It has been said that a film critic can’t review an overtly political film without his own politics creeping in, so I figured I’d just be up front with mine before I review Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 . I consider myself very middle-of-the-road with perhaps a step or two to the left. I’m neither a Bush-basher nor a bleeding heart. The American political system has become so bogged down in extremes that I find it difficult to identify too strongly with either party, and so I don’t. As for our current war with Iraq, I’ve had my doubts since day one. Although I have nothing but admiration and respect for our troops serving overseas, the reasons behind this war have always bugged me. For instance, we never did find those supposed “weapons of mass destruction” Saddam Hussein supposedly had. And why haven’t we devoted the same manpower to bringing Osama Bin Laden to justice? He’s the guy we should be going after first and foremost, having masterminded the World Trade Center tragedy. My hope in seeing Fahrenheit 9/11 was that it might help me pinpoint what it is about this war that’s always made me feel so uncomfortable.
By now, you have probably heard about the most shocking or damning scenes in the film: the footage of President Bush reading the book “My Pet Goat” to a group of elementary school students for a full seven minutes after he’d been told of the World Trade Center attack; the accusation that the Bush administration knew and ignored warnings that Bin Laden was planning an aerial strike within the United States; footage of Iraqi prisoner abuse; examinations of the extensive business connections between the Bush family and the Bin Ladens via enterprises such as the Carlyle Group. You can’t turn on the TV, open up a newspaper or magazine, or listen to the radio without hearing about the things Moore shows in the film, so I won’t spend too much time outlining them. Instead, I’ll say that Fahrenheit 9/11 is an examination of the events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath, leading to the war. It depicts President Bush as having been asleep at the wheel, more interested in protecting his business assets than in protecting our country. According to Moore, the president didn’t take terrorism warnings seriously enough, then did little to take on the real enemy, choosing instead to invade Iraq under the guise of fighting terrorism.
As the movie plays, we hear from a varied assortment of political talking heads and we see lots of archival news footage. But there’s also a human side. A number of troops in Iraq are interviewed, several of whom admit not understanding exactly what they’re fighting for. Then there’s Lila Lipscomb – the most powerful presence in the movie. We meet her in the final half hour. Lila is a woman who comes from a family that has long served in the military. Her daughter served in Operation Desert Storm, and Lila was always proud of her family’s military involvement. When her son was killed in Iraq, Lila started to question things. Her stance changed and she became an ardent anti-war protester. Her story is really heartbreaking (and it brought several tears to my eyes) because her son was killed for reasons that seem very vague to her. Like so many of us, she’s unable to articulate exactly what this war is about, and that makes her son’s death even more horrific. You really feel Lila’s grief in the film, especially when she makes a pilgrimage to D.C. and is harassed by a passerby. God bless her for the way she stands up for herself.
There are a lot of powerful scenes in Fahrenheit 9/11 and a lot of powerful issues are raised. There is neither time nor space enough to explore them all in the context of a single movie review. However, there was one particular thing that caught my attention. Moore shows us a news clip of President Bush saying that Saddam Hussein was “the man who tried to kill my dad.” We also learn that his father, George H.W. Bush, takes rare advantage of a perk allowing former presidents to receive daily CIA briefings. I’m sure that I am not the only one who has wondered how influential George Sr. has been in determining the course of this war. Could the son be finishing the job left undone by the father? I think there should be a rule stating that you can’t have more than one president per household. With millions of people in this country, doesn’t it seem odd to have two commanders-in-chief within the same family? At the very least, it speaks to the corridors of power we have in this country.
I don’t mean to sound like I’m going off on a political rant here. You presumably (and rightfully) care what I think about the movie, not about the war itself. I mention the above only because Fahrenheit 9/11 was so intensely stimulating to me as a viewer. Michael Moore asks questions designed to get the ball rolling, and he succeeds. You can’t sit passively and watch the movie; at every turn, you are pulled in and forced to think about the issues. In that way, it is every bit as engrossing as Roger & Me and Bowling For Columbine.
Aside from its politics, Fahrenheit 9/11 is just plain entertaining as a film. Moore, as loyal viewers know, is quick with a zinger, and his biting sense of humor earns some big laughs. (He plays the old Go-Go’s song “Vacation” over a montage of Bush vacationing in the days after Sept. 11.) And where else will you get to see the hilarious sight of John Ashcroft wailing a warbly self-penned “inspirational” ballad? The topic of the movie is certainly very serious, but Moore is careful to throw in some satiric humor for balance.
A lot of pundits have attacked Michael Moore, saying that Fahrenheit 9/11 “isn’t balanced.” Well of course it’s not. Whoever said a movie had to be balanced? I am reminded of several college courses I took in which we were required to write a persuasive term paper. Our job was to come up with a point of view on a certain subject, then gather information that supported that point of view. The professor graded us on how persuasive we were. Fahrenheit 9/11 is the cinematic equivalent of just such a term paper. Moore is very up front about the fact that this movie represents his perspective on the war and the Bush administration. He throws a lot of theories, interpretations, and statistics at you – some you may agree with, others you may not. Oliver Stone did a similar thing back in the early 90’s with his controversial masterpiece JFK. That film is in my personal all-time top five. Do I agree 100% with Stone’s assertion that the military/industrial complex assassinated Kennedy in a coup de tat? No, but I certainly think that, in presenting his theory, the director asked all the right questions to get us thinking. He at least proved that something about the “official version” of events wasn’t quite on the up-and-up. Michael Moore does the same thing here. Even if you don’t agree with his overall thesis, it’s hard to dispute the general sense that there are motivating factors to this war which the American public has not been privy to.
I actually think Moore is more toned-down here than some viewers have been led to believe. There’s no doubt that he argues his viewpoint strongly, but he spends less time on camera than in previous films. Also, he seems to take extra care in substantiating his claims. Certainly some counterpoints can be argued just as strongly, and I would greet a rebuttal film with equal enthusiasm provided it was as stimulating and entertaining as this one.
Many films these days lack any real feeling. They were made because they seem to be likely hits at the box office. Fahrenheit 9/11 is an exception. This film is alive with passion and anger. I for one am glad to see a movie that lives and breathes. Love Michael Moore or hate him; either way, see Fahrenheit 9/11 and start engaging in the national debate. The aftermath of an event as tragic and important as Sept. 11- in which so many American lives were lost - deserves nothing less than our most intense scrutiny.
( out of four)
Fahrenheit 9/11 is rated R for some violent and disturbing images, and for language. The running time is 2 hour and 2 minutes.
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