Michael Moore fires up Fahrenheit 9/11

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Wed, 06/23/2004 - 16:00

They should make a film about Michael Moore's battle to get his latest documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 distributed in the States. What is it about the subject matter that caused financial backers like Mel Gibson's Icon Productions to get cold feet? Why did Disney want to block its release?

Even if you don't agree with his politics or his journalistic methods Michael Moore is a highly bankable, Oscar-winning filmmaker. His attack on America's gun crime epidemic, Bowling For Columbine, was the most profitable documentary in filmmaking history. Even before its nationwide release, Fahrenheit 9/11 promised to better that, having scooped the top film award at the Cannes film festival in May, received standing ovations at its premieres and impressive reviews from around the world, including from publications such as The Washington Post and New York Times. Have US film distributors and theatre owners, who baulked at releasing the film, ceased to be interested in the green stuff?

Hardly. Moore's claim that distributors and theatre owners bowed to Republican pressure to block the film sounds perfectly plausible. See Fahrenheit 9/11 and you begin to realise why, as Moore has suggested, the White House wants to stop Americans seeing this film so badly in the run up to the presidential election.

Moore's two-hour "op-ed" has the traits of his other films. It is an opinionated and passionate argument full of gut-wrenching emotion, rancour and laugh-out-loud comedy. Yes, there are occasions when you feel that the edits are steering you with a heavy a hand in a certain direction, but Michael Moore is the first to admit that he is a partisan filmmaker. Love him or hate him, you have a pretty good idea what you will get in a Michael Moore movie.

The big man features less on screen here than in previous films (he apparently had a sign in the edit suite which said, "If in doubt cut me out"). There are a couple of classic Moorish scenes of him on the streets in Washington, including canvassing senators to sign up their children for the war in Iraq, but his lower profile otherwise allows for some potent montages and interviews. His voice-over provides the narrative thread, joining the dots to sketch a complex web of intrigue and corruption at the heart of the US government and the Bush family's relations with the Bin Ladens, and drawing it together into a dynamite thesis.

Moore asserts that even before entering office Bush had an agenda to wage a war on two fronts - the first front being on the people of Iraq to advance interests of his corporate supporters (or "his base" as he likes to call them), including the Bin Laden family, and the second, through his "War on Terror", to keep a stranglehold on the people of the USA by keeping them in a perpetual state of fear.

The film opens by revisiting the presidential election of 2000. "Was it all just a dream?" asks Moore, retracing how George Bush Jnr. managed to scrape into office with an alleged 537 votes in Florida. The turning point came, says Moore, when Fox News Channel decided to report that Bush had won Florida on election night when all other channels were reporting Al Gore as winner. Coincidentally, the man who made that decision was Bush's first cousin.

In this early investigative part of the film, a flood of assertions and questions ensue. We learn that one of Bush's best friends, and financial supporter of one of his early businesses, was also banker to the Bin Laden family.

Further on, Moore asks why 24 members of the Bin Laden family were allowed chartered flights out of the USA immediately after 9/11 when all flights were supposedly grounded. Was Bush honouring an old friendship? A clip of a plane taking to the air to The Animals song We Gotta Get Out Of This Place makes the rest of his point.

In the section on Afghanistan he posits that Bush never had a realistic plan for capturing Osama Bin Laden.

These bald facts in themselves may not provide conclusive proof of conspiracy. However, the weight of accumulated evidence, much of it already documented in print and on television, is crying out to be addressed. Americans will have their chance, on 2 November.

There are many images from the film that stay in the mind, but perhaps most stark is that of the moment the planes hit the towers. The screen turns black, and only the audio track of panicked onlookers can be heard. It is a private and personal moment, powerful in its simplicity.

