Over the July 4th weekend, I finally got around to seeing Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11". Whatever you may think of the film or its director, it's clearly a phenomenon, and is energizing the Democratic base as it gears up for the home stretch in its push to oust Bush. The film covers a lot of important ground, but also has many gaps, about which more presently.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" is many things a good film should be: entertaining, intriguing and moving. It has its agenda, but that's to be expected, since all documentaries have a point of view. Of course, it's totally one-sided and manipulative, but that was expected as well; after all, it's Mikey's world, we're just living in it for two hours. Viewing it as a satirical polemic that takes shots at those in power - a time-honored American tradition - I quite enjoyed it. Moore effectively uses pacing, editing, musical cues and pop-culture references to power his narrative and keep it engaging. For example, he incorporates clever nods to '60s TV programs like "Bonanza" and "Dragnet"; elsewhere, he rapidly intercuts back-to-back statements by various members of the Bush administration, hyping the threat of Saddam Hussein and his WMD.
The film occasionally gets bogged down in minutiae, and the manner in which Moore attempts to connect all the dots is often vague and inconclusive, relying on innuendo or in some cases Moore himself to take cheap shots or let questions hang with no one to refute them. To sum up the premise: George W. Bush is a lazy, spoiled rich kid who is incapable of thinking for himself, and who relied on his family connections to steal the 2000 election. He later used the 9/11 attacks as a pretext for curtailing civil rights and whipping up paranoia and fear, then launched an imperialist war for oil Afghanistan and Iraq, all of which served as a smokescreen to divert attention from his too-cozy business relationship with the Saudis, including the bin Laden family itself. In the process, many Americans, Afghans and Iraqis died or were maimed in a pointless and useless war, all for the sake of enriching Bush's wealthy friends in corporations such as Halliburton.
I won't go on at length here about the way Moore plays fast and loose with the facts. Fans of the film won't really care, any more than Rush's dittoheads are interested in anxiously perusing the "Flush Rush Quarterly" to determine whether their hero is distorting the record. It has become something of a parlor game among Moore's critics to deconstruct the film scene by scene and provide rebuttals to the presentation. Spinsanity offers an excellent analysis of the problematic aspects of the film, in its usual straightforward style. And you may want to read Dave Kopel's article cataloguing "The 56 Deceits of Fahrenheit 9/11". You can find it and other resources like it at MooreLies.com and MooreWatch.com, two of the more popular sites debunking Moore. One quick example will suffice: there is the clip of Bush on the golf course, denouncing terrorism and then insouciantly returning to his golf game. Kopel's article includes a reference that points out that "...a check of the raw tape reveals the President is talking about an attack against Israel, carried out by a Palestinian suicide bomber." Kopel documents that the movie is filled with bits like this: snippets taken out of context that present a picture of the Bush crew as lazy, incompetent, uncaring or downright devious. Of course, if you already see them that way Moore's treatment just confirms what you already knew. And of course, that is the intention here.
That said, the movie worked for me in many places:
The Florida recount - The opening sequence, rehashing the 2000 election and the Florida recount, really took me back. After all, I had been a Gore voter, and while I had been prepared to accept Bush if he turned out to be the victor, it had looked suspiciously to me like the fix was in that night, what with the candidate's brother being governor of a critical state and Bush's smarmy confidence that Florida would go his way, no matter what. However, Moore's claims that, had the recount gone forward, Gore would have won under every scenario, is not supported by the record. Actually, Gore would have won by a marginal number of votes only if there had been a statewide recount, which ironically was the approach favored by the Bush camp. The Gore plan of recounting only key counties perceived as friendly would have resulted in a loss.
The video clips of black Congressional representatives attempting to initiate an investigation into the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of African American voters in Florida who had been inaccurately classified as felons was powerful. Not a single Senator - not John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, or even Paul Wellstone - is willing to sign on to the motion, effectively burying it. The scene is damning, and depicts a Senate apparently unconcerned about marginalizing an entire segment of the voting public, led by a haughty and obviously conflicted Al Gore.
The Saudi connection - The relationship between the Saudis and the Bushes is well known to political junkies, but perhaps not as well known to the public at large. The movie does a good job of pointing up the extent to which US interests are intertwined with those of the Saudi royal family, but is too narrow in its focus on the Bush family. As Robert Baer points out in his book, Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, the US/Saudi relationship dates back to FDR, and has influenced every American administration since, both Republicans and Democrats.
Midnight raids on Iraqi homes and depictions of Iraqi casualties - While Moore implies that the targets of the raids are innocent without providing any follow-up, the late-night raids themselves, with US soldiers barging in on Iraqi families and yelling in a foreign language, come across as menacing and square with accounts I have read of such raids by Iraqi bloggers. Moore also shows us images of injured or dying Iraqi civilains not seen by the American public during the war itself (even as they were relentlessly hyped in the Arab media). They are a potent reminder that civilian casualties are a reality of every war, no matter how "smart" we think our weapons are.
Military recruitment tactics - The scene in which Marine recruiters zero in on prospects and use hard-sell tactics to persuade them to enlist was uncomfortable to watch, and made me ashamed that our volunteer forces resort to such a manipulative approach to gain recruits. A friend of mine who is a veteran told me that the aggressive recruitment tactics depicted in the film rang true with him and were consistent with his own experience, as well as that of his wife who was also in the service.
Lila Lipscomb - The portions of the film in which a military mother expresses her grief over the loss of her son in Iraq were moving and sobering. They reminded us that, whatever we may think of policies or military strategies, war is fought on the ground by real people - sons and daughters - who sometimes don't come back. Critics have complained that Moore exploits Lila Lipscomb's grief, but it is clear that she is more than willing to participate. Moore wisely keeps himself out of the picture and lets her speak, resulting in some of the most emotional and powerful moments in the film.
