The title of “Fahrenheit 9/11” is a play on the title of the famous Ray Bradbury novel, “Fahrenheit 451” in which society has been transformed into an authoritarian, repressive regime, in which subversive ideas are crimes and books are burned. In the book, a lonely protagonist is awakened to this reality and joins the struggle to keep underground dissidence alive.
In Michael Moore’s movie, he leads an above-ground assault on the Bush Presidency, questioning his legitimacy, his character, abilities and, most of all, his attempt to fight terror through the war in Iraq. And similarly, his method of attack is by trying to bring to light the facts that those in power have tried to suppress.
Just like every Moore movie, it shows people looking stupid to humorous effect and it shows the heroic tales of common people who have suffered tragedy. And Moore blames their plight on the rich and powerful. In his other movies, the presidents of General Motors and the National Rifle Association, for instance, bear the brunt of his blame. In this movie, it’s George W.
In its best moments, the movie is a strong, anti-war documentary. It has truly moving moments of bereaved loved ones, mangled bodies in the streets, incredulous soldiers in Iraq, angry Iraqis and innocent teenagers being manipulated into enlisting. In this way, the movie presents a version of the war on Iraq that isn’t shown much in the media. It improves our understanding of the war by giving it a human face.
Asking members of Congress to enlist their children in the war was a good idea, as it emphasized an important point of his: that it’s the poor and
uneducated that fight the wars that politicians vote for. But it was probably one of those things that should have remained just a neat idea – the actual confrontations are just embarrassing for Moore, the politicians and the audience. Perhaps it’s an embarrasing reality we all ought to face, but maybe it’s just tasteless. Either way, the point remains forceful: the heroism of all these disadvantaged young people should only be used as a last resort.
But Moore’s movie isn’t just an anti-war movie. Part of the movie is an attempt to question and expose the political images being projected. This starts off with a dreamy sequence of Al Gore celebrating victory in Florida that, Moore says, was manipulated by Fox television into a Bush victory. But it’s further emphasized by the Bush politicians getting their hair and make-up done before going on TV. And it takes on an insidious character when the misrepresentation, misinformation, and lies about weapons of mass destruction are exposed. The feeling we get is that they’re trying to paint over themselves and their policies.
Moore also tries to reinforce the early image America was getting of the President, before 9/11: a man who bumbled and misspoke, whose ideas and agenda were almost none of his own doing and who, when tragedy struck, remained dumbstruck without anyone to tell him what to do. What’s most scary about the images of Bush is just how transparent it is that he’s saying things he doesn’t understand fully and how forced his attempts to stay on message seem. Perhaps we would all do and say stupid things if a camera followed us around all day-and Moore is an expert at finding and exploiting just these instances-but this is hardly reassuring.
Moore also suggests that Bush didn’t do enough to go after Bin Laden because of his family connections. The fact that the US sent in over
100,000 troops into Iraq and only 11,000 into Afghanistan to search for Bin Laden is certainly a telling statistic. But the movie labors to show
business connections between Bush and Saudi Arabia, which might be relevant as one fact among many, but by spending so much time emphasizing it, it feels like an ad hominem attack: the Saudis come off looking demonized, as if it was bad to be friends with Saudis. Bush’s connections are suggestive of ill-motives but do not form a strong argument about what his intentions actually were.
To be fair to Moore, the Democrats are not presented well either, being shown as passive supporters of a wrongful war. And Congressmen from both parties are derided for not reading the US Patriot Act that restricted civil liberties and for supporting a war that they wouldn’t send their own children off to fight.
But for the most part, Moore doesn’t really try to be fair. Are the Americans doing a good job winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis? Moore
suggests not and shows Iraqis being killed and intruded upon, but we never see anything else. Surely, he could’ve at least shown a token effort to win over Iraqi support and then say that the efforts have been too little, or too hypocritical to be effective.
What would be the adverse effects of having kept the bin Ladens in America after 9/11, if something had happened to them? As he himself mentions, the financial well being of a large chunk of America is dependent on its relations with Saudia Arabia, which presumably wouldn’t have been improved by any violence done to the Bin Ladens in the hysterical atmosphere in the US after 9/11. Perhaps the Bin Ladens shouldn’t have been allowed to leave, but Moore doesn’t allow the audience to consider the alternative.
Could Moore have done anything to give the movie a less partisan reception? The timing of its release, in an election year, didn’t help. But Moore’s movie also tears at the heart and soul of modern Democracy. On the one hand, he makes political statements emotionally rousing and easily understandable to a wide audience, inviting citizens from all walks of life and levels of education to be engaged. But his arguments are, without a doubt, simplifications and he doesn’t even bring up arguments that challenge his own, let alone take them seriously.
Moore insists that all his facts are correct and even hired an old fact checker for the New Yorker to make sure. But this, of course, doesn’t come to grips with the fact that much of the Bush statements he objects to are also, strictly speaking, factually correct. The truth about facts is not self evident, as he knows; the significance of facts can be manipulated by those with just a camera just as easily as by those in power. In an era of mass-media politics-a far cry from the original political debates in Athens-“Fahrenheit 9/11” is an uneasy compromise between populism and propaganda. The things it has to say are relevant and important and should be heard – but hopefully, they are just part of a larger, more even-handed discussion. Perhaps, the success of this movie is a recognition of the fact that the way this discussion gets carried out in the modern age is by turning it into a form of entertainment.