afternoon’s agenda to a reporter. Moore also throws in the occasional dig at a celebrity, such as a clip of Britney Spears chewing gum, twisting a strand of hair around her head and avowing her faith in “our president.” Through these shots Moore relaxes his audience while telling us that a culture of unwavering support might be slightly, like, stupid.
But the film never masquerades as a comedy; the serious moments are so constant that even the most impervious viewer is guaranteed to shake his or her head at least a few times. In New York, head shakes were audible gasps—first, in the movie’s earliest minutes, for the numerous black House representatives who stood up to protest the 2000 election’s results in Congress but were not allowed to lodge their objections because they lacked the support of a single senator. This disquieting spectacle is something the cable news networks seemed to miss. And Moore’s footage of the astonishing minutes after the attack on the World Trade Center, when President Bush continued reading a book entitled My Pet Goat to elementary students with a petrified look on his face, has already begun seeping into the national consciousness.
Other, similar “why didn’t I know this?” moments are far too numerous to recount, but they leave the viewer positively starving for more information. Why didn’t we ever see the panicked look on Iraqi faces when they saw the rubble after American bombs dropped? Why didn’t we ever see footage of injured soldiers, wincing in pain over amputated limbs, or the hundreds of flag-draped coffins? Why didn’t we ever get replays of Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell assuring us that Saddam Hussein was not a threat just a year or two before we invaded Iraq? Meanwhile, Moore shows us what we do see—news anchors vowing blindly to support the troops—as his justification for presenting information the way he does. He’s not trying to give us a balanced piece of journalism. He’s telling us the other side of the story.
Moore also displays a talent for catching poignant moments on film himself: the Marine recruiter handing his card to a ninth grader, the boy saying he wishes he was able to go to college without the fear of dying in the process, the military mom reading her son’s last letter, in which he criticizes the Bush administration. Sometimes Moore creates the moments, taking to the streets to get Congresspeople to enlist their children in the Army, exposing the hypocrisy of lawmakers who send other people’s children to die without wanting to sacrifice their own.
And for those skeptics in the audience, Fahrenheit brings in the experts: a senator/psychologist discusses the culture of fear created by the color-coded security alerts, a former FBI agent bemoans how easily the Bin Laden family was allowed to flee the country after September 11. These official-seeming people lend comfort to those who can’t take the emotion, the bloody Iraqi bodies, as evidence.
Fahrenheit ’s two hours will make one’s head spin—but is it all liberal spin, as the pastel-clad passerby at the New York theater would have us believe? Moore himself has said that he sees his film as more op-ed than documentary. But in ways that a piece of opinion writing cannot, this movie takes traditional liberal complaints and makes them visceral and stunning. He makes us laugh, but mostly he makes us squirm.
Moore has thrown in something for everyone in his audience, it seems. Those unsure about his indictment of capitalism—undoubtedly a tough claim to swallow for a world that subsists on it—will still most likely come out with more doubt about the war effort than they had walking in. On the other side of things, the bourgeois leftist who complained about the war in a Gap sweatshirt might go home and think about the growing wealth gap. As the already-endless debate over the movie has proven, though, no one will walk out of the film without strong feelings one way or the other.
Moore made this film like a man possessed by a vision. But even if his audience calls him crazy, there’s more than a little method to his madness.
—SARAH M. SELTZER
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