The dramatic high point arrives too soon in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. One by one, in searing words and images, African-American members of the U.S. House of Representatives protest, on the floor of the Senate, against the disenfranchisement of black Florida voters during the 2000 election, against the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to stop the ballot re-count. Only no Senator had signed their objections, a technicality that quashed debate. Not a single United States Senator—certainly not Patty Murray—had the courage to sign the Representatives’ prepared statements. And so, one by one, then Vice-President Al Gore, presiding over the Senate, verbally shoots them down. “Has it been signed by a Senator?” Gore robotically asks each speaker in turn. Finally, one woman in exasperation cries, “I don’t care about the rules,” to which Gore, who surely stood to benefit from the Congresspersons’ cause, stumblingly responds, “The rules do care.”
It’s a heartbreaking sequence. Heartbreaking for the pain of the African-American men and women, confronted with still more evidence of this country’s regard for them, and so, too, for the benighted Gore—playing by policy and looking like an idiot. Time’s passage, even a Republican could hardly fail to grasp, has made this bit of C-Span footage all the more tragic. One scribbled, illegible signature might very well have saved us from the ensuing global fiasco known as the Bush presidency.
That plaintive expression from the Congresswoman has its Iraqi counterpart in the anguish of a gray-haired matriarch who loses five relatives, all civilians, to U.S. bombing. “Where are you, God?” she rages, and where are you, God, indeed. Just prior to this, Moore has shown us ignorant, possibly in-bred, young recruits who approach combat as if it were a music video, their helmets wired with the sounds of “Burn, motherfucker, burn.” Yet it’s the elderly lady who gives us a greater understanding of why the world hates America. In Moore’s most provocative, lacerating juxtaposition, he moves from her to a shot of Britney Spears espousing her full approval of Bush. The sight of the plasticized, unreal Ms. Spears, as she struggles to form coherent lip service to the blood-soaked lies perpetrated by our Fox News-appointed “President,” serves as an astute visual definition of conservatism today: the last refuge of the dumb. Contrary to what art critics/Bush-apologists Hilton Kramer and Jay Nordlinger try to convince themselves of in issue after issue of The New Criterion, it’s Ms. Spears, or the cable news goons who push “code orange terror” on an easily scared public (the alerts are about as cooked up as Orson Welles’ invasion from Mars), or the fembot newscaster (Katie Couric, I’m told) who all but performs fellatio on a man in a Navy Seals uniform—that represent the average level of those who fail to condemn the U.S. occupation of Iraq, who fail to acknowledge the war as anything other than the greening of Halliburton at the expense of the downtrodden.
Fahrenheit 9/11, of course, takes its title from Ray Bradbury’s seminal science-fiction novel Fahrenheit 451. Moore’s homage is an inspired instance of cultural appropriation. In the novel (and later the Francois Truffaut screen adaptation) firemen don’t stop fires: they start them. Pre-emptively, if you will. Censoring, if not actually burning, documents; silencing dialogue; encouraging people not to think—Bradbury’s futuristic firemen aren’t far-removed from the Reagan-legacy, right-wing activists of the current Administration.
Moore has a great analogy in this, but he doesn’t have a great film, the artistic judgment of Quentin Tarantino notwithstanding. There are passages, however, that speak quite eloquently. To name a few, Moore sympathetically profiles two Oregon state troopers who must cope with a barebones patrol staff in the wake of budget cuts and, as one of them says, “No manual for dealing with a terrorist.” There’s also the plight of proud American Lila Lipscomb, a flag-waving, protestor-hating, military mom who undergoes an extraordinary sea change when her son dies in Iraq. And then we have the testimony of a Corporal Henderson, a young African-American Marine in Washington, D.C. He had been stationed in Iraq, but refuses to be, “…sent back over there to kill other poor people.” All the while, there are glimpses of Bush seen at lavish dinner parties, basking in the glow of privilege with a sense of style perhaps only Marie Antoinette could have rivaled.
Moore delineates clearly the business ties between the Bush family and wealthy Saudi Arabians, so that there’s never any doubt as to why the U.S. bombed impoverished Afghanistan instead of targeting Saudi Arabia, even though most of the 9/11 terrorists, it bears repeating, were Saudis.
The value of Fahrenheit 9/11 lies mainly in the short-run; I hope that it proves useful at removing that smirking Son of Satan Bush from office. Moore, while altering his tone to a pitch less shrill than his earlier works, still has a more compelling talent for indignation than for film. His techniques generally lack something that I might refer to as excitement, in lieu of a more apt phrase. Although it’s much better than what Christopher Hitchens (who sounded drunk on sour grapes in his June 21 Slate column) or Armond White would have you believe, Fahrenheit 9/11 isn’t a movie that viewers are going to look at 10 or 20 or 30 years from now and commend on purely cinematic terms. All that matters for this film, for us, is now. Right now. – NPT
June 22, 2004