Dir. Michael Moore, 2004, USA, 122 mins
Cast: Michael Moore, Khalil Bin Laden, Barbera Bush, Al Gore
The bombast has landed. Fahrenheit 9/11 arrives with enough media attention to rival Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, and having taken la Palme D'or away from Cannes. Michael Moore's non-fiction follow up to Bowling for Columbine has provoked disgust and celebration in almost equal measure. For a theatrical release, this is an unprecedented attack on a sitting President, in the run up to an election, and a film that brings us more heat than light.
When Michael Moore gave his anti-war, anti-Bush speech, while accepting his Oscar for best documentary, his outburst became the basis for this follow up. The self-styled left-winger who has built his career from representing the oppressed "little guy" against corporate America, criticises the response of the Republican White House to the terrorist threat before, and after, the attacks of September 11th 2001.
He then considers the justification for America's invasion of Iraq , looking at the relations between the Bush family (and friends) and the Saudis in the oil industry - a complex web.
Early on in the documentary Moore focuses on the, now familiar, footage of the President receiving word of the attacks from an aide at the high school poetry reading. As the time ticks by, Michael Moore's voice-over questions what was going through George W's mind. The sheer human drama of this man, sitting without advisers, on his own, contemplating the fearful consequences of the moment, is extremely poignant. As the camera dwells on George W's quizzical features, politics aside, you feel pity for him, seemingly bemused; he couldn't appear less like a statesman. This simple sequence is as cruel as it is effective. It's an example of Moore 's skill at presenting his subject, picking his moments and skewering them with sarcastic voice over.
He doesn't always hit the mark though, especially with a range of targets as wide as they are here. A US Marine talks about the music his tank command use to prepare themselves for combat. He shows us the CD and we hear the soundtrack from a rap song with the lyrics: "Burn, Mother F*cker, Burn, Mother F*cker, Burn," then the music plays over footage of buildings in Iraq exploding in flames.
On the surface, this is powerful moment. But in a wider context; we know that young men go into battle with testosterone and fear. We know the demographics of many of marine corps recruits. Moore is taking the honest answers of a young soldier, and corralling them into his wider argument. Whatever your political stance, this kind of episode doesn't make any meaningful contribution to the debate.
Yet, on an emotional level it's hard not to be affected by the stories that are presented. Moore, followed a resident of Flint, Michigan (his home town featuring again) Lila Lipscomb, who was very proud to have children serving in the armed forces. When her son was killed in a downed helicopter in Faluja she changes views completely, starting to question the war, and now campaigns against the government. It's plainly a moving story. As he has shown before, Michael Moore has an affinity with people, which allows him the access and them the comfort to express themselves on film. It's a massive credit to this film that a voice like Lila Lipscomb's will be heard by many.
Moore laces the feature with his trademark humour . He follows two silver-tongued recruitment officers for the Marines, who approach young men in shopping malls (on the poorer side of town, naturally), and use GlenGarry Glen Ross style sales patter to get them interested; memorably telling a young black kid that they can get him into the music industry, citing pop star Shaggy as an ex-marine.
Fahrenheit 9/11 presents powerful images and asks some important questions. As in Bowling for Columbine the writer/director tries to connect too many dots, giving a broad-strokes tour; taking in the Saudis, Enron, the Patriot act, Afghanistan and the Bin Laden family. But such serious and complicated topics don't get the time or analysis they might have and some of these strands are, frankly, old hat. Consequently as a documentary this doesn't have the eloquence of Errol Morris' The Fog of War, or the consistency of Spellbound. It's a provocative, blunderbuss of a film, but when the hoopla dies down it should be judged on the strength of Michael Moore's argument, which is weakened by the scattershot nature of his points. Nevertheless, this is an important film that deserves to be seen by the widest audience. It's just a shame it couldn't have been sharper.