Michael Moore’s newest documentary, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” isn’t the first film to clash his blend of staunch liberalism with standing capitalistic traditions, but it is the most important of the bunch and the first to be released during an election year; aimed at one specific target: the Bush administration. While several facts are easily disputable, such as the relationship between Osama and his extended bin Laden family, many are not -- such as the fact that Bush spent most of his first eight months as president in Texas, at his private ranch playing golf, fishing, hunting, chopping trees, and telling reporters that if they don’t understand his work schedule, then they don’t understand the meaning of work.
The documentary opens with images from the 2000 election, and a narration by Moore himself wondering if it was all a dream. We are immediately brought inside the chambers of Congress during the ratification of Bush's victorious election. According to the rules, an election can be debated at the request of one senator and one representative; but in 2000, not one senator joined the 10 representatives; eight black women, a black man and an Asian congresswoman. In what is perhaps a bitterly sardonic tribute to our world’s-best government structure, each congressman is silenced by the man they want to make president, Vice President Al Gore, chairman of the congressional session and President of the Senate, unable to allow his colleagues to speak any further without the necessary petition from a senator.
We then shift into the workings the Bush presidency and his secret plans to attack Iraq. In complete darkness Moore leaves the screen black so we can concentrate on the sounds of the planes smashing into the World Trade Center. Eventually we get into the illegitimacy of the Iraq war and the consequences we must deal with. It’s gripping but because it’s also sensitive. One cannot help but be touched if not angered when we are introduced to Lila Lipscomb, a former welfare recipient and state employee, a character all too commonly seen in Moore’s films. Her son, Michael Pedersen, was a marine in Iraq and killed in Karbala one week after mailing her a letter questioning the president’s reasons for sending him and the rest of the military to fight in an unjustifiable war. In the most moving part of the documentary, Mrs. Lipscomb tearfully reads the last letter her son will ever write to her.
Effective? Most definitely, but it isn’t Moore’s craftsmanship behind the camera that’s choking up the audience, it’s the pain and anguish of Mrs. Lipscomb. But Moore does get the credit for bringing it to us, and the graphic war footage of dead and injured Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers our media has conveniently censored. For that, there’s an untouchable value to Moore’s films even if you don’t agree with his politics.
But as usual, Moore often misses the target and contradicts himself. In one segment, soldiers are shown mocking Iraqi civilians and looking like immature imbeciles, but in the end he calls them the finest young people in our country who’ve “giving the best gift to America.” At one point he expresses a need to find the terrorists in our country but dismisses the intrusion of the USA Patriot Act.
A clip from the third of March, weeks before the Iraq invasion, shows Iraqi children dancing in a playground and having a good time. One of the kids is getting a haircut. I couldn’t help but wonder what Moore was trying to say here. Was Iraq a fine place to live in before the U.S. invasion? Is the kid flying a kite down the street supposed to represent freedom they already had before being liberated?
But these examples of bias and an anti-war agenda are often met with the indefensible, such as the video showing Bush reading My Pet Goat to a classroom of elementary schoolchildren in Florida as nearly 3,000 Americans lay dying in the rubble from the worst terrorist attack our nation has ever suffered. And yet Bush continued to read even after being informed of the second plane strike for nearly seven minuets. The camera lingers on his puzzled face and Moore explains, “with no one there to tell him what to do, he just sat there.” It’s blunt, but no conservative Bush-cheerleader can defend that.
Other parts of the film are more sketchy, such as the relationship between the Bush family and the wealthy Saudi Arabians who’ve invested more than $1.4 billion in Bush family businesses. So well the Saudis are treated that their embassy in Washington gets Secret Service protection, which, says one agent who confesses to Moore in front of the camera, is unusual as the Secret Service is supposed to be an Executive benefit.
Furthermore, we get a look at the uncensored version of the military records released by Bush used to explain his absence from the Texas Air National Guard. Moore’s copy of his record shows the name of a pilot which was blacked out. We learn his name is James R. Bath, and became the money manager for the bin Ladens and helped them invest in Bush’s energy companies. When a group of 9/11 victims and survivors filed a lawsuit against the Saudis for supposedly financing al-Qaida, they hired James Baker, the secretary of State for Bush's father, to defend them.
For the most part I was impressed by Moore’s case leading to an unhealthy relationship between our president and possible terrorists backers, but then Moore slips in a quick montage containing clips from the past 20 years showing every member in Bush’s cabinet at one point or another shaking hands with a Saudi. That’s kind of what you do when you’re the president; shake hands with people.
One too many times Moore unfairly ambushes the members of Bush’s administration, using pre-live footage of them preparing to speak when the camera is supposed to be off. Surely footage of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz using his saliva to slick back his hair is unflattering, but it by no means makes him a villain. And poor Attorney General John Ashcroft. Not only does Moore all too eagerly explain how he lost his senate re-election to a “dead guy” -- even worse, Moore shows him singing one of his self-composed patriotic ballads. Even Britney Spears gets the Moore treatment for daring to credit President Bush when she said “we should trust him.”
To have given “Fahrenheit 9/11” the raving review so many other critics have, I would have had to grasp the full purpose of the film. Other than trying to prove what an incompetent twit President Bush may be, where else was the film going? Are the soldiers good guys for giving us the “greatest gift” or are they criminals for torturing innocent Iraqis? If Afghanistan was just a diversion to get ready for the bigger picture...Iraq, then should we not have invaded Afghanistan at all?
“Fahrenheit 9/11” isn’t as humorous or satirical as last year’s documentary, “Bowling for Columbine,” but it may make the biggest impact on American audiences. And even though Moore doesn’t tell us anything new, at least to those of us who follow politics, his message will be delivered -- and received as shown by a rousing standing ovation I witnessed at the end of an 11:30 AM screening. Will “Fahrenheit 9/11” make a difference in this year’s election? Depending on how well it fares against upcoming mega-blockbuster “Spiderman 2,” we will soon find out.