Michael Moore doesn’t so much make documentaries as make movies with documents: if, that is, the term “documentary” has any more descriptive precision than, say, “nonfiction.” In his first film, Roger & Me (1989), Moore invented for himself—and more or less perfected—the genre in which he has continued to work: call it first-person polemic, or expressionist bulletin board, or theatricalized Op-Ed piece. Roger & Me tells the story of how General Motors cut its losses in Flint, Michigan, without any regard for the fate of the workers left behind, and turns it into a whimsical quest by Moore for an interview with GM’s chairman, Roger Smith. Along the way, an assortment of found footage—home movies, promotional films, TV newscasts, performance clips featuring celebrities on the order of Anita Bryant and Pat Boone, scenes from old Hollywood pictures—are interwoven with the staged encounters that have become Moore’s trademark, in which various spokespersons and security officers are enlisted as bit players in a comically timed confrontation with authority.
Points are made through shamelessly broad devices—the Beach Boys sing “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” over relentless tracking shots of wrecked and abandoned housing in Flint, Roger Smith delivers an unctuous Christmas oration, complete with a reading from Charles Dickens, while a sheriff’s deputy in Flint evicts a family put out of work by the GM plant closings—and somehow, through all of this comical and at times blatantly theatrical business, a story does get told about the very real effects of an economic catastrophe, and about the apparent indifference to its human consequences on the part of those who made the managerial decisions. It has been told not so much through Moore’s tendentious voice-overs as through the dozens of people, from unemployed auto workers to the receptionist at Roger Smith’s health club, whose gazes and vocal inflections and gestures Moore so artfully and deliberately juxtaposes. After fifteen years, Roger & Me still looks great.
Substituting the administration of George W. Bush for General Motors, Moore’s new film, Fahrenheit 9/11, could almost be a remake of Roger & Me. While operating on a larger scale, it draws on the same formal devices and leads to the same broad and simple conclusion, a conclusion with which Charles Dickens might well have had some empathy: that the big shots do things for their own self-serving reasons and don’t give a damn about you or me or all the others who maneuver for temporary advantage in a situation not of their choosing. Indeed, in Fahrenheit, as in his previous film, Bowling for Columbine (2002), Moore eventually brings the movie back to Flint, as if to reaffirm a core of personal experience as his center even when contemplating the most far-flung events. This stubborn subjectivity, grounded in local knowledge, and reinforced by habitual gestures and comic tics, is strained in his new movie almost to the breaking point as he incorporates as much as he can of the history of the past four years, but it is something he can’t afford to lose. If he isn’t the hometown guy from Flint, with the skeptical eye and the deceptively laid-back manner, then who is he?
Moore’s persona has by now taken on a somewhat stylized quality, but at the same time it has receded into the position of a mere structural device, a functionally effective way of getting the tale told. The effectiveness of the telling is in a sense what Fahrenheit 9/11 is about. Its fiction is that one man—not a lecturer or the representative of a political party, but somebody you might meet at a party or in a bar—is telling you according to his own lights what’s been going on in the world lately. He’s funny, stridently opinionated, occasionally eloquent, and on top of that he has a fund of anecdotes and visual aids to back up his story; from time to time, without interrupting the thread of his discourse, he changes the music on the sound system to produce some startling and amusing effects. What makes it all the more persuasive is that, at every step, he reminds you in devastating detail how ineptly or deceptively others have told their versions of this same story. The proof of their ineptitude or deception is that he’s telling things you haven’t heard before, and showing you pictures that seem to speak for themselves. It’s not a story about a well-hidden conspiracy: all you have to do, he implies, is look around. You could step outside the room where you’re sitting and pick up the trail anywhere, right on the street.
His version of the story begins with how George W. Bush was elected to the presidency under dubious circumstances and settled into what promised to be a single mediocre term until he was jolted awake by the attacks of September 11; how his response to those attacks was muddied by, among other factors, longstanding business ties to the Saudi royal family; how the Bush administration used the war on terror as a means to instill fear in the American public and erode civil liberties through the Patriot Act, while failing actually to protect homeland security; and, finally, how (for reasons having much to do with oil profits, and nothing to do with the horrific nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime) an invasion of Iraq was mounted after deliberately misleading the public about Saddam’s weaponry and links to al-Qaeda. The upshot is that poor people who have joined the military for lack of other employment end up dead and wounded in the service of a lie. A final quotation from Orwell’s 1984 is used to suggest that the Iraq war is part of a wider and inherently unfinishable global war whose real purpose is to keep power in the hands of America’s economic elite.
