It’s the movie we’ve all been waiting for, and it doesn’t disappoint. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is a clear successor to his Roger and Me and Bowling for Columbine: it is a documentary in the sense that it is not fictional, and in that it deals with real events and people, but it is also a polemic.
These documentaries are meant to make a point, and to make it strongly.
Not for Moore the coolly detached attitude of the self-effacing observer simply presenting the facts — though his own large, scrappily bearded form, so central to the earlier works, is less in the forefront of Fahrenheit 9/11.
Here we have the whole disaster of the George W Bush presidency, from his dubious election victory all the way to the present occupation of Iraq. One by one, Moore, in his usual wry voice-over, and with images off television and a few amusing pastiches, ticks off the horrors: Bush’s ties to Saudi financiers; how his presidency (and Dick Cheney’s vice-presidency) is corruptly in hock to big-money oil and arms interests; how he and his administration botched the pursuit of Osama bin Laden after September 11 2001; how they lied about the necessity of invading “Eye-Rack” and toppling Saddam Hussein; and so on.
The links with Saudi oil money and big United States capitalists such as the Carlyle Group and Halliburton, of which Cheney was CEO, are lightly sketched in — Moore does not provide as much detail as the excellent French documentary, The World According to Bush, now shown twice on SABC. And, of course, his presentation is much less sober. Moore also rather neglects Bush’s ties to the far-right Christian fundamentalists, preferring to show his dependence on the US’s plutocracy. Moore misses an important line of argument here: The World According to Bush is frightening because it leaves one with no doubt that Bush, like his fundamentalist supporters, is not in fact very disturbed by the idea that the Iraq invasion could spark off global conflict — the idea of apocalypse may actually be welcome.
Moore gives us plenty of damning footage of Bush et al, whether simply to show their arrogance and vanity, or to demonstrate their power-mad, money-driven agenda. He skilfully uses found footage and home-made pastiches (such as inserting Bush, Tony Blair and the others into a gung-ho old TV western) to show how absurd their postures are. This is all immensely entertaining — the fact that Moore is able to be funny about such things is perhaps his strongest suit.
He nails the Bush administration’s lies and manipulations, the way it has created a climate of fear in the US to get public support for a war that is basically about oil and money; he portrays clearly Bush et al’s utter cynicism and willingness to let poor Americans (whose only employment option is the army) die to make others rich. Moore is unambiguous about the fact that the real war is between the rich and the poor within the US.
In the end, though, unlike The World According to Bush, Moore is less interested in the big picture as such and more concerned with what the Bush regime’s actions mean for ordinary people. Thus the movie’s focus eventually closes in on one family, especially one woman, Lila Lipscomb, whose soldier son was killed two weeks into the Iraq blitzkrieg. Moore shows how Lipscomb moved from being a patriot who trusted her president to being a severely disabused opponent of Bush’s war. The portrait of this one woman and her changing views, rooted in her personal tragedy, puts a sort of Oprah spin on the issues. Whether you see this as the real human point or a discursive cop-out will depend on your own proclivities.
Tied to Moore’s focus on Lipscomb is his evidence of disillusioned and confused American soldiers, and he takes care to maintain sympathy with them — no mention of the Abu Ghraib torturers, for instance. And perhaps this is also his rationale for soft-pedalling the Christian-fundamentalist angle: Moore’s ultimate allegiance lies with the “little guy”, with the American underclass — and that, presumably, is his primary constituency.
Indeed, a filmmaker such as Moore has a constituency rather than a viewership, and this is fighting filmmaking. Fahrenheit 9/11 has its gaps and its failures, and is sometimes infantile or crass, but overall it is a masterful piece of cut-and-paste agitprop — exciting, entertaining, enlightening.