Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004)
Directed by Michael Moore. Rating: 15. Running time: 122 minutes.
I’m not sure this will be as much a film review as a miniature political outburst, but perhaps that’s inevitable when you make a documentary about 9/11 as controversial as this. Moore won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, it is true, and that’s no mean feat. To think this film will at least on paper go down in history sharing the company of The Tree of Life, Taxi Driver and other such glorious winners is a bizarre thought. I read that the jury, including Quentin Tarantino, were very keen to emphasise to Moore that they weren’t disrespectfully pumping up his politics; they were rewarding him as a fabulous filmmaker.
For a long time, I understood this view of Moore and Fahrenheit. The first time I saw it and those credits rolled up to the horrifically awkward sound of Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World, I got goosebumps reflecting on what I had seen. But by now my feelings have developed to end up much more nuanced. The filmmaking remains powerful, but the question that lingers is over whether it’s plausible. Is it the work of a genius uncovering an inconvenient truth? Or, as Hitchens implied in a startling and borderline offensive analogy, is Moore a well-intentioned filmmaker whose power of persuasion is more like that of Leni Riefenstahl’s?
This is the narrative that Moore constructs, and the more you think about it the more unbelievable it seems: Bush is a cynical profit-driven oilman using politics as an instrument towards moneymaking, and even in the face of September 11th, it was money for his family and friends that influenced his mindset and decisions.
Now there does indeed seem to be some dubious financial links between the Bush and bin Laden families stretching back to the 1980s that Moore uncovers, and I have no doubt that the world of politics involves vastly more ulterior motives than my idealist desires would be willing to stomach. To suggest, however, that anyone would be so callous as to think in solely these terms, as if Bush was not a human, nor even a nationalist nut as he is often criticised for being, but some kind of real life walking-ego of the Daniel Plainview variety threatens to make Fahrenheit into a fantasy film and a farce.
This is by far the most difficult stretch of the film – this lengthy introduction to Bush’s background which is supposed to colour our perceptions of everything we see him do from that moment on. Moore’s voiceovers bludgeon this story into us, and it’s a struggle to keep sight of its absurdity. I have no doubt that Bush genuinely believed invading Iraq to be the right course of action for his country, but Moore is so keen to attack his integrity that we’re even asked to question this.
The real value in Moore’s film – and I can’t accept, with Hitchens, that there is none; there’s too much stuff of radical, high-impact status here for it all to be tripe – undoubtedly lies in the second half. When the investigations into the silly repercussions of the Patriot Act end, and the evidence of the fear that plagued Americans in the aftermath of 9/11 is wrapped up (this is all very important, but not when put aside what else we have here), the real film begins.
Now this is the part of Fahrenheit that Hitchens mocks as being full of ‘astounding disclosures’ about the capitalist nature of American society, and in a sense perhaps it should not be surprising that, low and behold, it is predominantly poor people from poor neighbourhoods who sacrifice their lives for their nation, in the name of a war planned and decided upon by middle aged white men sitting comfortably in suits. But whilst the fact might be obvious for anyone who thinks about it for long enough, it doesn’t hit you with all its implications when written in such simple, throwaway prose. It only manages to move us when contextualised – when we see Congressmen squirm at the prospect of sacrificing their children for the sake of this ‘national’ cause; when we see recruiting agents target the areas they know teenagers live in who have no better job prospects and never will; and when we see the human cost of decisions that were undoubtedly taken too lightly and with shoddy planning, regardless of whether Moore or common sense is ultimately right about the motives.
Nothing – no number of factual inaccuracies, and no misplaced speculations about Bush’s psychology – will be able to take away the reality and value and power of this aspect of Fahrenheit. In these sequences about the workings of the military, about who fights and who decides, the effects of social inequality ring loud and clear. And here we really do have an inconvenient truth. For all its outrageous and probably undue bravado, and for all its occasional simplicity, this alone obliges us to cherish the film. It’s also all too easy to forget just how ballsy it must have been to step back and see your own country like this less than three years after that tragic day. I don’t think there’s a greater compliment I can pay Michael Moore than my saying that, all things considered, America is better off for having him as a citizen.
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Tags: afghanistan, bush, cannes, christopher hitchens, daniel plainview, fahrenheit 9/11, iraq, michael moore, palme d'or, quentin tarantino, september 11th, taxi driver, tree of life