This bald synopsis, admittedly the further simplification of a simplification, entirely fails to convey his film’s very real power. It does not unfold like a lecture but like the tour of a fun house, a fun house whose mirrors and skewed angles turn out to be a place all too easy to recognize as home. Strangely for so overtly polemical a work, Fahrenheit 9/11 can be seen as a triumph of form over content. What is least persuasive about it is the specifics of its arguments; what is exhilarating and often moving about it has to do above all with the materials, many of them archival and many not seen before, which are enlisted in support of those arguments, materials that linger and expand in the mind in ways that go far beyond the sometimes casually deployed debating points. We may never know just why the name of James Bath (a fellow National Guardsman with whom George W. Bush trained in Texas, and who later participated in a business deal involving both Bush and a member of the bin Laden family) was expunged from the officially released transcript of Bush’s military records, or whether or not the desire of certain business interests to build a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan significantly impeded American response to the Taliban and al-Qaeda; and in any event Moore as a rule only conveys enough information to arouse suspicion, not nearly enough to begin to make a case.
But then making a case, well reasoned or otherwise, is not really what the movie, or Moore as a filmmaker, is about. Fahrenheit 9/11 can be regarded as more or less the movie version of his book Dude, Where’s My Country?, which lays out in a fairly slapdash style many of the same charges: about undue Saudi influence on the Bush family, about the proposed Unocal pipeline as a determinant of American policy in Afghanistan, and about the administration’s deliberate fear-mongering since September 11. Like many another movie version of a potentially controversial book, Fahrenheit 9/11 tones down some of the material. The book, for instance, explicitly “throw[s] out a possibility” of direct Saudi responsibility for the September 11 attacks, suggesting that it might have been “not a ‘terrorist’ attack, but, rather, a military attack against the United States,” and goes so far as to state, “There is no terrorist threat”—or rather, to give the full flavor of Moore’s prose, “THERE…IS…NO… TERRORIST…THREAT!” (He quickly, if not very convincingly, qualifies this: “Now, when I say there is no terrorist threat, I am not saying that there are no terrorists, or that there are no terrorist incidents, or that there won’t be other terrorist incidents in the future…. But just because there are a few terrorists does not mean we are all in some exaggerated state of danger”—except, that is, from “our own multi-millionaire, corporate terrorists.”)
It must be said that Moore is a good deal less persuasive when he doesn’t have his audiovisual displays at his disposal. On the bare page he is the artist stripped of his tools, however strange a statement that may be to make about an author whose books sell in the millions of copies. Funny as he sometimes is in print, Moore finally cannot resist bludgeoning the reader into submission with his reductive prose:
Everyone—except those who die in it—loves a good war, especially one you can win quickly. We, good. Them, bad. Them, dead. We win! Cue the cameras, the victorious POTUS is landing on the aircarrier.
In Fahrenheit 9/11 the gist of this passage is conveyed, to quite different effect, by a clip from the early days of the Iraq war of the TV anchorwoman Katie Couric chirping “I just want you to know I think Navy Seals rock!” and by actual footage of Bush on that aircraft carrier, beneath the now notorious MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner, the scene underscored by the maddeningly buoyant theme of the early 1980s TV show The Greatest American Hero (“Suddenly I’m up on top of the world,/Shoulda been somebody else./Believe it or not I’m walking on air,/I never thought I could feel so free”). Rather than a succession of slogans and one-liners that become tiresome even if you agree with them, the film offers signs captured from the air, little pieces of the environment we inhabit. An overt connoisseurship of sources comes into play. The fun that Moore has mixing his materials—including the fairly cheap fun of the Dragnet clips, the Bonanza bit with Bush and Company riding off to Afghanistan, the music video effect of REM’s “Shiny Happy People” as backdrop to scenes of Bushes and Saudis socializing together, the World Wrestling–style roll call of the Coalition of the Willing—is meant to be shared by an audience sufficiently at home with all forms of sampling and downloading to take a virtually professional interest in the fine points of Moore’s mix tape.
The movie constantly reinforces the audience’s expectation that it will be shown unexpected things: things that are merely amusing, whether the amateurish enthusiasm of John Ashcroft singing his own composition “Let the Eagle Soar” or the exquisite lip-glossed vacuousness of Britney Spears expressing her unquestioning support for the President; things you’ve forgotten, or never caught the first time around, like Prince Bandar reminiscing on Larry King Live about his single meeting with Osama bin Laden; and things you’ve never seen at all, the slightly pained expression on Colin Powell’s face as he endures a photo op with a Saudi dignitary, or Bush humorously addressing a group of ultrarich campaign supporters (“Some people call you the elite, I call you my base”); footage that was never shown, or that was truncated when shown, or that was shown only in other countries and would not have been allowed on American TV. There are Moore’s signature stunts, although fewer than usual—like accosting congressmen and asking them to encourage their children to join the military—and the confrontations that fall into place so neatly they seem almost to have been set up, like Moore being questioned by Secret Service agents for standing across the street from the Saudi embassy.