However, there were more than a few important things completely missing from Fahrenheit 9/11. Here is an attempt to fill in a few of those gaps:
Images of 9/11 - Moore's artistic decision to use only the soundtrack but no images during the 9/11 attack recap cleverly sidesteps the main reason for the war on terror: we were attacked by people whose main goal is to kill as many of us as possible. Moore wants us to see bleeding Iraqis, but not doomed Americans jumping to their deaths from the burning towers, as it detracts from his thesis that we are the real terrorists.
Radical Islam - I don't have the script in front of me, but I can't recall a single time when mention is made of the idelogy that gave rise to 9/11. Osama bin Laden is shown lounging on a mat on the ground, not issuing fatwas declaring war on the United States. Attacks on Bali, Istanbul, and Madrid are not included, since we are supposed to be the aggressors.
Tony Blair - It would be inconvenient to remind us that it was not just those evil right-wing neocons who pushed for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but also Tony Blair, the left-wing British Prime Minister who paradoxically joined forces with his idelogical opposite because both recognized the tremendous evil of Saddam's regime and the threat posed by it to the civilized world. Blair is shown only for a split-second in a sequence intended to depict Bush as goofing off at Camp David.
Israel - Though not a combatant in either Afghanistan or Iraq, the Jewish state is a favorite bete noir of Moore, but inconvenient as a target in a film pitched to the sensibilities of mainstream Democrats, many of whom see Israel as an embattled democracy fighting an implacable death cult. Moore sees it somewhat differently: in Liverpool he remarked to a crowd in identifying the centers of evil in the world, "It's all part of the same ball of wax, right? The oil companies, Israel, Halliburton."
Saddam Hussein's Iraq - The Iraq depicted in the film is a country of harmless children and innocent victims who are soon decimated by US bombs. Whitewashed are the torture chambers, rape rooms, childrens' prisons, and all the apparatus of the brutal police state that was one of the worse human rights violators on the planet before it was brought down by the US-led coalition.
Iraqi dissidents - In a film that is itself a statement of dissent against the policies of the current US leadership, Moore doesn't have the courage to introduce us to a single Iraqi who attempted to oppose the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. He can't, as it doesn't fit his storyline. After all, it's Moore who is the brave dissident here.
Heroic US soldiers - The soldiers shown are either brainwashed young men turned into killing machines, mowing down innocent Iraqis to a rock soundtrack through their headphones; or they are hapless recruits being led like lambs to the slaughter. There are also injured soldiers and angry soldiers who bitterly question the mission they have been ordered to execute. These people are undeniably real and they are part of the story, but they are vastly outnumbered by soldiers who fought courageously and risked their lives to end Saddam's repressive regime, then turned around to help rebuild Iraqi society. Moore cannot show us these people, since they are heroes rather than monsters or victims.
Since it's Moore's film, he is under no compulsion to show us these things. But isn't it ironic that the first major film about 9/11 and the War on Terror is nearly content-free regarding terrorism itself and the ideologies and states that support it? Moore presents a world in which the 9/11 attacks occurred in a vacuum, and the only true evil was the US response, which is depicted as a cover for everything from Saudi business connections to Afghan pipelines to the creation of an ominous police state. Meanwhile, the deadly intent of terrorist organizations and their state sponsors goes unremarked.
And a significant segment of the public eagerly and uncritically accepts Moore's version of these momentous events. I attended a matinee in a suburban theater. It was 1:40 PM and the house was nearly full. The crowd was mostly middle-aged, and presumably had gained some perspective and was capable of thinking for themselves. Nearby was a woman who sat raptly through each scene, occasionally emitting small outbursts to herself at each revelation: "Aaaahhhh...Yes...Of course..." Her demeanor was of someone eagerly accepting everything told her, never wondering if -- even as she was being clued into possible conspiracies, hidden agendas and Orwellian cover-ups -- pertinent facts were being withheld and/or distorted. When the film ended, the audience gave it a standing ovation. I clapped as well. It was propaganda but it hit home, and obviously touched its audience.
Back in the real world, where people don't obsess over politics and media the way they do in the blogosphere, I checked in with friends as to whether they had seen the movie. Most had not, and few expressed interest in going. They were not against the politics of the movie per se (most of them will vote for Kerry) but they go to the movies generally to be entertained, not to see images of war or to form opinions about politics. These are not dumb or ill-informed people. They have opinions and they vote. They have heard the hype about Moore and his movie and have decided to pass, opting for Spider-Man 2 instead. The are arguably saner and better adjusted than those of us who spend endless hours parsing the political fallout from this film.
Nonetheless, I do worry. Not that the film is showing all over the world, including the Middle East, nor even that it has an enthusiastic and apparently uncritical following. Whatever its merits, "Fahrenheit 9/11" is sparking debates about the nature of politics in the US, and the impact of Bush's foreign policy. These debates are important to have as the world wrestles with the best way to confront the threat of militant Islam. But to have those debates, we need a great deal more information than we will get from Michael Moore. My concern is that the people who are enthusiastically lauding Moore's one-sided vision are forming the nucleus of the new Democratic party. And if that is the case, I fear for our future, just as much as they fear a second Bush term.
UPDATE: Mark Steyn weighs in:
"Connecting the dots" is all very well, but not when you've got more dots in your picture than Seurat.
Also, in case you didn't catch them previously, here are links to my earlier posts on Christopher Hitchens' scathing review, "Unfahrenheit 911", as well as a bit of speculation about whether F-911 will generate the same kind of voter backlash that we saw following the politicized Wellstone memorial service.