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Fahrenheit 9/11

(2004) *** 1/2 R
120 min. Lions Gate Films. Director: Michael Moore. Cast: Michael Moore, George W. Bush, Lila Lipscomb.

Aside from being the latest non-fiction film from Michael Moore, just what is Fahrenheit 9/11? In a sense, it is a documentary, which wears its bias on its sleeve. In some ways, it is political satire, intended to amuse and entertain. Perhaps it is the biggest, longest, most elaborate political attack ad ever devised. Of course, Fahrenheit 9/11, for better and worse, is all of these things. Certainly, it is articulate propaganda in the American civil war of ideology and media, and it cannot fail to damage the credibility of sitting President George W. Bush.

What Moore adds to the case against the Bush administration is fairly paltry in factual terms; rather, Moore brings his talents for sarcasm, personal and emotional appeals, and affecting montage to bear against Bush, his family, and his advisors, collectively painted by Moore as a cabal of sinister cronies. Prepared for the types of compliments and criticisms he faced after his last documentary, Bowling for Columbine, Moore attempts to build on that film's successes and minimize its failures. As with Columbine, Moore synthesizes the theses of others into his own, vehement anti-Bush statement.

According to Moore, Bush stole the 2000 election, vacationed on our dime while amassing a fortune from his family's Saudi Arabian oil interests, then seized on the tragedy of 9/11 (which his incompetence allowed or his ineffectuality facilitated) to justify the Iraqi war. Moore paints the war as both politically expedient for Bush's undefined presidency ("I'm a war president," a post 9/11 Bush took proudly to saying) and lucrative for the oil and military defense interests of family and friends. "Immoral behavior," intones Moore, "breeds immoral behavior."

Moore has a gift (or perhaps a curse) for statements of pithy clarity which beg further examination. For example, he compares the $400,000 annual salary we pay the American president to the $1.4 billion Moore alleges that Saudis have paid out to the Bush family over the last three decades; given this, Moore wonders aloud, whose interests does Bush logically serve? Later, Moore puts the Saudi influence this way: "the Saudi elite own 7% of America."

Moore fares best when he provides documentation or lets a picture replace a thousand words. Moore repeats, impactfully, a Washington Post statistic which accounts that Bush spent almost half of his first eight months in office—a staggering 42%—on vacation. Moore compounds his point by letting Bush blather an unconvincing, half-hearted defense of his vacation time in old news footage. In a memorable sequence slathered with a snide Moore voice-over, the director ticks off the minutes Bush hesitated after being informed of the 9/11 attacks; before an aide finally steps up to give him an urgent hook, Bush bemusedly pages through "My Pet Goat" with a classroom of schoolchildren.

Bush becomes the symbol in extremis of all Moore hates: greed, dishonesty, fat-cat exploitation of the poor (here, mortal exploitation as the unemployed become cannon fodder). Moore captures Bush at his most smug, like the New York fundraising dinner where he crowed, "This is an impressive crowd - the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base." Again and again in news clips, Bush hardly pretends to care, golfing while the Middle East burns.

Mostly, Moore recaps the Bush presidency, from an angry perspective and using humor to make Bush a figure of ridicule (a mock newsreel segment skewers the "coalition of the willing," and Moore also casts Bush and friends as the stars of "Afghanistan," to the rumbling Western theme of Bonanza). One of Moore's few scoops damningly infers that the Bush administration seeks to hide its ties to the Bin Laden family (which insists that Osama is estranged), in part by blacking out the name of Bush's close friend James R. Bath in the president's military records (Bath served as money manager for the Bin Laden family). Moore also emphasizes the special treatment accorded to Bin Laden family members in the US on 9/11—according to records Moore displays, they were scheduled for flights out of the country while the rest of American air traffic was halted.

Moore's for-the-masses approach is unashamedly personal, as he refers to his friend Bill Weems (lost to 9/11) and once more takes his cameras back to Flint, Michigan, his hometown and poster-town for American disenfranchisement. Moore picks Lila Lipscomb, a Michigan mother, as his alternative audience surrogate: Bush-haters will automatically tune in to Moore, but staunch Bush supporters suspicious of Moore may see themselves in Lipscomb: a dyed-in-the-wool patriot who tied her yellow-ribbons for her Gulf War vet daughter and dutifully, daily waves her American flag. Since her son Michael Pedersen died fighting Bush's war in Iraq, Lipscomb has decried what she calls her former "ignorance" of a war she now sees as senseless. In one of the film's most emotional moments, Lipscomb reads her son's last letter home: "I really hope they do not re-elect that fool, honestly."

In individual moments, Moore's blows can land powerfully, like graphic footage of the literal and psychic wounds of war and even in the off-topic sequences redolent of Abu Ghraib, in which soldiers abuse human rights and describe pumping hard rock into their helmets for battle (here, Moore revives the horrible spirit of Stanley Kubrick's awe-striking Full Metal Jacket). Some of Moore's most surprising "get" footage follows two Marine recruiters, ingratiating pushers who smoothly name-drop ex-Marines David Robinson and Shaggy to young, low-income men (predominantly African-Americans) as proof that the best way to basketball and music careers is through armed service.

As is his custom, Moore saves some vitriol for moderate Democrats like Tom Daschle and Al Gore. Strikingly, Fahrenheit 9/11 presents ironic footage of Gore, in his capacity as President of the Senate, forced to silence the 2000 election protests of black members of Congress because no senator would sign their petitions. In one of his comic documentary stunts, Moore also tries, unsuccessfully, to get congressmen to sign up their children for military service (only one child of a congressman had stepped up to serve).

Moore's use of montage, like that of any documentarian, deserves scrutiny. Moore can be more manipulative than most: footage of a Baghdad playground by day shows a girl descending a slide cut into a shot of bombs pummeling the city by night, cheapening the point made so effectively with unfakeable footage of a Baghdad civilian distraught at the destruction of her family home. Moore sometimes hides shoddy contextualization of believe-your-own-eyes footage and broad accusations under his fast-paced inundation of wide-ranging arguments. Nevertheless, the preponderance of his circumstantial evidence and the potency of his anecdotal evidence create a strong, cumulative effect. Moore fearlessly attacks a sitting president, and makes it look more patriotic than seditious; of course, he gets a lot of help from his starring player.

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