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.
The movie works by the primal curiosity that lured people into nickelodeons, the desire to see what comes next in the string of attractions; and unlike some of those nickelodeon operators, Moore makes good on the promise. The blankly stunned face of George W. Bush, already informed about the Trade Center attacks, as he continues to sit in a Florida elementary school classroom reading My Pet Goat with the kids—regardless of how you read it and regardless of Moore’s intrusive voice-over—is what most viewers of Fahrenheit 9/11 will take away with them, and it isn’t something you could have stayed home and watched on TV.
It is curious that many people will go to see this movie simply to get a closer look at the President. There is a gap between any chief executive and his public image, but the mysteriously absent presence of Bush the Second—the sense that he is being endlessly displayed yet fundamentally withheld from view—still seems singular, and in consequence Moore is able to get extraordinary mileage out of moments that are not in themselves shocking revelations: Bush flexing his mouth in what looks like a weird grin before announcing that the war had started, or fumbling the old “Fool me once, shame on you” line, or segueing from talk of terrorism to a demonstration of his golf swing, moments that will probably have more subtly destructive impact than all the mustering of information about Saudi investments or the greed of Halliburton.
We are invited to contemplate the evolution of George W. Bush’s physiognomy over time—or rather the persistence of certain traits which become odder the longer one looks at them: the cracked, side-of-the-mouth smile, the withdrawn gaze, the equal capacity to express haplessness and guile. Eventually Bush becomes a kind of punctuation mark, his remarks seeming increasingly off-key or unfeeling when placed against scenes of gathering horror and grief. This might of course be taken as a belated tribute to the Russian director Lev Kuleshov’s famous demonstration of how the expression of a filmed face appears to change depending on what other footage it is juxtaposed with. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a more piercing quick sketch than the August 1992 interview in which Bush brags almost naively about the enviable “access to power” he enjoys, his father being the president: a moment topped only by the footage of Bush delivering his famous “I’m a war president” remark with a spasmodic detachment that has to be seen to be believed.
You can argue with the use to which these separate pieces are being put, but they fascinate in themselves; they have a built-in complexity that teases out contradictions and grace notes from the broad strokes of Moore’s narrative. Like an obsessed collector Moore brings you things to look at; he says, “Let me show you what I mean,” and what he shows you ends up suggesting meanings beyond his immediate point, meanings that persist as a swirl of potentialities. It’s not that Moore’s materials get away from him, quite the contrary; in fact the hallmark of his films is the way every element has been lovingly handpicked. It’s his evident fascination for what he works with that give his movies their sense of independent life. Dozens of people who emerge, sometimes only for a few seconds, in the course of Fahrenheit 9/11—soldiers and civilians, business reps and state troopers, politicians and people on the street—cling to memory as characters in their own right, beyond whatever polemical point is being made. His greatest gift may be as a casting director.
As a filmmaker Moore displays an imaginative sympathy inseparable from a certain quirkiness, a predilection for the unprogrammed and the unpredictable; that flair for a sort of irrational whimsy cuts deeper than his own more predictable arguments, and where it reaches its limits, gaping holes become manifest. The personalized, “my world and welcome to it” tone can go only so far. Fahrenheit 9/11 sometimes feels like a tour on which the guide conspicuously steers you away from certain rooms. Some of the things that Moore leaves out are merely puzzling, since they would have strengthened the case against the war: he does nothing with Guantánamo and the “enemy combatant” issue, the flap over the identification of Joseph Wilson’s wife as a CIA agent, the negligence with regard to protecting cultural sites and much else in Baghdad, the general lack of planning for the occupation of Iraq. Lack of sufficiently gripping footage may have been a problem for some of these matters; it does, however, seem especially odd that he makes so little of the damning failure to find weapons of mass destruction.
But perhaps to have raised these issues at all would have drawn attention to other and more troubling omissions. This is a film about the September 11 attacks and the war on terror that omits any discussion of al-Qaeda and Islamist radicalism, while drastically fudging its account of the Afghanistan war, and a film on the Iraq war that avoids any discussion of the nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime (Saddam figures exclusively, and fleetingly, as a client of the United States during the 1980s). Iraqi life under Saddam Hussein is represented, in a sequence that seems almost a parody of the generic propaganda film, by a montage of happy wedding parties, bustling restaurants, a little boy flying a kite, a little girl going down a slide: all of it brutally interrupted by the American bombs. Moore seems reluctant to allow the opposition to express any coherent argument, even if only to knock it down, just as in Bowling for Columbine the arguments for gun ownership rights were entrusted to an unprepared and visibly frail Charlton Heston and to the wild-eyed brother of Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols.
Fahrenheit 9/11 is not, finally, a movie about Iraq or Afghanistan, and evidently is not intended to be: it’s a movie about America and Americans. The bloody scenes of the Iraq war that follow the dubious montage mentioned above have a frightening effectiveness not because they illuminate in any way the conflicts within Iraqi society but because they demonstrate the unbridgeable gap between the American soldiers and the place where they find themselves. It’s as if Moore identified so much with the bewilderment of those soldiers that he can only give us their point of view. The Iraqis themselves are an indistinguishable mass of suffering and resentment, with no distinctions made among different allegiances within the culture: the result, at worst, is another dubious moment where the soundtrack gives us party music—“Come on, party people, throw your hands in the air”—in synch with a crowd of insurgents raising their rifles, who are thereby made to look like a parody of the Arab raiders in some desert adventure movie.
