Winner of the top prize at the recent Cannes Film Festival, going into wide release with an under-protest R rating (the film opens in Cincinnati on Friday), Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 proves that American populists will not go gently when it comes to the Iraq war.
Witheringly indignant not only about George W. Bush's rationale for the Iraq war but also about his very qualifications and intelligence to serve as president, Fahrenheit 9/11 is provocative and -- strange as this may seem, given the subject matter -- entertaining.
The film's thesis is that the Bush administration used 9/11 to launch a war in Iraq for false reasons: weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein's alleged ties to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network. Moore posits that the Bush administration's real motive is to protect Saudi Arabia from its own responsibilities for 9/11 because of its oil-money connections to the Saudi government. The Iraq war also allows American businesses to make money from Iraqi oil.
Apart from the movie's many political ideas and arguments, what stays with me most -- what scares the hell out of me, actually -- is the footage of Bush dealing with crisis. Moore, who has an uncanny ability to find revelations amid scavenged and discarded news video, shows the president's response to 9/11 as it's actually happening.
He's at a Florida school, reading My Pet Goat with children, as the attack is occurring. Moore tells us the first attack on the World Trade Center already had happened before his arrival, but Bush "decided to go ahead with his photo opportunity."
Alone in a chair, without advisers or Secret Service agents intervening, he just sits there, fully aware of what has just happened in New York City, looking confused, lost and overwhelmed. One thinks of Robert Redford at the end of The Candidate asking, "What do we do?"
"Oh my God," I thought, watching Bush continue reading My Pet Goat, "Is this really our president?"
Perhaps I'd be a little more charitable to Bush for this, since he later spoke so eloquently to the nation, and I remember from the documentary Feed how anyone under constant media scrutiny can have bad moments.
"Now watch this drive," Bush says to the news crew. Moore's film makes one question Bush's sincerity. Is it all a game to him? Moore has no questions: He believes Bush stole the 2000 election and has no business in office.
Since 1989's Roger & Me and 2002's Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine, Moore has perfected his style of populist-essayist "in search of filmmaking." He mixes offbeat humor with outright anger, daffy archival material with confrontational interviews.
One moment you'll see old clips from Dragnet or a glimpse of Dracula; the next it's a mother whose son has died in Iraq tearfully walking in front of a barricaded White House. Moore also uses Rock music to inspirational and ironic ends, like Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" and R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People."
In the past, Moore's biggest weakness has been making himself the subject by hogging the screen. With Fahrenheit, he mostly stays out of the picture in favor of supplying voice-over narration. When he does appear -- for example, asking members of Congress to have their sons volunteer for military service -- it's usually effective political theater. Occasionally his stunts fall flat, as when he reads the Patriot Act from an ice-cream truck.
At times, Fahrenheit 9/11 is as bitterly satiric about age-of-terror Republican politics as Dr. Strangelove was of nuclear doomsday. This would seem tricky, dangerous even, since Strangelove was, after all, a work of fiction. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a documentary that, as the title makes clear, is predicated by a horrific event that not only actually happened, but could happen again and again and again if the people who committed it have their way. Is it appropriate for Moore to use it for material?
Moore makes clear in the film that 9/11 -- with some 3,000 fatalities, the deadliest foreign attack on domestic soil -- itself is not his target. He doesn't make light of it, nor does he spin wild conspiracies about who did it. (One of Moore's employees died on a hijacked plane.)
Rather, as with the high-school rampage in Bowling for Columbine, it's an agent for his outrage and sorrow. He uses those feelings to explore why the attack could have happened and how, in his view, the Bush Administration misused it for political gain in Iraq.
This isn't in itself new territory. Robert Greenwald's straightforward documentary, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War, actually does a more painstakingly thorough job of making that case. Moore uses testimony from the 9/11 Commission and from Richard Clarke's TV interviews to argue that Bush should have been better prepared. Moore doesn't mention in the film, by the way, that the Commission looked at but dismissed the importance of one of his key claims to U.S.-Saudi complicity: 142 Saudis were allowed to leave the country shortly after 9/11, including members of the Bin Laden family.
Moore's footage from Iraq is one of the film's great strengths. He features some new, shockingly troubling interviews with soldiers in Iraq who question the war. Whatever your politics, you have to be concerned when you hear a soldier -- someone risking his life every minute over there -- say to the camera, "If Donald Rumsfeld was here, I'd ask him for his resignation." There's also a glimpse of prisoner abuse, with Moore saying in voiceover that, in effect, the fish rots from the head down. When a war is based on a lie, he intones, "Immoral behavior breeds immoral behavior." Strong stuff.
As for the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which is complicated but seems increasingly crucial to understanding 9/11, Moore borrows heavily from Craig Unger's book House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World's Two Most Powerful Dynasties. Unger also appears in the film.
Moore can't do much more than hit the highlights in a feature film. Unger's book should be sold in the concession stand of theaters showing this movie. Moore does uncover a tenuous connection between George W. Bush and a financial adviser to the Bin Laden family.
Right now, it seems like Al Qaeda has targeted the Saudi government for destruction by trying to kill foreigners working there. But there is enough in Fahrenheit 9/11 to suggest Saudi Arabia is no mere innocent victim. In Moore's view, its hothouse environment of religious fundamentalism coddled and protected the ideas that created the 9/11 terrorists. Similarly, the U.S. business interests -- Bush family interests, as Moore presents them -- coddled and protected the Saudis when they should have been confronted.
The current spate of Saudi violence, like the ongoing deaths in Iraq, now is part of 9/11's legacy. And Fahrenheit 9/11 is now part of President Bush's legacy. He can work to rise above it or try to live it down, but it will be impossible for him to ignore. Grade: A-