There is humour as well, but streaked with satirical venom. The film is withering in its portrait of George Dubya. Through archival footage and newsreel, he is ridiculed, scorned, and raked through the mud. He is called a fraud, a slacker and a liar. Although the only dialogue between president and filmmaker was across a crowded room when Bush called to Moore, "Behave yourself-go find real work," the poster hilariously shows Moore walking hand in hand with George Dubya on the Whitehouse lawn like a couple of lovers: George, in crisp conservative suit, head thrown back in laughter; Michael, in obligatory baseball cap, T-shirt and baggy jeans, looking to the camera with a mischevious grin. It sets the tone for the film, but although Bush's familiar buffoonery and bumbled lines provide comic respite, the clips that have been gleaned from newsreel and feeder footage give him a psychotic edge.

At one point, caught on the golf course Bush addresses the camera directly, "I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank-you." Without missing a beat, he slips out a golf club and says, "Now watch this drive." Even if this is Dubya's idea of a joke, such insincerity chills the blood.

Our Tony, Bush's ol' buddy in war, appears briefly montaged into the opening credits of the old cowboy series Bonanza, under a ten-gallon hat. But for the most part this is Dubya's show.

Most disconcerting is the notorious My Pet Goat video, filmed by the teacher at a Florida kindergarten on the morning of September 11. After being informed of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center, Bush like a rabbit frozen in the headlights continues reading a book called My Pet Goat to children for seven minutes before an advisor comes into the room to suggest he has more pressing matters to attend to. Moore layers on the sarcasm as he speculates on what might be passing through the presidential brain at the time. Amazingly nobody had asked for the videotape before.

One of Moore's strengths has always been getting the story behind the story, asking the simple, obvious questions. He scorns the mainstream media for their coverage of the war in Iraq for towing the White House line. Whether it be an Iraqi man tossing a dead baby onto a truck or rare interviews with limbless and maimed marines, there is often a sense that Moore has scooped his footage by simply looking under the carpet. At other times, Moore lambasts the bold-faced deceit of the Bush administration with biting montages showing how we were duped over Weapons of Mass Destruction or how Rumsfeld tries to make a bombing campaign sound as innocuous as being tucked into bed at night.

A good part of the film is spent with a career counsellor from Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan, Lila Lipscomb. A patriot, who "always hated" anti-war protesters, and even advised her own children to join the forces for a better life, she was forced to re-evaluate her political beliefs during the making of the film by the devastating news that she lost her son in Iraq. We see her reading her son's last letter (where he urges his family to defeat Bush) and doubled up with grief in front of the Whitehouse. Elsewhere, an elderly, grief-stricken Iraqi woman rails at the camera at the American bombing of her family. As the film reiterates: so much anguish and pain. For what?

At the time of writing, Miramax, Fahrenheith 9/11's production company, is appealing to the Motion Picture Association of America's decision to give the film an R rating, which requires children under 17 to be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian. Is it justified? Certainly, there are some scenes that are hard to stomach: a blurry long shot of a public beheading, faces scarred beyond comprehension by napalm, a horrifying picture of a baby mutilated by a US bomb attack and the charred corpses of Americans strung up in the street. But the effect is to say, "This is war. It's ugly. Don't do it."

Another scene, reminiscent of Coppola's anti Vietnam War classic Apocalypse Now, shows marines talking about the adrenaline rush of going into Iraq guns-blazing with the music cranked up in their field headphones while footage rolls of tanks torching Iraqi buildings. What apparently caused offence was a marine quoting the line from the heavy metal Bloodhound Gang's The Roof Is On Fire, "We don't need no water; let the motherf**ker burn. Burn motherf**ker burn".

Moore writes on his web site: "I want all teenagers to see this film. There is nothing in the film in terms of violence that we didn't see on TV every night at the dinner hour during the Vietnam War. Of course, that's the point, isn't it? The media have given the real footage from Iraq a 'cleansing'-made it look nice, easy to digest.... I trust all of you teenagers out there will find your way into a theater to see this movie. If the government believes it is OK to send slightly older teenagers to their deaths in Iraq, I think at the very least you should be allowed to see what they are going to draft you for in a couple of years."

It's difficult to argue that 15 or 16 year-olds are not old enough to make up their own minds on this. Whatever the result, the irony is that the more that people try to suppress this film, the more people want to see it.

Michael Moore's web site