Fahrenheit 9/11

By Bill Gallagher

“Fahrenheit 9/11,” from the once entertaining but now just mean-spirited Michael Moore, has to be the longest negative political ad ever produced.

The only difference between this and all the other attack ads, besides its two-hour length, is that people will pay to see “Fahrenheit 9/11.” A lot of people, no doubt. Possibly more people than have ever paid to see a movie classified as a documentary.

What they’ll get when they see it is Moore’s polished attempt to shape the debate over President Bush’s policies—especially in Iraq. He employs a technique I’ll call political impressionism. This is a movie, not a book, so facts, anecdotes and accusations fly by 24 frames a second before they can be nailed down and scrutinized. So we’re left (at least until the DVD is released) with impressions. And impressions, as the best political ad people know, can be much more persuasive than facts.

The main impression Moore tries to convey here is that President Bush’s victory was bogus, that he’s devious, a bit of a dunce, and a high-placed protector of his dad’s wealthy Saudi buddies. Now those who already believe those things to be true will love this movie. Those who support the president, in the unlikely event they bother to see “Fahrenheit 9/11,” will hate it.

The president’s father has already weighed in with his opinion, without having seen it. He calls Moore a “slimeball.”

Not residing in either camp, and having once played a small but significant role in Moore’s movie “The Big One” (more on that later), I offer this: Michael Moore has lost his touch. He’s too heavy-handed here. I left the screening feeling like I’d just sat through two hours of anti- Bush indoctrination. He’s telling me what to think and how to feel about this administration as opposed to telling me what he thinks and how he feels about same, and allowing me to decide for myself.

He shows as little regard for critical thinking skills as the shrillest right-wing radio talk show hosts. Sure, some segments of “Fahrenheit 9/11” are amusing, but most of it is manipulative at best, vicious at its worst.

At one point early on Moore suggests that among the thoughts that crossed the president’s mind after being told of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center tower were concerns about how his Saudi business buddies would get out of the country. And if that’s not enough to convey his low opinion of where the president’s true loyalties lie, Moore later suggests that when Bush wakes up at the White House he worries about what’s best for rich Saudis rather than what’s best for Americans. Now who really thinks that’s the case? Michael Moore? I truly doubt it. But in the contemporary “say anything” political climate, what the hell. “Fahrenheit 9/11” begins with fireworks on Election Night 2000 at an Al Gore victory rally. Oops. Then Fox News projects that George Bush has actually won, based on a projection from their pollster who is…a Bush cousin. The impression given is that Fox News projected Bush the winner based on data provided by a Bush family member. Therefore, Fox News somehow decided the Presidential election. Bush is 43 because Fox News said so?

We’re taken to Capitol Hill for a joint session of Congress at which several black House members mount a futile effort to challenge the election results. They fail because they can’t get even one Senator to sign their petition. Impression? That the black man’s getting screwed again by powerful white politicians. Don’t look for any explanation of the historical significance of this episode because it ain’t here.

Throughout this assault on the legitimacy of the Bush victory we’re hearing a somber, almost funereal soundtrack that nudges the audience toward righteous indignation. “This is heavy, serious stuff, dude,” is the subtext. The visual images of the Bush Administration are distorted, sinister. Just like in the best negative political ads.

Granted, there are some fairly amusing moments in “Fahrenheit 9/11.” When Moore goes after television news for selling fear he lands a few well-placed punches. But when he leaps to the conclusion that, “the terrorist threat wasn’t what this was all about; it was about getting us worked up about Iraq,” he nearly steals the fun from his indictment.

You can detest Moore for the sheer anti-Bushness of his movie and still get some good laughs out of his send-up of personal security devices such as the Zytec impregnable safe room: “I can just sit here and sip a fine Bordeaux” while under attack is one testimonial. Then there’s the demonstration of the Execu-chute, which allows people to leap from the upper stories of buildings being attacked. And the highlighting of Costa Rica, Iceland, Romania and Morocco as member nations in the Coalition of the Willing backing our commitment in Iraq is pretty funny too.

It’s not like Michael Moore has entirely lost his sense of humor and sense of the absurd. And I don’t think I’ve lost mine. It’s just that Moore now sees himself as more than just the friend of the common man who makes movies that afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. He’s become a man on a mission to do more than make funny movies. In this one, the mission is to dump Bush.

Much of the pre-release controversy over “Fahrenheit 9/11” has dealt with various inaccuracies. The charge that relatives of Osama Bin Laden were allowed to escape the country after the attacks on the World Trade Center in blatant violation of security procedures has been pretty thoroughly debunked. But if he’s wrong about that and bent the facts to fit his theory that President Bush will do anything for his Saudi buddies one must wonder, “What can we believe?”

For instance, Oregon makes an appearance in “Fahrenheit 9/11” when Moore makes the case that Homeland Security is a joke because 100 miles of this state’s southern coast line is protected by just one part-time Oregon state police trooper. A trooper who is interviewed makes the claim that at night there are only eight troopers on duty in the entire state of Oregon. Moore blames “the budget” in his voice over. Which budget? Surely not George Bush’s, unless the president is supposed to allocate funds to beef up the forces that would guard Oregon’s southern coast from terrorist hordes.

And are there really only eight troopers on duty in Oregon overnight? I’m sure not going to take Moore’s word for it.

There’s another small but significant scene in the movie that typifies Moore’s credibility gap. A soldier guarding a Halliburton project complains to the camera that he makes $2,000 to $3,000 a month for his duties while the guy who drives the bus to and from the installation makes $8,000 or $10,000 a month. True? Did Moore check? If you go with what the soldier says the impression is that there’s this huge injustice at work in Iraq.

Some of the other interviews with soldiers that make it into Moore’s movie are really uncomfortable. And I don’t mean the footage of badly wounded soldiers. I mean the footage of troops talking trash before going into battle. The impression? That our guys and gals in uniform are just a cut above the insurgents when it comes to the rules of engagement. Yet Moore tries to position himself as great friend of the fighting man, a modern-day Ernie Pyle.

Nice try.

My own relationship with Moore goes back to the least successful of his non-fiction films, “The Big One.” He was in Portland promoting his latest book and appeared on my radio talk show. A regular caller called in when Moore started talking about wanting to interview Phil Knight while he was in town. My caller made that interview happen. The radio exchange was recorded and actually made it into the movie. My voice can be heard setting up the interview that filled a major need for Moore. And what did I get? Not even a screen credit.

But that has nothing to do with my disappointment with his latest work. Michael Moore could have been a Will Rogers, but instead, we get a left-wing Rush Limbaugh with a camera.

Bill Gallagher is the News Director of Newstalk 860 KPAM Radio and a reviewer for the website filmfever.org, as well as for BrainstormNW.

BrainstormNW - July 2004

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