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June 26, 2004

Fahrenheit 9/11

Here are some initial observations about Fahrenheit 9/11 (IMDB). This review will probably ramble quite a bit. It may seem a little impressionistic. I'm still recovering from the intensity of the sounds and images I've just witnessed ("spoilers" ahead).

First, the theater where I saw the film was sold out for every screening tonight (and also incredibly hot--couldn't they have cranked the A/C?), with most people arriving at least half an hour early to line up for seats. I saw at least two news trucks (did anyone happen to watch Atlanta's Channel 2 news tonight?). Lots of cheering and enthusiasm throughout the film (and, yes, a long ovation at the film's end). And while F9/11 had far fewer "gotcha" moments than most Michael Moore films, I'm not sure I'd call the film "restrained" as some critics have. It might be better described as far more somber than anything Moore has done.

The film employs a relatively straight chronological approach, starting with election night coverage (with Ben Affleck and Bobby D, of all people, standing behind Gore celebrating) and moves quickly through many of the election controversies, including an upsetting montage sequence in which several members of the Congressional Black Caucus (including Cynthia McKinney) try to contest the results (there's also one Asian woman), but because no Senator signed the petition, Gore (who was still President of the Senate) was forced to uphoild parliamentary procedure and decline their petition. We see the massive protests of Bush's inauguration (which I'd forgotten). What follows is a montage of Bush vacation sequences, with the Go-Go's "Vacation" playing on the soundtrack, and the news that Bush was on vacation approximately 40% of the time between inauguration and 9/11, a statistic that has been relatively widely reported. All of this happens before the opening credits (which show various Bushies preparing for photo-ops, including a slimy image of Paul Wolfowitz using spit to set his hair in place), when the film shifts in tone considerably.

Immediately after the opening credits, the film fades to black for nearly a minute while we hear the familiar sounds of the towers hit. Finally, after nearly a minute, the image fades in and we see the immediate aftermath of people running, people crying and hugging, and paper floating in the air. We see very little of the actual violence of 9/11, a decision I think could be read in various ways. It might be seen as an attempt to respect the memory of the dead. It might be an acknowledgement that this violence is unrepresentable, but given Moore's eventual treatment of the Bush-Bin Laden family connections, it does show some restraint.

This sequence is followed by the now-famous video of Bush reading the children's book for seven minutes after the second tower was hit. The voice-over felt a little pushy here as Moore attempted to introduce some of his theses about Bush's connections with the Bin Laden family and the negligent treatment of intelligence regarding terrorism. Instead of Moore trying to score cheap points here, I have to wonder how this sequence could have played without Moore's voice-over, just seven minutes of real-time footage of Bush sitting there during the terrorist attacks. I'm not sure that it would have played better, but it would have been devastating.

The section of the film that treats the Bush-Bin Laden connection is mercifully fairly brief, and I don't think Moore ever directly states that Bush is culpable for the 9/11 attacks as some critics have implied--the film is more subtle than that. That always struck me as being a fairly thin thread to support a 90-minute feature film, but the sequence does convey the extent to which the Bush family (and many of his cronies) stand to profit from war, an ongoing theme throughout the film. It also allows Moore to re-frame some of the allegations that have often been levied against the Bush administration about their failure to pursue Bin Laden. Nothing new here, really, but it's done in an entertaining way, and it helps to frame some of the arguments about social class that Moore makes later in the film.

Moore carefully avoids showing any footage of the war on terror as it has been pursued in Afghanistan, which allows the tragic footage from Iraq to have a more powerful effect on the film's viewers (but, as A.O. Scott observes, it also brings Moore's stance on Afghanistan into question). These images are almost impossible to watch, with some of them as visceral as any war footage I've ever seen. Shots of a wounded Iraqi child recalled the famous image from Vietnam of the naked girl running from her village after it has been attacked. Intercut with these images are soldiers playing the Bloodhound Gang song "Burn, Motherf*cker, Burn" on CD players as their tanks drive through Iraqi villages. I recognize that this sequence could be regarded as the most brazenly manipulative sequence in the film, but after watching Control Room, I share the sentiment that American TV viewers rarely get a sense of the human cost of the war.

Moore then focuses on other costs associated with the war, and I think this is one of the film's strengths. He builds a relatively strong case that the war in Iraq is unnecessary before moving on to a critique of the social class issues that have been swept aside in much of the coverage of the war. He uses a multi-ethnic working-class mother from Flint to stand in for many of these critiques. Before the war, Lila Lipscomb speaks proudly of her family's contribution to the US military, but later in the film, after her son has been killed, we see her grief and anger and frustration at her son's death in what she now sees as an unnecessary war. Intercut with these images, we see Moore attempting to goad Congressmen into getting their children to enlist for the war in Iraq. It's one of the few sequences where Moore deploys his usual shtick, but after the mounting tension, it's a welcome release, a break from the sobriety of what we've seen.

