Warning: “Fahrenheit 9/11” is a rich film jam-packed with facts, factoids, opinions, interviews, and messages. Unless one recounts every little moment, it is impossible for a review to “spoil” the entire film in a Rosebud-is-his-sled-type manner. Nevertheless, my essay below does reveal certain parts of the film — so if you plan on seeing it and don’t want anything revealed before then, then skip over this article
Let’s be clear about one thing: Michael Moore is a cheap shot artist in every sense of the phrase. By that I mean — he employs the strategy of taking cheap shots . . . and raised it to an art form. Ultimately, that is why “Fahrenheit 9/11” succeeds and fails at the same time.
For me, 98% of F9/11 was old news. If you already know about James Bath, The Carlyle Group, Unocal, and the like, then chances are good that you can probably enjoy the film for his presentational value, rather than its educational value.
In fact, I only learned one new thing from the movie, and even though it is a relatively small matter, I will use it as a launching point to discuss what is both good and bad about F9/11. Okay?
Here’s the “new thing”: In the summer before 9/11, the Bush government welcomed members of the Taliban to the United States in an effort to soften their image and make the more palatable. The Taliban representatives made dog-and-pony shows to the State Department and were paraded before the press.
Moore makes the argument that the Taliban visit had something to do with Bush’s financial interest (through Unocal) in building a pipeline through Afghanistan. In other words, the Bush family financial interest was connected to Unocal’s ability to construct this Afghan pipeline, which depended on the West becoming a little more happy with the Taliban.
Now, when I say that “Moore makes the argument”, I mean to say that Moore doesn’t make the argument — he merely implies it.
You see, throughout the film, Moore often employs an effective, but somewhat annoying, technique — something he also did in “Bowling for Columbine”: Asking the rhetorical question for which the answer has been predisposed.
Here’s a typical example laid out more fully (and it’s a paraphrase since I obviously haven’t committed the movie to memory).
Moore explains the Bush interest in Unocal. Moore explains Unocal’s interest in the Afghanistan pipeline. Moore explains the Taliban visit to the U.S. before 9/11. Moore explains that after 9/11, the number of troops deployed to Afghanistan was small enough only to overthrow the Taliban (but not annihilate it), and virtually ineffective in getting bin Laden. Moore explains that the new President selected to head Afghanistan is Hamid Karzai, who was — wink, wink — a consultant to Unocal on the pipeline. Moore explains that one of Karzai’s first acts was to sign approval of the Unocal pipeline.
Then comes Moore’s voiceover rhetorical question (which, again, I have paraphrased): “Could it be that George Bush, having installed Unocal consultant Armed Kharzi as Afghanistan President and gotten the pipeline deal, was now simply uninterested in capturing bin Laden, the man behind the attacks on America that killed 3000 of our people?”
See what Moore did? He asked a rhetorical question where the answer (based on everything that preceded it) points in one direction — Yes! From all that Moore has laid out, it really looks like George Bush wasn’t all that interested in getting bin Laden, the guy who murdered 3000 Americans!
But sitting there, I asked myself: Do I REALLY believe that? Do I REALLY believe that Bush wasn’t interested in nailing bin Laden?
And that’s what I mean by Moore being a cheap shot artist. Moore builds facts in a certain way in order for the nondiscerning viewer to accept his implied messages — in this example, the message that Bush doesn’t care about getting bin Laden. And for that, we can be highly critical of Moore.
On the other hand, Bush & Co. make it so easy for him to do that. Because just after Moore asks his rhetorical question about Bush not caring about getting bin Laden, he cuts to Bush, saying (of bin Laden): “I don’t know where he is. I have no idea and I really don’t care. It’s not that important. It’s not our priority.”
And suddenly, Moore’s wacky rhetorical implications don’t look all that wacky. (Personally, I still don’t think that Bush sent troops into Afghanistan for financial/pipeline interests, but Moore’s broader point — that Bush has paid minor attention to capture of the murderer of 3000 Americans — is pretty irrefutable). A good portion of the movie is simply Bush & Co. (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Rice, and Powell) eating their words.
And that’s where F9/11 excels — when it is at its snarkiest. Sometimes, that snarkiness is remarkably subtle.
For example, Moore barely mentions the Bush/Vietnam/National Guard issue. It’s only referred to once, in a small detour to get to James Bath (Bush’s buddy who ALSO missed his National Guard obligations, who later became the bin Laden family representative for investments in Bush’s oil businesses).
But when Moore DOES mention Bush’s failure to show up for a required National Guard medical exam, you hear the opening riff (no words, just the riff) of Clapton’s “Cocaine”. Heh. Cheap shot, but . . . heh.
Even subtler was the music Moore put behind the footage of Bush landing on the aircraft carrier. It was the theme to “The Greatest American Hero” — a short-lived 1970’s(?) T.V. show. If I am not mistaken, Moore was making a reference to Gore through a verse of that song:
“Look at what’s happened to me
I can’t believe it myself
Suddenly I’m on top of the world
Should have been somebody else . . .”
I may have been the only one in the theater who got the Gore reference . . . . .
The first third of the film is devoted largely to the financial ties between Bush and the Saudis and the bin Ladens, and this is probably the weakest part. Moore does a good job in explaining the ties — and to his credit, he doesn’t resort to flow charts with arrows and boxes. But in the end, it’s just not entertaining OR that informative. Yes, Bush had ties to the bin Laden family and Saudis. And yes, the bin Laden family was able to fly out of the country after 9/11 without being so much as questioned. And yes, that is embarrassing for our government, and possibly Bush. But beyond that, it doesn’t really SAY much.
However, once the film drifts away from that, and focuses on Iraq, it starts to fly. Moore’s camera becomes a knife. He takes it all on — not just the Iraq war and the pre-emption doctrine itself, but the complacent media, the complacent congressional Democrats, the fear-mongering by Bush, the posturing of homeland security without actually funding it, the abuses of the Patriot Act, etc.
Moore’s images from the front lines in Iraq remind you what war is like. I mean, we instinctively KNOW that innocent people and solders get killed, but they are not mere statistics with Moore. He puts human faces on them, except where their faces have already been blown off.
In one exceptional segment, he touches upon the most under-reported aspect of the Iraq War — the thousands of Americans who have been permanently injured and disabled. When we are all done debating the wisdom of the Iraq War, and the historians will be working on their first drafts of what it was all about, these men and women will be living every day with it (no limbs, nerve damage, etc.). To these fine people, the Iraq War is not an academic debate, or even a political cost-benefit analysis. It’s physical and permanent.
In another exceptional segment, a grieving conservative mother, whose son was killed in Iraq, walks on the mall in front of the White House consumed with her loss. She engages in a discussion with a “peacenik” only to be confronted by a Bush/war supporter. The mother (a one-time war supporter herself) explains that her son died in Iraq and walks away from the confrontation. The Bush supporter (after about ten seconds of thought) calls out to the mother “Blame al Qaeda”. The comment literally causes the grieving mother to double over. Blame al Qaeda for her son’s death in Iraq?!? “The ignorance . . .” the mother moans.
It is clear that Moore loves — literally loves — the American soldier. His commentary towards the end of the film is filled with awe and respect for them. Quietly and somberly, Moore reverently notes how those Americans who typically benefit least from our society (the poor, etc.) are usually the first to join up and put their lives on the line for America’s defense. “All they ask in return,” Moore says, “is that we don’t send them into an unnecessary war.” The viewer is left to ruminate on that for a moment, and then Michael asks the final rhetorical question: “Will they ever trust us again?”
The answer, sadly, is “yes”. But just like Vietnam, it will take another 30 years or so.