Burning Sensation
Michael Moore Lights a Fire With Fahrenheit 9/11

So, has anyone seen Fahrenheit 9/11?

That’s a rhetorical question. I know many, many of you have seen Michael Moore’s new film, because it rocketed to the top spot on the charts last week, becoming the highest-grossing documentary of all time in only one weekend. And in only 800-some theaters. Whatever else you can say about Moore, the man knows how to turn controversy into ticket sales. He’s almost as good at it as that Gibson fellow.

I went on opening night, last Friday. I arrived at the theater at 6 p.m. to find that the 6:40 p.m. show had sold out. I bought tickets for the 9:30 show, planning to return about 9:00. I was earlier than that, in fact, by about 10 minutes, and when I walked in, two impressive facts greeted me. First, my screening had sold out, and second, more than 100 people were lined up waiting to get in, 40 minutes before start time. I queued up, and while I was in line, the 12:10 p.m. show sold out, too.

It was about then that I realized that Fahrenheit 9/11’s opening weekend would be a phenomenon.

And who would have guessed, 12 years ago, that Michael Moore would one day set box office records? He started out as the scrappy everyman behind Roger and Me, a little film about the little guy taking on the fat cats at General Motors. Over the intervening years, through two more acclaimed documentaries and two television shows (and a fiction film, Canadian Bacon, that no one likes to talk about), Moore has worked tirelessly to maintain that everyman image, even though he’s rolling in the dough by now.

Moore is a terrific filmmaker, a master manipulator and a genius at self-promotion. The publicity push for Fahrenheit 9/11 began at last year’s Oscar ceremony, when Moore used his victory speech for the excellent Bowling for Columbine to bash President Tex and his made-up war. It continued with the release of Dude, Where’s My Country, Moore’s best-selling book, in which he laid out his case against the Bush administration. And it reached its apex, believe it or not, when Disney refused to let its subsidiary company, Miramax, release the film to theaters. If it wouldn’t be so ironic, Moore should give Michael Eisner a cut of the film’s grosses for refusing a cut of the film’s grosses.

Then there’s the publicity he couldn’t buy or arrange, the kind that always sprouts up around films that bash the right wing or the Catholic Church. In the weeks leading up to the film’s release, we heard from the White House (they called the film “outrageously false” without having seen a frame of it), the Republican Congress (who filed a complaint with the FEC to stop Moore from advertising his film past the date of the Republican National Convention) and the ever-popular Move America Forward group, who pressured theater owners into not showing the movie. These people just don’t learn. Moore is right to be concerned that people may think he’s behind it all, that the controversy is a ploy to sell tickets.

Personally, I expect that this is just the same knee-jerk conservative response to anything that presents an opposing viewpoint. Dissent is a threat, not a right, they seem to think, and it should be squelched. Moore’s response to all this is to wonder – publicly – just what it is about his film that has the conservative side scared. After all, they’re in power, they have the White House and control of Congress, and at least half of the country believes anything they’re told on Fox News. (Or, as I like to call it, the Ministry of Information.) What can little old Michael Moore do to threaten that?

Well, that all depends on whether he can turn his record ticket sales into votes. Even with all the Republican machinations before the 2000 elections (a few of which are detailed in Fahrenheit 9/11), the results still came out roughly 50/50. Moore believes that the Supreme Court handed Bush the presidency, in spite of disenfranchised voters in Florida, but whether or not you buy that, you have to admit that they wouldn’t have had the chance if the vote hadn’t been so close. Preventing that situation from happening again is one of the primary goals of Moore’s film.

So he’s targeted the swing states, the voters on the fence. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a vicious, hilarious, full-on assault on Bush and his administration, delivered with all of Moore’s working-class, Joe Sixpack demeanor. It is the most skillfully manipulative piece of propaganda filmmaking I have ever seen. It is the climax of all of Moore’s best and worst tendencies, a polemic that uses every trick in the book (including, yes, the truth, factually presented) to nudge an audience towards a point of view. Some of it is right on the money, some of it is tenuous, and some of it is just plain unfair.

And I say that even though I agree with Moore 100 percent on this issue – Bush needs to go. There are dozens of reasons, and only a few of the good ones are covered in Fahrenheit 9/11, and those are not delved into with much depth of insight. The film’s first hour draws connections between the Bush family and the Saudi royals, and between Bush and Cheney’s business ventures and Middle Eastern oil, and then attributes sinister motives based on them. It all flies by in a blur, and even though this is material covered elsewhere (even by Moore), the presentation is compelling. But the nuggets of information are so closely stacked together that none are given the attention they deserve.

