Saturday, June 26, 2004

Fahrenheit 9/11

I just saw Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and found it an arresting, if uneven effort. The crowds for the film were remarkable -it was sold out (this on a Saturday afternoon, for a movie with no orcs, light-sabers, or even Jesus). There may be some spoilers in this post, so stop reading if you want to see it with "fresh" eyes. I've lead a lot of vitriol in the press and the web concerning this movie, usually focusing on Mr. Moore's weight and that "fact" that he's crazy. It's certainly a very biased movie in the sense that Mr. Moore has a particular point of view he wishes to espouse. But I've never thought that documentary filmmakers have to exist in some politically neutral ground - for one thing I wouldn't buy it. I bet even those filming tree frogs in Brazil have ideas on free trade, abortion, and taxes. But on to the movie. If you hate Moore - well he is in the movie on screen much less than in Roger & Me. But he is the narrator, so if you suffer seizures like Kramer from Seinfeld when his voice is heard, better skip this one.

It begins with a montage of the 2000 election, which at the time I thought was surreal enough, but Moore casts as a kind of bad dream that he wonders if it actually happened. Less effective is the parade of Democratic Congressmen and women attempting to have the join session of Congress not certify the election. Mr. Gore at that point knew the legal fight was over, and was not interested in pursuing a supra-legal override. The film moves on to show Bush taking numerous vacations in Maine and Texas during the first year of his presidency. The most alarming parts, given what happened, that involve memos and warnings of terrorist plots are a bit unfair in that they don't depict more than some sound bites and shots of vacation fun as the response, without getting into a great deal of detail. 9/11 itself is treated respectfully - Moore does not actually show the planes hitting the tower. The shots of reactions of people in NYC bring back some chilling memories.

The story of Bush's rather unsuccessful business career is told, as is the association of Bush's family with members of the Saudi royal family, and indirectly - usually through the Carlyle Group - with the Bin Laden clan. Itís probably on these points that most of those lambasting Moore as a tinfoil hatter are hanging their arguments. I thought the association with Bin Laden's family not so worrisome as how deeply involved the Saudis in general are with prominent and powerful US politicos. Honestly my readings of "reviews" by some web site made me think that in the film that claims would be made by Moore of Bush knowing what would happen when in fact he makes exactly the opposite claim, that the administration was not sufficiently worried by the chances of terrorist attacks. I know some nut bars out there claim all sorts of vile garbage about Bush, but such claims are not present in this film. Moore implies that Bush is rather too easy on the Saudis considering that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, and Bin Laden himself is from one of it's richest families.

One key point I've read here and there is that Moore incorrectly asserts that the US let some Saudi nationals, including some of the Bin Laden clan, fly out of the US while most commercial traffic was grounded after 9/11. However, Moore specifically narrates that they were let out after September 13th, and seems mostly concerned, via an interview with an ex-FBI terror export, that many of them were not interviewed extensively enough given the magnitude of the attack. Yes, I know Richard Clarke was the official who ordered the evacuation. But I have to doubt the sanity of anyone who thinks the administration was unaware or did not approve of this action. IF they were unaware, thatís actually a worse indictment than approval, don't you think?

The second half of the film drags on a little, although it has many jarring sequences of bombings in Iraq both during the invasion and after the carrier landing and the "Mission Accomplished" sign. Moore's use of footage showing happy Iraqi kids playing and flying kites may be his most off-key moment in the movie. He doesn't so much gloss over Saddam's atrocities as not go into them at all, though it's fair to say they have been covered extensively in other media reports, and here he is addressing other issues. Though I never met Moore, I'd probably most want to rip into him for this sequence. After this scene, one in particular of a grieving Iraqi woman is so raw it lets you know that we are definitely not in a light to heavy mockery of "the man" as in "Roger & Me", which as a film, definitely has more laughs. A sequence of Marine recruiters outside a Flint, Michigan mall hunting down potential recruits is probably the finniest scene in the film. They hunt them down like the salesmen in "Glengarry Glenn Ross" pick leads.

The use of one mom of a soldier provides what has to be the emotional core of the film, though it's not all in one sequence. One in particular of her breaking down outside the White House is almost unbearable in it's anguish. That the administration has not given deep thought to who it's attacking and why, is one of Moore's keynotes, and he makes a fairly convincing case in the context of the film. His known antiwar stances outside this film weaken this point somewhat.

Least effective is when Moore attempts to tie together too much near the end of the film, somehow trying to link increased defense spending with poverty, and the problems of the impoverished leading them to adopt a higher rate of military service as the only jobs available. He's better when pointing out the specific administration foibles, not trying to slap-dash his own socialist mantra onto what is happening.

The most disturbing part of the film for many, myself included, was the portion showing Bush's reacting to the second plane hitting by sitting and reading "My Pet Goat" with schoolchildren for an inexplicable seven minutes. Moore's attempts to guess at what he is thinking are not so convincing - in fact, they are perhaps the second-weakest note in the film. The impression that Bush was waiting for someone to tell him what to do is a worrisome conclusion that's hard to dismiss.

Given Moore's reported factual problems with "Bowling for Columbine", which I have not seen, I am interested in any factual inaccuracies in this film as well. On first viewing, the main problems seem to ones of interpretation and inference, not so much any facts that I noted as being wrong. But overall, it's so rare to see a movie exploring American politics with such naked opinions, compared with the dull, washed up TV news coverage, that it's just not possible to ignore this movie as a major political film of our time.


Update: 6/27 5:43 PM Atrios found that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is encouraging people to go see this film too. I'm guessing this doesn't fit in with the whole Moore-is-an-elitist spin. Now if had been Jeff Gordon...

Update: 6/30 According to the Daily Howler, Moore implies the bin Laden's left the country when no one else could (which isn't true). Perhaps my reading on the issue beforehand coloured my view, but I guess I didn't take the same implication from Moore's description. It's debatable, with an edge to the Howler's POV, I think.

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