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Not so hot
Fahrenheit 9/11 is more smoke than fire
BY PETER KEOUGH
Moore from Cannes

Back in May, when Michael Mooreís anti-Bush documentary diatribe premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, it was stuck in political limbo, having been financed by Mel Gibsonís Icon Productions, which chose not to release it, and then sold to Miramax Films, which was being prevented from exhibiting it by Miramaxís parent company, Disney Studios. At his Cannes press conference, Moore was asked to trace the path from Icon. "I donít hang out with Mel Gibson. . . . I only know what I was told by my agent, Ari Emmanuel. Icon was the Bowling for Columbine distributor in Australia and New Zealand. They came to us and said they wanted to make the next Michael Moore film. It was a signed deal, negotiated over three months. We were making the movie, then we werenít making the movie. Suddenly, we had to get out.

"Ari was at his seder dinner, he got a call from Bruce Davey, who runs Icon, asking someone to take over. They had got a call from top Republicans to tell Mel Gibson donít expect to get more invitations to the White House. But Harvey Weinstein was interested, and Miramax immediately said theyíd make the deal. Iím completely confident that Miramax will ensure that Americans across the board see this film."

Moore was adamant that Fahrenheit 9/11 should debut in a theater. "I donít want this shown first on television. TV is a passive activity. Going to movies involves sitting in a theater of strangers who are having a communal experience and are more committed to action than someone lying on a couch drinking beer. When I make any movie, I try to make something Iíd like to go to on a Friday night, so entertaining that people could take a girlfriend, a spouse, eat popcorn, laugh, cry.

"My films are not shown in art theaters but in shopping malls and commercial houses. We polled the audience for Bowling for Columbine: over 70 percent had never seen a documentary in a theater before in their lives."

A skeptical journalist who had just watched Fahrenheit 9/11 asked Moore whether there was anything really new in his film?

"I donít think youíve heard before American soldiers [who fought in Iraq] talk of their despair, their disillusionment. You see the first footage of abuse of American detainees in Iraq outside of prison walls. Footage, not photographs. So, thereís footage youíve never seen before, starting with documents of Bushís military record."

Moore held up a document featured in the movie in which the name of one James Bath, whose name is somehow connected with George W. during his National Guard days, has been obliterated. "I can show you the 2000 document and the document in 2004, and he [Bush] or someone at the White House has blackened out the name, James Bath. What were they afraid of? 2000 was pre-9/11. After 9/11, they saw a need to take out his name.

"The American people do not like things kept from them. This film will be like Toto pulling the curtain back. The people will be shocked and act accordingly. Will it influence the election? I hope it influences people to leave the theater and be good citizens. Itís up to them. Iím not a member of the Democratic Party. I donít have a vested interest in electing Democrats. I do have a vested interest in getting our boys and women back from the war.

Then Moore, sounding the intemperate rhetoric of a 1960s radical, unwound about America in Iraq. "This is not some noble mission, to free a country, prevent a holocaust. Bush despises our troops, our young people, sending them to a war based on a lie. Heís against our troops, putting them on the line for [the business interests of] him and his friends. The lack of character begins with him, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. Fish rots from the top down. On September 11, we had a president asleep at the wheel, we had an attorney general who said, ĎI donít want to hear about terrorists.í But they are very good at what they do: 70 percent of Americans believed there was a connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein."

So what difference can this film make? Arenít those who will see it the educated left, who already loathe George W. Bush?

"The problem with our side is that it tends to vote in less numbers. The right wing is there at six in the morning, bringing 10 people with them."

So maybe thatís the real value of Fahrenheit 9/11: it will motivate the converted to go to the polls and prevent Bushís re-election?

"Re-election of George Bush?" Michael Moore smirked. "First you have to get elected."

ó Gerald Peary

Anyone who has followed the ongoing revelations about the Bush administration and has concluded that all the presidentís men (and women) have led the country into disastrous policies for sinister motives will find Michael Mooreís Fahrenheit 9/11 anti-climactic. Those in the know who are convinced otherwise will remain so and might even rekindle their convictions, alienated by the filmís stridency. Those ignorant and indifferent who watch out of curiosity serve to benefit most: perhaps theyíll be stimulated to learn more and fill in the filmís many gaps and ambiguities.

Many, though, will dismiss this yearís Palme díOr winner at Cannes as another Michael Moore screed, a slash-and-burn collage of seemingly disjointed information, interviews, and images manipulated into an argument by the filmmakerís personality and bias, his clownish confrontations, his crude but effective irony, his cruder but perhaps more effective sentimentality. Fahrenheit 9/11 takes on his biggest target ó the most powerful people in the world ó so it canít help but score more hits than misses. It may be Mooreís most important film, but itís far from his best.

It opens with cheap shots (just because theyíre cheap, of course, doesnít mean theyíre not on target): the Florida recount, mass demonstrations at the inaugural parade with eggs splattering on the presidential limo (how come we didnít see this on the news?), Bushís 42 percent vacation rate, his plummet in the polls, his resurrection at the cost of the World Trade towers and 3000 lives (the horror is distilled in the haunting image of billions of bits of paper falling from the sky). Then comes one of the most disturbing moments: the president receiving the news of the disaster while reading a childrenís book to a Florida elementary class. A sign on the blackboard behind him says that reading is what makes America great. Had Bush taken that to heart, Moore slyly suggests, he could have saved everyone a lot of trouble: inserted footage of the vacationing president shows aides carrying the unread security reports warning of Osama bin Ladenís intentions.

Score one for Moore, but what follows next ó his lingering close-up of the presidentís face for the nine minutes after his hearing the news in which he does nothing ó is the most sympathetic image of the president Iíve ever seen. Heís hurting, heís desperate, heís been "smoked out" ó youíve got to feel for him. Moore, instead, tries to read his mind: is he thinking of which "pal" screwed him? Could it be Saddam? (We get a shot of a young Donald Rumsfeld looking surprisingly like Robert McNamara as he shakes the Iraqi fall guyís hand.) The Saudis? Thatís Mooreís bet. Relying heavily on the recent book House of Bush, House of Saud and interviews with its author, local writer Craig Unger, he weaves together a gauzy web of ties between the bin Ladens and the Bushes, between the Saudi royals and virtually every corrupt capitalist nabob in America. Why did the government provide a ride out of town for Osamaís relatives when all other flights were grounded after September 11? Whose name has been blacked out of Bushís military records? The leads are tantalizing ó and undeveloped.

Instead, Moore injects sophomoric gibes (okay, I laughed when they played a riff from "Cocaine" over Lieutenant Bushís fitness-to-fly report) and falls back on the usual agitprop stunts. He corrals a woman from his home town of Flint, Michigan, whose son has been killed in Karbala. He takes her to the White House to confront the party responsible for her grief and she collapses in tears and rage. A bystander cries out, "Itís staged, itís staged." It isnít staged; the womanís agony is genuine and terrible to see. But an argument could be made that itís exploitative.

Itís not beside the point, though. Youíll see plenty of what the government and the media didnít want you to see, from incinerated Iraqi babies to taunted POWs to legless GIs and dead ones, too. Those who have gotten over the shock of Abu Ghraib will have to start spinning some new rationalizations.

What Moore fails to do, however, is connect the dots. Spurred on by this movie, perhaps others will. If they havenít already. As Donald Rumsfeld notes without apparent shame or irony in another urgent, inadequate documentary, Jehane Noujaimís Control Room, the problem with liars is that they always get found out. The problem for everyone else is that it doesnít always make a difference.

Click here to read Peter Keough's review of Bowling for Columbine.


Issue Date: June 25 - July 1, 2004
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