Of course, anyone expecting an intellectual debate from this film should be disabused of that notion mere minutes in, when Moore lingers on a shot of Paul Wolfowitz spitting on his comb and running it through his hair. This is a romp, a savage takedown, an agenda-driven assault, and if you’re not prepared for that, you may find it disappointing.

I did, somewhat, and here’s why. I took tremendous issue with people who skimmed Bowling for Columbine and called it biased, because that film represented a huge leap forward for Moore. For the first time, he allowed the process of making his film to teach him something, and the result was a probing, searching work that never settled on one definitive answer. By the same token, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a step backward, since Moore began with his thesis – George W. Bush is bad – and went in search of footage that would support it.

In a way, his process on this film is similar to that of the Bush administration’s when it came to justifying their invasion of Iraq. They began with a thesis – Saddam Hussein is bad – and scrambled to find evidence, no matter how shaky, to present to both the United Nations and the American public to support their war. (“He has weapons,” they said, pointing to a satellite photo of a truck in the middle of nowhere, one that could have been in Idaho for all anyone knew.)

Of course, Moore’s filmmaking has never gotten anyone killed. If there’s anything in this movie that the Bush administration doesn’t want you to see, it’s the haunting footage from the front lines of the Iraq invasion that makes up much of the superior second hour. We get Iraqis loading trucks with dead and dismembered children, bereaved mothers cursing America for the deaths of their sons and daughters, and a chillingly conflicted view of the troops as both cowboys and angels. It’s all in service to the fully realized argument that this war is pointless, and its cost in human life is too high.

And then there is Lila Lipscomb, the emotional center of the movie. Time and time again, Michael Moore can be counted on to detail the effects of nationwide and worldwide issues on his hometown of Flint, Michigan. Lila Lipscomb is a mother from Flint who lost her son in the invasion, and she makes a cathartic trip to our nation’s capital to confront her own rage. Lipscomb, a flag-flying patriot, questions the validity of the Iraq invasion and the president who ordered it, and her grief (upon which Moore’s camera remains glued) will stay with you more than any other element of the movie.

Moore is a smart man. He knows that statistics and business deals, no matter how sinisterly they are presented, will not shake voters. But amputees fresh from the war, railing against the government, will do it. Lila Lipscomb tearfully reading her son’s last letter home, in which he hopes Americans don’t re-elect Bush, will do it. And especially, those images juxtaposed with a repeated shot of George W. lamely reading My Pet Goat in a school classroom on September 11 for seven minutes after being told of the World Trade Center attacks, that will do it.

When Moore first broached the subject of those seven minutes in Dude, Where’s My Country, I thought it was a bit of a mistake. But now I realize that the inactive president is Moore’s central metaphor, perhaps the image he most wants you to take away from his film. It’s squirmingly painful to watch, but it’s also horribly unfair. In his voice-over, Moore wonders what was going through Tex’s mind during those seven minutes. If I had to guess, I would say that his thoughts were the same as most Americans’ at that time – some variation of “holy shit” repeated over and over, blocking out all reason. Perhaps not the quality one wants in a leader, but understandable, at least for seven minutes, in front of children.

I hate that this film has me defending George Bush, because I want him out of office just as badly as Moore does. But the point of dumping Bush should be to replace him with something better, and somehow using the same manipulative tactics as the administration Moore rails against doesn’t strike me as a clear example of an improvement. Fahrenheit 9/11 is not a film about issues, and is not one that will spark sound debate. It’s an entertaining and at times powerful firecracker of a motion picture, a movie made for cheering and booing, for 20-minute standing ovations and blindly enraged protests. It incites without exploring, and its single-mindedness is its main strength as entertainment and its chief weakness as a political statement.

There is, undoubtedly, a fascinating documentary to be made from the Bush presidency and the events surrounding the Iraq invasion, one that digs beneath the surface to find the real motivations behind the events and the players. It saddens me to report that Fahrenheit 9/11 is not that film. Michael Moore has some good points to make and some important things to say, but it is often the way he makes and says them that devalues his opinion. Fahrenheit 9/11 finds him with his most important message yet, and still he cannot seem to get beyond his snark and his emotional button-pushing long enough to simply relay it. It’s a shame, because while it will undoubtedly have some effect on the election in November, Fahrenheit 9/11 is little more than a political tool with a sell-by date, and it could have been a great film.

See you in line Tuesday morning.