Fahrenheit 9/11
directed by Michael Moore
(Miramax, 2004)

A year and a half ago, while receiving an Oscar for his 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore went into an anti-Bush tirade that got him booed off the stage -- in liberal Hollywood, no less. Now he's back with another anti-Bush tirade, one that's already become the highest-grossing documentary of all time: Fahrenheit 9/11.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is a lot like a lot of Moore's other films: lots of archival footage, interviews with experts and -- Moore's personal favorite -- clips of himself following lawmakers and spokesmen around, annoying them to death in hopes they'll say something embarrassing.

But what makes Fahrenheit 9/11 work so well -- cinematically if not politically, anyway -- is not just what Moore turns up, but in the way he turns it up. Take Moore's opening scenes, in which he looks at the unelection of Al Gore in 2000.

When the House and Senate met in joint session to accept or reject the results of the 2000 election, members of the Congressional Black Caucus rose one by one, presenting petitions to Congress to look into possible election irregularities. In clips from the proceedings, Moore shows them being gaveled down one after another in rapid fire by none other than Gore himself, because their petitions failed to carry the signature of a single senator.

Moore presents the footage with little commentary, and it needs little. One congresswoman's comment that "the Senate is missing" says it all.

Not long afterwards the screen goes dark, but viewers know what they're hearing: it's the sounds of the World Trade Center being struck. Once again, little comment is needed, and little is given, and that only as light returns to the screen to show people on the scene looking at the building with tears in their eyes, comforting one another and watching the dust rise and trash blow down the near-deserted streets.

Later, Moore takes us to the classroom where Bush sat and read My Pet Goat while the Twin Towers burned. This too is a sobering scene, though undercut by Moore's speculation on what Bush must have been thinking at the time -- something obviously unknowable to all but the president.

Fortunately, not all is so dark in Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore's skewers are as sharp as ever, and he soon pulls them all out for a bit of film fun: a Bonanza-style parody in which a flame burns a hole in a map of Afghanistan, after which the Cartwrights -- Rumsfeld, Cheney, Blair and Bush -- ride to the rescue, saying they'll "smoke him (bin Laden) out." Moore, of course, can't resist the punch line. Their rapid-fire clips are followed by one from an old black-and-white western in which the cowboys threaten to "smoke 'em out."

Moore is in similar fine form when U.S. Rep. John Conyers tells him members of Congress passed the Patriot Act without ever reading it. Moments later, Moore is talking to the operator of an ice cream truck near the Capitol. Moments after that, he's circling the Capitol in the truck, reading the Patriot Act to Congress over its loudspeaker. And the man does look at home in an ice cream truck.

If Moore has a problem in Fahrenheit 9/11, it's that he tries to squeeze four years of outrage into a 122-minute bag. Many things get started -- a look at the links between the Bushes and the Saudi royal family, including questions about W.'s oil company and the Mideast pipeline project that suddenly became a reality after the invasion of Afghanistan -- only to get lost in the next barrage.

And then there's the question of his handling of Lila Lipscomb, the Flint, Mich., mother who lost her son in Iraq. It's powerful stuff, but should he have said "cut" about a minute sooner? Many think so.

Still, for all its faults, Fahrenheit 9/11 delivers the sweeping indictment Moore promised. In clip after clip, one administration official after another is made to look absurd when his or her words are followed by scenes -- many of them much too graphic -- of what's really going on in Iraq.

And in the end, that's what documentary film making is all about: finding those things that, in the words of T.S. Eliot, fall "between the idea and the reality." With Fahrenheit 9/11, the current administration can consider itself documented.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 11 December 2004

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