The film ends with a call to patriotism, noting that because many working class and poor people are willing to serve in the military, we should ask them to fight only when necessary. It's a fairly effective (and low-key) ending, and although the attempt to redefine patriotism and support of the military is far from subtle, it fairly effectively brings together all of the threads that Moore has been weaving throughout the film.

I'm not yet sure how I feel about the film. I don't think that the film changed my perception of the war or challenged me in any specific way. Like James Berardinelli, I was disappointed by the superficiality of some of the film's critiques of Bush, but I'm wondering if other viewers will feel the same way. I've developed strong opinions about Bush and Iraq, and Moore's film didn't shift those convictions in any specific way.

The film also felt a little scattershot, a little too short attention span, for my tastes (hence my suggestion about the "My Pet Goat" footage). Now, there is a generous reading here: there's so much to cover about the war that you can barely show everything in a two-hour film. In fact, the film (intentionally or not) conveys that effect, and in a sense F9/11 is about the impossibility of really sorting out all of our mixed emotions, our anger, frustration, our sadness, about the war, and I think that may be the strength of Moore's narrative in this film.

Posted by chuck at June 26, 2004 2:32 AM

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Very thoughtful commentary, Chuck. Like you, I felt the film would have been stronger if it were not so "scattershot;" but I think the unifying thread is the way in which greed is behind much of what has happened post-9/11. At first I thought we could have done without the digression of Moore's speculation that the tobacco industry is the reason people are still allowed to take matches and lighters onto planes, for example. However, this observation fits with the rest of the film's thesis of corporate interests driving the nation's policies.

As L observed, as moving as _F9/11_ is for audience members of a certain persuasion, there is no way this film deserved the Palme D'Or at Cannes. Clearly that was a political vote, rather than a recognition of the work's merits as film.

Here in KC, our experience was remarkably similar to yours. The theater sold out all shows and was absolutely packed (and hot). Meanwhile, moveon.org volunteers were everywhere handing out flyers for upcoming events. Definitely an event with the movie at the center in the way you've described earlier.

Posted by: George at June 26, 2004 9:14 AM

I thought exactly the same thing about the "My Pet Goat" footage. He should have just left well enough alone and let the footage run.

Posted by: Rusty at June 26, 2004 9:52 AM

Good observations, George and Rusty. Yes, I'd say the major thread of the film is the argument that greed has motivated many of the post-9/11 decisions, and in retrospect, the use of Flint to support that position works pretty well (not surprisingly, the images of Lipscomb have led many right-wing critics of the film to argue that Moore may have "staged" the images of her grief).

In a way, I'm ambivalent about the scattershot approach. Yes, it feels like the film is doing too much, but in a way that can illustrate the impossibility of reconciling all of the contradictions. In that sense, I think F9/11 is scattershot by necessity.

I also have mixed feelings about the Palme win. Of course the award is politically motivated, but given F9/11's ability to make a difference politically, the film is a very effective document. That being said, it's not particularly deep, and the film's attempts to tug at people's emotions are pretty transparent (of course on one reading, that might not be a bad thing). It doesn't necessarily use cinematic elements, other than maybe editing and music, in novel or complicated ways. At the same time, I think a case could be made that it further refines the documentary form, that it's a much more difficult film than it appears.

Just to be contrarian, I might be willing to argue that F9/11 deserves the Palme d'or, but that Moore won it for the wrong reasons.

Posted by: chuck at June 26, 2004 2:40 PM

On the Palme d'or question.
Would an assessment be possible by comparing Moore's film with the other films at Cannes? Or with the previous winners? Or other films in the anti-war genre?

For example, Geoffrey MacNab in Independent ranks his favourites at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. And offers this bit:

Jean-Luc Godard, 2004

A filmic essay, divided into three sections: hell (an eight-minute montage of images of war culled from newsreels and Hollywood movies alike), purgatory (a dramatic interlude largely set in Sarajevo) and heaven (a playful coda set in a river resort guarded by US marines). Provocative, lyrical and pretentious.

I introduce this here to contemplate the possibility of Moore releasing a version on DVD which would allow film viewers to create their own montages... what trailers would film students create ... sound off / sound on ...

Posted by: Francois Lachance at June 28, 2004 9:41 AM

I think your comment gestures toward something that is "already" happening, in one sense at least. My comment that I would edit the "My Pet Goat" footage differently is one example. There are other examples. By email, L pointed out that the images of Costa Rica in the coalition-of-the-willing montage are "problematic" in that they risk perpetuating racial stereotypes.

In a sense (and here is where I think your Godard allusion is apt because of his life as a critic before he made films), we're already rewriting and re-editing Moore's film. Because of the "tranparency" of the editing and sound elements (including Moore's voice-over), the film is provoking two separate, but important, questions: (1) What is the human cost of the war in Iraq and is that cost worth it? And (2) What is the role of documentary film and how is F9/11 negotiating that?

Interesting invocation of Godard, too, especially given that he has been so sharply critical of Moore for not knowing the distinction between "text and image."

Posted by: chuck at June 28, 2004 12:11 PM

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