Volume 4, Issue 2, 2006 (15)
By Katha Pollitt
I had a swell time at Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore's documentary about George Bush's dubious progress from Florida to Iraq. It's his best movie – funny, heartbreaking, outraged and outrageous – and deserves its huge success. When did you last see a muckraking exposé of events that are still unfolding? The film should make the media blush for its torpor and fake judiciousness and embedment with the Administration. Moore displays footage never before seen of events most Americans know nothing about, unless they read The Nation, because the media haven't told them. Did you know, for example, that the Congressional Black Caucus could not get a single Democratic senator to lend the required signature to its formal protest of the certification of Bush's victory in 2000? Did you know Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador, dined with Bush on September 13, 2001, the day before flights began that would carry more than a hundred Saudis out of the country, including dozens of members of the extended bin Laden family? Have you seen wounded and dead Iraqis on TV, or interviews with mutilated soldiers, disillusioned soldiers--or with parents of dead GIs? If Joe Darby hadn't jump-started the Abu Ghraib scandal with those photos, you might well be seeing the brutalization of Iraqi prisoners for the first time in a brief scene in Fahrenheit 9/11.
Moore keeps his impish-blimpish on-screen presence down, but there are some hilarious bits--learning that Congress hadn't read the Patriot Act before passing it, he drives around the Capitol in an ice cream truck blasting it through the sound system. The best comedy, as always with Moore, is the found kind: He interviews Craig Unger (House of Bush, House of Saud) across the street from the Saudi Embassy and is immediately accosted by a Secret Service agent ("I'll take that as a yes," he replies genially when the agent won't comment when Moore asks if it's unusual for the Secret Service to guard foreign embassies). He tags along with two oleaginous Marine recruiters on the prowl in a down-market Flint, Michigan, shopping mall and films them as they swoop down on one young black man and practically offer him a recording contract on the spot when he mentions he's interested in music.
The odd thing is, I found the movie immensely cheering and energizing, even though I don't agree with its main thesis, drawn from Unger, that Bush's oil-business interests, particularly his close financial and personal connections with the Saudis, drove his post-9/11 decisions to go easy on Saudi Arabia and invade Afghanistan and Iraq. I think President Gore might well have invaded Afghanistan too--although, who knows, maybe the Republicans would have thwarted him out of spite. I also think that key promoters of the war in Iraq--Wolfowitz, Perle, Rumsfeld--were motivated by a sincere, if deranged, belief that overthrowing Saddam would usher in US- and Israel-friendly capitalist democracies all over the Middle East. They had, after all, been pushing for regime change for years. Like all Moore's movies, Fahrenheit 9/11 is somewhat muddled and self-contradictory. Just as Bowling for Columbine excoriated the NRA while arguing that guns don't kill people, Americans kill people, Fahrenheit 9/11 simultaneously argues that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are wrong and unnecessary and that we need to send more troops; that the Bush Administration does too much and too little to protect the country from another terrorist attack; that Bush is an idiot and a lightweight and that he is a master of calculation. Actually, come to think of it, that's not such a contradiction – but I wish Moore had acknowledged Bush's obvious political skills. It's not easy to fool 40 percent of the people 100 percent of the time.
Well, OK, so Moore isn't Mark Twain, he's a propagandist who can be funny and angry at the same time. He takes a lot of cheap shots--Paul Wolfowitz slicking back his hair with saliva, John Ashcroft crooning a patriotic anthem of his own composition, Bush smirking and looking shifty while waiting to go on air and announce the invasion of Iraq--but the point of these vignettes is not just to make us laugh and feel superior, it's to undo the aura of assurance and invincibility with which this Administration cloaks itself while it spreads fear across the land. Watching Bush sit in that elementary classroom pretending to read My Pet Goat for seven long minutes after being notified of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center, you see a man who is paralyzed and stunned, who hasn't a clue, because there's no one there to tell him what to do, no stage set, like the flight deck of USS Abraham Lincoln, and no audience before which to look manly and resolute.
Moore's critics are going over the movie frame by frame, but he's phrased his most controversial contentions, about the Saudi flights, carefully. He doesn't actually say they took off while the airports were closed, and he doesn't say the bin Ladens weren't interviewed, although a viewer could get that impression. Other complaints seem trivial. Does it really matter if Moore says only one child of a congressperson or senator is serving in Iraq, and doesn't mention that a few others are in the armed forces, just not there? Of course, the scene in which Moore tries to hand out recruitment literature to politicos is unfair: It's not as if parents can enlist their kids. The scene works, though, because Moore's basic point is right: Politicians whose own kids are safely ensconced in the Ivies send off to die in Iraq the children of women like Lila Lipscomb, the vibrant working-class Flint woman Moore follows in the second half of the movie, who puts out the flag every morning and who has always encouraged her kids to join the military as a path to a better life. Her grief and rage when her son is killed in Iraq are unbearable to watch. Surrounded by her large, interracial family, she reads her son's last letter home: "He got us out here for nothing whatsoever. I'm so furious right now, Mama." There are plenty of mothers and fathers like her--but you don't see Katie Couric ("Navy SEALs rock!" ) interviewing them.
Take your friends, your relatives, your book club, your drinking buddies, take teenagers (it's R-rated), take that nice Republican in the office, take David Brooks and the staff of The Weekly Standard, and the Council of Economic Advisers! And then send your ticket stub to George W. Bush, so he'll know you're watching.