Fail to the Chief
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Buy Fahrenheit 9/11 on DVD
When Marilyn Manson appeared in Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine with some of the most sage wisdom in the entire film, many viewers were surprised. But that's nothing compared to Britney Spears in Fahrenheit 9/11, stating that Americans should not question their leaders and should trust that they are doing what's best for everyone.
That scene could be the key to the rift that divides America at the moment. Those who support President George W. Bush do not question him and those who do not support him do. It's no secret which group Moore belongs to.
I have seen all four of Moore's documentaries (I skipped his fiction film Canadian Bacon) and have reviewed three of them as a critic. I've enjoyed them all, but have always kept them at a certain distance. I consider Moore a maker of personal essays -- or even propaganda films -- filled with opinion and emotional manipulation as well as facts.
I tried to look at Moore's new film Fahrenheit 9/11 with a certain amount of distance and respect, but I was an easy target. I am a frustrated American who does not support Bush, and I found myself whipped into a frenzy.
Moore opens the floodgates just as one would expect, with a humorous attack on the president and his obvious shortcomings. According to the film, Bush spent 42% of his first eight months in office on vacation. We see him talking about armadillos on his Texas ranch with more passion and clarity than he's ever spoken about the affairs of the state.
But then Moore's film takes a turn. Whereas the unkempt filmmaker with his ratty baseball cap usually appears on camera most of the time, he stays on the sidelines here. His narration is almost matter-of-fact, as if it shames him to point out such things about the President of the United States.
In one scene, Moore makes a point about how, while thousands of young soldiers are dying in Iraq, only one U.S. Congressman has an enlisted child serving there. He does one of his famous walk-ons, accompanied by a military recruiter, to stop various Congresspersons on Capitol Hill to ask if they'd like to enlist their children.
In Moore's other films, these scenes are often the funniest, but this time Moore underscores it with deliberately sad music. At the scene's end, he declares that he wasn't able to sign up a single politician's offspring for military service in Iraq. "Can you blame them?" he asks.
Moore also spends a good deal of time with one Lila Lipscomb, a proud American mother with many family members in the military. She hangs an American flag on her window every morning, taking great care to see that it doesn't touch the ground. Her daughter served in President George H.W. Bush's Desert Storm and returned alive. But when her son dies in Iraq, she reads his final letter to the camera. The son has become disillusioned with the war and with his president. He prays that Bush is not re-elected.
Mrs. Lipscomb sheds a lot of tears for Moore's camera, but none more than when she visits the White House. Just standing outside, she says that she has found a place where she can direct her anger and frustration.
Fahrenheit 9/11 uses emotional manipulation of this kind as its main weapon, notably the sequences in which Moore draws connections to the Bush family and members of the bin Laden family. He reports that while most planes were grounded two days after the September 11 attacks, 142 Saudis and bin Ladens were quickly and neatly evacuated. A former FBI agent interviewed for the film insists that, under standard procedure, these people should have been at least questioned. He wonders why these people were protected, given the staggering proportions of this tragedy.
The film also connects Bush's father to the Saudis, and shows him visiting them and shaking their hands even after the 9/11 attacks. He also shows the now-familiar connection between Vice President Dick Cheney, his company Halliburton, and the huge profits being made in Iraq. Finally, he interviews Congressman/psychiatrist Jim McDermott, who concurs that the Bush administration is using fear to rule the people by raising and lowering the colored "terrorist alert" at their own whim.
Unlike a work of journalism, the film merely stops after showing these connections, leaving the viewer to finish the job in his or her imagination. That's where Fahrenheit 9/11 gets most of its power. Directly accusing this administration of wrongdoing would be met with disbelief or even violent opposition. But merely suggesting and raising doubt is a much more powerful tool.
Near the end, Moore interviews an injured soldier who confesses that he has been a Republican for a number of years, but now says that Republicans "conduct business in a very dishonest way." The soldier vows that when he gets home, he will go to work doing anything he can to help the Democrats.
The thing that Moore accomplishes above all in Fahrenheit 9/11 is to debunk the myth that people who do not support Bush also hate America. Moore gently kids groups such as Peace Fresno, a group of sweatshirt-wearing, cookie-munching people who meet and talk about world peace. But he treats American soldiers with deadly earnestness. He muses -- not without a bit of awe -- that many of them come from impoverished sections of America, such as his beloved hometown of Flint, Michigan. "They fight so that we don't have to," he says.
Yes, I was an easy target. Moore's film had tears in my eyes, my stomach in knots and my brain spinning. But if it gets people to start questioning their leaders and asking how much we are willing to let them get away with, then it will have done a service.
DVD Details: The most important DVD release of the year comes with several featurettes: "The Release of Fahrenheit 9/11," "Iraq, Pre-War," "Homeland Security, Miami Style," "Outside Abu Ghraib Prison," "Lila, D.C." (Lila Lipscomb at the Washington D.C. premiere), Arab-American comedians: Their acts and experiences after 9/11, an extended interview with Abdul Henderson, "Condi 9/11" (Condoleezza Rice's 9/11 Commission testimony) and "Bush Rose Garden" (George W. Bush's full press briefing after 9/11 Commission appearance).