Here as elsewhere in the film Moore has a tendency to make easy caricatural use of any footage involving exotics, whether from Saudi Arabia or Costa Rica. The American soldiers on the other hand are made to seem thoroughly familiar even when they are talking about getting pumped up on a record by the Bloodhound Gang when riding into battle (“The roof is on fire… Burn, motherfucker, burn!”) or abusing a bound prisoner in Abu Ghraib fashion (a voice redolent of ancient summer camp hazing rituals howls, “You touched his dick!”).
It is toward America—toward Flint—that the film inevitably returns, and it is here that Moore finally clarifies where he has been heading all along. We get to know a woman named Lila Lipscomb who works at the local employment service; she talks about encouraging her children to join the military because of the educational and travel benefits it offers; and we watch as she tells of learning about her son’s death in a helicopter crash in Iraq. In her sincere patriotism, her sorrow, and her rage against a war which her son denounced in his last letter home, she becomes the foil to Bush, an embodiment of everything he is not. (Her presence, and her own articulation of her feelings, is so directly moving that it seems a lapse on Moore’s part to intercut a shot of Bush speaking—in a way that in this context can only seem inadequate if not perfunctory—about the grief of those who have lost loved ones in the war.) It is to acknowledge the simple and irrefutable point that the war is happening not just in Iraq and not just on TV but in America that we have been guided through a hall of mirrors to wind up in something like our own backyard.
We are taken, for example, to a shopping mall in Flint to watch two Marine recruiters ply their trade among the mostly African-American youths hanging out there. It’s a memorable scene—funny, informative about the aggressive yet seductive way in which Marine recruiters do what they do, and quietly devastating in the line it draws between what is said here and what happens in Iraq. This is a moment where Moore folds the movie back into his own life; for me it also triggered the kind of spontaneous reaction that Fahrenheit 9/11 is expertly designed to elicit. I found myself recollecting an afternoon in late August 2001, in a laundromat at another shopping mall, in upstate New York. The wall-mounted TV tilting down over the dryers was tuned to a seemingly interminable documentary about the arduous training of Army Special Forces, a kind of cinematic recruiting poster that evoked simultaneously the action aesthetic of the Die Hard movies and the ferocious camaraderie associated with the warrior cults of 1930s Germany or Japan. After the movie ended it was followed by another in identical style, devoted to the training of Navy SEALS. The afternoon began to take on a disorienting and disturbing quality. Between the poverty of the people in the laundromat—a substantial portion of the town’s population was on welfare and out of work—and the unrelieved stridency of the military infomercials, I’d had a sense of glimpsing a possible American future I hadn’t quite dared to imagine, of increasingly limited economic prospects and a culture increasingly devoted to the worship of armed force.
A few weeks later—displaced from my lower Manhattan home by the events of September 11—I had occasion to remember that afternoon in the laundromat. By then, however, my concern was not so much with the overbearing aggressiveness of the recruiting films as with the question of whether those elite forces were really as good as they were cracked up to be. In short order so many signs were reversed, so many recent events either buried or reconceived. Days lasted years and opinions and moods took drastic and unexpected turns, as the news bulletins of the morning—the alarms over impending attacks, the freshly revealed evidence of some other hidden band of fanatical conspirators, the latest incident of anthrax contamination, the siege of Tora Bora that for a giddy moment promised to restore order with a decisive victory in the old style—often gave way by nightfall to some fresh and contradictory line of rumor or suspicion. Little could be relied on. A kind of walking amnesia set in, in which events moved too fast to allow people fully to remember what had happened just before. In the grip of an inexorable forward lurch into the next war—the blame for which could be endlessly debated, endlessly fine-tuned—we stumbled into a future there had not been time even to anticipate.
Moving so quickly into the future, even the very recent past seemed to evaporate with no trace. “Was it all just a dream?” asks Michael Moore in voice-over at the beginning of Fahrenheit 9/11. “Did the last four years not really happen?” The image on the screen is of fireworks going off as Al Gore—in the company of Robert De Niro and Stevie Wonder—prepares to celebrate his election to the presidency in November 2000. The music has a Bernard Herrmannish tone of lyrical anxiety. The moment is unexpectedly magical, and functions, like much of what follows, in a way that goes beyond polemic. Simply by making the recent past visible—by bringing these little pieces of reality into the movie theater—Moore unleashes a reservoir of feeling. It’s almost like the symbolic breaking of a spell: we can begin to remember everything that we had almost started to forget.
Fahrenheit 9/11 serves as a necessary reminder that, to put it in the simplest terms, we need to see and hear more than the government and the various news channels allow us to see and hear. We need to play back the tapes to refresh our memory of what seems consigned to instant oblivion even as it unfolds. We need to see those images—of Americans and Iraqis alike wounded and dying, for example—that American television tends to withhold, as if the reality of the war could thereby be kept at bay. Michael Moore’s version of what has been happening lately is only one possible narrative; but by its very existence it encourages a more active, more confrontational approach to the images that surround us, anything to break through the numbing effect of the endless flow of TV news broadcasts and official bulletins that has become something like the wallpaper of a distorted public reality, a stream of images that moves forward without ever looking back.
The opening of Fahrenheit 9/11—which has set attendance records for a documentary—generated some responses that might have been extensions of the movie itself. The clumsy attempt by a group calling itself Move America Forward to pressure theaters into not showing the film; the possibly more effective attempt by Citizens United to block the film’s television ads; the comparison by Bill O’Reilly on the Fox News Channel of those who applauded the film at its première to “people who would turn out to see Josef Goebbels convince you that Poland invaded the Third Reich,” or the feverish musings of Kathleen Antrim in the San Francisco Examiner (“Will his warped film ignite more violence and provide further provocation for terrorists? Could they be showing this film in al-Qaeda camps to fire up the terrorists?”): Michael Moore couldn’t have scripted it better if he had wanted to underscore his warnings about the toll that the war on terror is taking on public discourse.