If sarcasm is the refuge of the weak, then Michael Moore's enormous, artistic success as a documentary filmmaker would be a farce. Tragedy is not supposed to funny. But in these brutish times, Fahrenheit 9/11, a depressing film in its exposure of the realities in Iraq, is also comical when it shows us, as Americans (our Marine recruiters, peaceniks, congressmen and Brittany Spears to name a few), who we really are.
More than just a mirror of American culture, Fahrenheit 9/11 ultimately focuses on the uncensored horror of the Iraq invasion and posits that President Bush is clueless to it all. Considering Moore has openly stated he wants to see Bush defeated in November, this is where the White House could be in trouble. That's because, as Paris Hilton and Rodney King can attest, videotape doesn't lie, and the candid, highly selective clips of Dubya bumbling through his day's agenda effectively support Moore's point that Bush is a pretender. That point is most compelling when the film shows Bush reading to grade-schoolers for seven minutes after being told our nation is under attack. What the hell is he doing sitting there? It makes you want to scream, “Do something!”
But Bush looking and sounding inept is old news, and when the film unimpressively began with a buffet of obvious Bush-hater fare, including Haliburton, the PATRIOT Act, Katherine Harris and the Texas Air National Guard years, I wondered if it wasn't going to be some predictable partisan rant. For example, even before the opening credits, Moore recaps the 2000 presidential election with CBS and CNN calling Florida for Al Gore. Then John Ellis, George W. Bush's cousin who happened to be running Fox News' election coverage, announced a Florida victory for his kin. We are then forced to witness Gore, weeks later, in his final, humiliating role as overseer of the U.S. Senate pounding a gavel to silence African American members of the House who are protesting his defeat. Moore's narrative sets up the sequence: "Was it a dream?"
No it wasn't, and thankfully Gore has nothing to do with the rest of the film, which gives way to some outstanding work exposing the Bush family's ties to Saudi oil money. That, in turn, gives way to a patriotic, God-loving mother from the heartland named Lila Lipscomb, who loses her son in Iraq, and takes her grief to the White House gates. In between, cartoonish moments—such as Moore driving an ice cream truck around Capitol Hill reading the PATRIOT Act over an intercom, mocking Congressional members who openly admit they never read the legislation—sustain Moore's trademark penchant for wild tonal shifts.
What pulls the film together, though, is that each element is linked to American foreign policy, which is, of course, an extension of our collective values (like it or not), and the costs are still unraveling in Iraq as you read this. As Mrs. Lipscomb's stoic husband says: “I feel sorry for the parents whose sons and daughters are dying today, for nothing.” In these moments, and there are plenty of them, you can easily see why the Bush administration should be, um, concerned about this film.
What's more, dozens of Osama bin Laden's relatives were shuttled out of the United States in the days following the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. How could this be defensible U.S. policy? (The White House to this day refuses to explain who arranged the flights and when—a point Moore actually omits.) "Not even Ricky Martin could fly," says Moore, and there's the bewildered butt-shaker grounded at the gate. Then: "... no one except the bin Ladens." (Actually, most of Osama's family left on Sept. 20 after the heaviest travel restrictions had been lifted.) Still, the segment provides a long list of distressing commentary and in the final thought-provoking analysis, Moore deadpans: "Imagine Clinton arranging a trip out of the country for the McVeigh family after Oklahoma City."
In the end, Moore is a polemicist, not an investigative journalist, and footage of slaughtered Iraqis, American military corpses and testimonials from young soldiers with amputated limbs (the real news we never see) dominates the second half of the film, culminating when Mrs. Lipscomb's grief reaches such tragic proportions that that camera feels like an obscene intrusion. We thought she was a strong woman; moments earlier, she held her composure enough to read her son's final letter from Iraq, where he writes, "I really hope they don't re-elect that fool." And there—juxtaposed with Moore hounding members of Congress to enlist their sons and daughters to fight in Iraq (none accept, although it should be noted that, technically, no person can “enlist” another)—is the antagonist's message.
Will Bush loyalists see the film before criticizing it? I doubt it. But will swing voters go see it? Karl Rove should hope not. Bush-bashers, of course, will have a field day. Either way, expect to be provoked as much as informed and expect to laugh, even when the story unfolding would be a lot funnier if it really were a dream.
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