Controversial film hits nerves on both sides of the ideological divide

By M.V. Moorhead

It’s been a decade and a half since the release of Roger & Me, Michael Moore’s first documentary feature, or, if you prefer, his first cinematic editorial harangue.

From the start, he’s had detractors who’ve claimed that he rigs footage and manipulates facts to juice up the points he’s trying to make. It’s doubtful that all of these critics can be dismissed as right-wing wackos or hair-splitters.

On the other hand, I’ve heard and read him answering these accusations, and his defenses sounded pretty plausible to me. Seven years ago I interviewed him over breakfast and found him pleasant enough company, but I’ve also heard reports that he’s a self-important, self-promoting jackass, and that his aw-shucks working-class-Joe act is just that.

There’s probably some truth in all of the above positions, and I’m not in a position to say which predominates. None of them, I’m glad to say, has much to do with the quality of Fahrenheit 9/11, his passionate broadside against the current administration and its war in Iraq.

However he’s arranged it, Moore didn’t create the archival footage he shows us here, and it’s the accumulation of this footage, far more than Moore’s commentary or his trademark Candid Camera-style antics, which gives the film its terrible, painful power.

Moore starts the film with a quick recap of the “election” of 1999 and the early months of the Bush presidency, right up through Sept. 10. This section of Fahrenheit 9/11 is funny, albeit grimly so, since we can see what’s coming.

But after the opening credits, which employ a technique reminiscent of Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway’s snarky 1992 political documentary Feed, the humor swiftly fades, replaced by a tour of American policy, foreign and domestic, since that wretched day.

Much of Moore’s voice-over narration is speculative, but it doesn’t diminish—or doesn’t much diminish—the power of what we see onscreen.

The film isn’t a slam-dunk. Moore offers intriguing hints toward a case for a link between the Bush and Bin Laden families, but they remain hints.

When Moore tries a couple of his typical situational stunts, like reading the Patriot Act over the loudspeaker of an ice-cream truck outside the Capitol, or trying to get members of Congress to enlist their own kids in the military, the gags seem thin and unfunny.

Gratuitous, too—unlike some of Moore’s earlier films, Fahrenheit 9/11 doesn’t depend on this knavery. Moore’s subjects here range from Messrs. Bush, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft to U.S. military personnel in Iraq. From Marine recruiters trawling at a shopping mall to a Flint, Mich., woman who lost a son in the war. We even see grotesque footage of Taliban officials being entertained in Texas in the late ‘90s by Unocal, which hoped to build a pipeline across Afghanistan.

When Moore lets this diverse lot to speak for themselves, he gets everything a filmmaker could want—Gogol-esque political farce, shady intrigue, heartbreaking pathos, the whole ugly parade of weakness and deceit and civil unease and horrific violence that have characterized recent years, yet which somehow hasn’t gotten the same airplay in the media as the official soundbites and the embedded reportage. Whatever your stripe, Fahrenheit 9/11 is worth your time—it’s hard to imagine even a hardcore conservative, strongly opposed to Moore’s political agenda, remaining unmoved by what he or she saw in this film.

Be forewarned, however, that it includes hard-to-watch combat footage of maimed children and soldiers. Like war, but unlike politics, it’s not for the squeamish.

(Rating in dispute at this writing; violent combat footage) ***1/2