Fahrenheit 9/11 (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The primary goal of Fahrenheit 9/11 is obvious: offer evidence that President George W. Bush is an incompetent moron and that his administration is corrupt. One might argue that filmmaker Michael Moore does an adequate job of this, except that, to anyone who follows politics, there's nothing new about those charges. Bush has often shown that, as president, he's in over his head. He has never hidden his lack of intelligence. (How else to explain his constant mispronunciation of "nuclear" as "nucular?") And corruption goes along with politics like peppermint canes go with Christmas trees. One expects more from Moore than the mere regurgitation of well-documented material. We want insight, not surface-skimming. The Supreme Court decided the 2000 election? We know that. Bin Laden's family members were flown out of the United States at a time when planes were grounded? That has been reported in magazines and papers, and is general knowledge. There's strong evidence of a financial connection between Bin Laden's family and Bush? We first heard about that shortly after 9/11. Bush's real goal in the so-called "War on Terrorism" was to force a regime change in Iraq? No surprise.

The real problem with Fahrenheit 9/11 isn't that it attacks the current Republican administration (which could be seen as a public service), but that it does so clumsily and with poor focus. Moore does much of his preaching with a paucity of facts, relying on circumstantial evidence and insinuation to make his points. And too little of his information is fresh. As flawed as Bowling for Columbine might have been, it was challenging and thought-provoking. It provided opportunities for debates and dialogue about gun control and school violence. Fahrenheit 9/11 offers little more than a repetitive, two-hour attack on Bush. It's not compelling; in fact, there are times when it's not especially interesting. I went into this movie expecting to be engaged. I left it bemoaning the fact that I had spent $11.50 on parking.

Three segments redeem Fahrenheit 9/11, allowing it to claim to be more than just a list of anti-Bush charges. The first is the videotaped footage of Bush in Florida's Booker Elementary School, reading "My Pet Goat" for seven minutes after the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center. His face is a mask of bewilderment and indecision. It's clear that he has no idea what to do next, and he is waiting for one of his advisors to make a suggestion. It's not the portrait of a man any sane American would want in command. Later, Moore spends some time discussing how the seemingly-random changes in the multi-colored terror alert are used to manipulate people's panic. It's a worthwhile subject that gets short-shrift because the director is keen to move on to something else.

Finally, there are a series of interviews with Lila Lipscomb, whose son died in Iraq. Moore first films her when Michael is still alive, and she's a staunch patriot. Later, he returns so she can recount how her son died. She reads the final letter he sent to her, and makes a cathartic trek to Washington D.C. to see the White House and curse the man living inside. It's poignant material, but Moore's reputation robs this portion of his film of its potential power. Because we don't know how much of this is real.

Maybe it all is. Maybe Moore had the good fortune to interview this particular woman while her son was still alive, so he could capture her radical shift of allegiance afterwards. But his past argues that he might not be playing things straight. Moore has a longstanding history of manipulating the truth, and we have no way of assessing whether any doctoring has been done with the Lipscomb interviews. With another filmmaker, such as Errol Morris, we wouldn't question what's on screen. But Moore's reputation demands that we regard everything in his films with a healthy portion of skepticism. I was moved by the Lipscomb interviews, but a part of me didn't know whether to accept them as they are.

Moore has never been a cinematic marksman, but there has always been a sense that he's shooting at a well-defined target. That's not the case here. Fahrenheit 9/11 represents a barrage, with ammunition flying in all directions. The philosophy seems to be: expend enough bullets and you'll strike something. The movie jumps all over the place, with Moore scoring occasional hits, but never building the kind of damning case he is hoping for. Maybe the movie isn't long enough. Or maybe he didn't have access to enough material. Or maybe he was in such a rush to get this thing into the marketplace that he didn't care how inelegantly it was put together.

With Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore has toned down both his sarcastic comedy and his ego-driven penchant for being constantly on-screen. There are still moments of inspired humor, such as the caustic use of "The Magnificent Seven" theme and old Western clips to lampoon the attack on Afghanistan. And Moore is never far away from the camera's lens. He makes a few appearances, including a typical instance of grandstanding (when he tries to get members of Congress to sign up their children to serve in Iraq), but the narrative is delivered in his voice. He shows restraint and sensitivity when depicting the events of 9/11/01. We hear the audio while watching a black screen, then see a collage of reactions. We are not shown images of planes crashing into buildings. Those aren't necessary, because they are already burned into our memories.

Having now seen Fahrenheit 9/11, I wonder about the controversy. The movie isn't skilled enough or incisive enough to represent a cause for concern. Democrats will embrace it and Republicans will revile it, and, although the extremity of neither reaction is warranted, both are expected. But Fahrenheit 9/11 lacks the power to impact the huge block of undecided voters, and it is hubris on the parts of the filmmakers and distributors (both past and present) to believe such a thing. Considering the makeup of the festival jury, the Golden Palm win at Cannes is explicable, if not justifiable. The wave of publicity accompanying the release will draw audiences and inflate first weekend numbers. For Moore and those who have money invested in this project, that's a good thing, because this is not the kind of movie capable of attracting viewers on merit.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (United States, 2004)

Director: Michael Moore
Cast: Michael Moore
Screenplay: Michael Moore
Cinematography: Mike Desjarlais
Music: Jeff Gibbs
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2004-06-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1