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