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"Fahrenheit 9/11" Review

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Title: Fahrenheit 9/11

Starring: Michael Moore and George W. Bush

Written by: Michael Moore

Directed by: Michael Moore

Rating: R for some violent and disturbing images, and for language.


Review by Stephen Silver

At the beginning of "Fahrenheit 9/11," director Michael Moore asks if the last four years of history were "just a dream." But in reality, Bush's election was the best thing to ever happen to Michael Moore. He's had two best-selling books, two successful movies, an Academy Award, a Palme d'Or at Cannes, admiring fans worldwide, and millions of dollars. More than almost any American I can think of, Michael Moore is much better off than he was four years ago.

But knowing Moore, of course, that is not the sort of impression we can expect to get from his latest film. "Fahrenheit 9/11" plays as almost an alternate history of the past four years, depicting George W. Bush as the world's primary villain, while Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-Il and the like are more or less innocent bystanders. As though the U.S. weren't actually at war with barbarians who would like nothing better than to kill every American, Michael Moore included.

It's entertaining at times and heartbreaking at others, and political opponents of Moore (myself included) are likely to have fun taking it apart point by point. But propaganda, alas, it remains. In the end, "Fahrenheit 9/11" is both a highly demagogic and highly dishonest piece of work, full of the same irrational fearmongering that Moore so claims to despise. And it's very clear that its Palme d'Or, and all its subsequent acclaim, has come not despite these facts, but rather because of them.

Moore spends the film's two-hour-plus running time throwing just about every anti-Bush argument imaginable up on screen, just to see what sticks. Some do, yes- but the fact that others contradict one another while still others are irrelevant don't seem to bother the filmmaker; as long as he pleases the crowd, legitimate argumentation is beside the point.

For instance, Moore spends the entire first third of the movie establishing the Bush family's historic business relationship with various Saudis, as well as with the bin Laden family specifically. The issue of government complicity with the Saudi regime is certainly an issue worth examination- but if the U.S. was willing to invade Iraq over the Saudis' strenuous objections, then what is Moore's point? In the Iraq section of the film, Saudi Arabia is barely mentioned, if at all.

Moore alternates, throughout the film, from depicting American soldiers as innocent victims, then as ruthless thrill-killers, and then back again. Anti-terror measures are either too stringent, or not stringent enough, depending on the scene. Either Bush has been planning to invade Iraq since he took office, or his administration was calling Saddam "no threat" as recently as 2001. We're given the impression that the government disproportionately targets blacks for military service, but nearly every American soldier depicted in the Iraq footage is white.

We're told that the terror-alert system is mere "fearmongering," but then that average Americans don't understand the threat and thus aren't prepared us for another attack (giving Moore an opportunity to indulge in one of his specialties, mock-the-yokels humor). The film doesn't seem to care about the contradictions, so long as they all make the president look bad.

As for the Bush/bin Laden connections, is Moore attempting to insinuate that Bush was a co-conspirator in the 9/11 plot? He doesn't say it, so I'm assuming that he isn't. So then why does it make any difference that the families had a connection? The bin Laden family- which disowned Osama years ago- consists of thousands of people, and they oversee the mosques in Mecca and Medina. That Osama attended one of their weddings, as Moore tells us, doesn't mean the terror kingpin had any ties to the bin Ladens in the U.S.

There's also a section alleging U.S. complicity with the Taliban regime, which argues, extremely weakly, either that the invasion of Afghanistan was wrong, or that Bush purposely let bin Laden get away. But Moore doesn't seem to believe in this argument, as he only spends about three minutes on it. Indeed, the worst thing "Fahrenheit 9/11" has to say about either bin Laden or Saddam Hussein is that they had connections to Bush and/or his cronies- and when a pre-war Iraq is depicted by Moore's cameras as peaceful and idyllic place, we're given no indication that it was, for three decades, a vicious totalitarian police state.

Another interesting question: Moore traffics in a great many of the anti-Bush conspiracy memes that made their way around during the immediate pre-Iraq war period. Except one word is missing: "Israel." Had you gone to ten anti-war websites in March 2003, you'd have found references to Israeli complicity in the invasion on at least five, and more likely seven or eight.

Now, we know Moore has been saying incredibly mean and cruel things about Israel in the international media for years -once referring to how "It's all part of the same ball of wax, right? The oil companies, Israel, Halliburton."- and in a montage of Bush and his cronies shaking hands with various Saudi men, he could just as easily have put in scenes of Bush with Sharon, Peres, etc.

But of course, Moore wouldn't dare put such a thing in an American-released film. Especially not one co-produced by Harvey Weinstein.

Other than that there are, of course, some downright incorrect facts. Saddam Hussein "has never killed a single American"? There were Americans in Kuwait during the 1990 invasion and, of course, he attempted to murder the first President Bush in 1993. He also tells us that in the 2000 election, all of the networks called Florida for Gore, until Fox News called it for Bush, at which point the other four switched to Bush. In reality, there were about ten steps in the middle that Moore decided to skip over.

But most of all, the film repeatedly takes it as a given that Bush and his administration "lied" about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. For them to have lied, they would have had to know with absolute certainty that there were no weapons in Iraq, and said the opposite- there's no evidence I've seen that Bush knew this, and if Moore has any, he doesn't present it. Bush thought there were weapons there- as did Clinton, as did the UN, as did even Jacques Chirac. Bush was wrong- for which he should, of course, be held accountable- but being wrong isn't the same as lying.

***

There are many reasons to dislike George W. Bush- enough of them, in fact, that I don't plan on voting for him in November. But Moore -by all-but-neglecting such facts as the president's deficits, tax policy, support for the Federal Marriage Amendment, and "decency" crackdowns, leaves out most of the best ones. And yes, the focus of 'Fahrenheit' is the war and national security- so why no mention of the infamous "16 words" in 2003's State of the Union? And even worse, why does Moore completely leave out of the film the damning evidence that the administration apparently leaked, to a reporter, the name of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame?

And yes, Bush may be unlikable, especially to intellectual-leaning liberals who consider him dumb. But Moore spends what has to be at least ten minutes of total screen time showing nothing but Bush malapropisms and other cheap shots- the most egregious of which is a riff from Eric Clapton's "Cocaine" that's played for a fraction of a second while Bush's '70s military record is discussed. It's immature, and especially snide for someone who wants to be taken seriously as a filmmaker.

That said, there is some effective material in the film. There's some fascinating Iraq footage- reminiscent of the superior recent documentary "Control Room"- and interviews with Lila Lipscomb, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, are heart-wrenching. (Moore even resists the urge to include a shot of himself hugging the woman on camera, an impulse he saw fit to indulge with another widow in "Bowling For Columbine." But when he found out that Lipscomb had gotten a letter from her son, days before his death, that said bad things about Bush, it's hard to imagine Moore didn't jump for joy).

Moore famously finished "Bowling For Columbine" with the rather surprising conclusion that the cause of America's gun problem isn't guns, but rather something in the character of the American people. But like in 'Columbine,' Moore spends the film tossing bombs, but offers no solutions. How should we have responded, militarily, to 9/11? What ideas does he have for homeland security? And how would Moore have dealt with Saddam Hussein? All questions, no answers.

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