Unless you've been on a long cruise to nowhere without access to
any media, you are probably aware of Michael Moore's new film
FAHRENHEIT 9/11. There was the controversy over Disney blocking
its subsidiary Miramax from distributing the film. There was the acclaim
and award at Cannes. There was the attempt to change its rating from
an R to PG-13. There's the advertising campaign that is calling it "the
most controversial movie of the year!"
Well, I hesitate to call FAHRENHEIT 9/11 a "documentary," for
just like his last effort, the over praised Academy Award winning
BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, Moore takes the conventions of the
nonfiction film and bends them to the breaking point. Instead of
maintaining neutrality or even searching for a universal truth -- say, by
presenting all sides of an argument -- Moore instead offers his opinions
fully expecting the audience to accept them unquestionably. When
discrepancies are pointed out, he hides behind the banner of satire.
Also, he is (usually) a major player in his films -- participating in
some stunt that is meant to drive home his point. What gets up on
screen is more of an editorial than a documentary. Some might even
label it propaganda. I wouldn't quite go that far, although it flirts
dangerously close to that level.
When Moore accepted his Oscar, he delivered a speech about
a "fictitious president" and his "fictitious war [in Iraq]" -- so naturally
he decided to make that the topic of his next film. The opening of
FAHRENHEIT 9/11 muses on the 2000 presidential election and the
whole debacle of the voter count in Florida. It would perhaps carry
more weight if it weren't widely known that Michael Moore was a
vocal supporter of Ralph Nader, whose third party run in that
election was just as much responsible for George W. Bush's election
as the mishaps in the Sunshine State. Of course, the targets are
easier, when Florida's governor is a member of the Bush family. Now,
one little thing that Moore does point out -- but then drops -- is that
it was the Fox network that was the first to declare Bush the victor
in Florida . . . and that the man who made the call was a cousin of
Bush's. But to what end? The matter is raised and dropped quickly.
Admittedly, there's an irony to the next sequence as Al Gore as
President of the Senate has to oversee the election results that lead
to his losing the Presidency. Especially as African-American members
of the House of Representatives step up to raise issues of the
disenfranchisement of black voters. They're efforts are in vain, since
the rules require a senator's signature and not one member of the
Senate was willing to sign off on the matter.
Prior to the events of September 11, 2001, Bush's presidency
was under a cloud and he spent much of his time on vacation at his
ranch in Texas -- which does offer Moore a chance to take some
softball shots. The filmmaker's handling of the events of
September 11th do induce chills -- at least for this New Yorker.
I live in Greenwich Village and watched the building crumble. The fact
that friends of mine both knew passengers on the hijacked planes or
had relatives who perished at the World Trade Center makes it incredibly
difficult for me to watch any footage of that day. Moore effectively
manages to make that terrible event gut-wrenching. That it is
juxtaposed with film of the President sitting for several minutes
reading My Pet Goat with a group of schoolchildren instead of
jumping into action inspires anger. But Moore doesn't trust that
the images of Bush alone will do that -- he has to add a snarky
voice-over that undercuts his message.
Indeed, in my opinion, this is Moore's failings as a filmmaker.
He has to insert himself into the action at inopportune moments.
Sometimes, it can be effective, as when he commandeers an ice
cream truck and drives by the Capitol reading aloud the Patriot Act
after one congressman tells him that no member of Congress ever
reads a bill in its entirety before voting on it. Other times, as when
he attempts to corral members of Congress to sign up their children
for military service simply smacks of grandstanding.
Moore wisely keeps his appearances to a minimum. Still, there
are mixed messages in the images he presents. He has footage
from embedded journalist where the soldiers are quite gung ho
about their mission to strafe Iraq. There are mild scenes of
prisoner abuse that foreshadow the revelations about Abu Ghraib,
and an extraneous sequence of a military raid on Christmas Eve
in Iraq. Later, he shows a few of the men who've been permanently
injured and maimed. First we get the images of the killing machine,
then we're asked to sympathize with the walking wounded. It's a
little strange, to say the least. (Also, the majority of the soldiers
interviewed in Iraq are Caucasian -- which seemingly contradicts
Moore's later allegations that the military is comprised mostly of
minority recruits.) As with much of his film, he seemingly doesn't
expect anyone to notice or question his methods or means.
Along the way, Moore does introduce one woman from his
hometown of Flint, Michigan, who emerges as the film's heart and
lends a real touch of human emotion. She's Lila Lipscomb, a former
welfare mother whose two oldest children served in the military. Her
daughter was a veteran of the first Gulf War while her son served
in Iraq. When she recounts hearing of his death and reads a poignant
letter home from him, her grief and heartbreak is palpable.
Mrs. Lipscomb's visit to Washington, DC, where she wants to get
near the White House and perhaps even confront the President,
contains all the elements of a Greek tragedy. At one point, a women
steps in front of the camera and claims "This is all staged!" And in
a brief and telling moment, Lila Lipscomb responds to her in a
moment of pure drama. Moments like that elevate Moore's polemic
piece into the realm of art. Unfortunately, they are too few.
MPAA Rating: R for violent images and language
Running time: 116 mins.
|© 2005 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.