Fahrenheit  9/11: Less is Moore.  

Fahrenheit 9/11 begins by placing its audience back in front of their TV sets on the night of the presidential election in November of 2000. In voice-over-narration, director Michael Moore evokes a “dream” in which Al Gore is the president-elect, and we view familiar footage of all the major news networks declaring Gore victorious in Florida.  We see champagne and sparklers at the Gore campaign headquarters, clear signs of the victory celebration underway.  But then the dream begins to unravel.  There is more familiar footage as we watch a single network declare George Bush the winner in Florida.  Moore then points out facts that may not be as familiar to his audience:  Fox was the network that challenged Gore’s win, and John Ellis, the Fox executive who initiated that challenge, is a first cousin to George and Jeb Bush. The footage then shows all of the major networks retracting their previous nods to Gore, and eventually Gore himself conceding defeat after the Supreme Court decision that made George W. Bush the 43rd U.S. president.  Moore then reminds us that this is not a dream; it really happened. 

In that brief preamble, we see the strategy that Moore employs throughout his stunning investigation into president Bush’s war on terror.  He begins with the familiar, what we already know and have seen on television, and then deftly inserts what we don’t know, because it couldn’t possibly appear on television.   This is a very different and far more effective approach than he used in either Bowling For Columbine (2002) or Roger and Me (1989), because we see much less of Moore.  Instead, he juxtaposes a staggering array of news and entertainment clips that we have seen with cutting-room-floor outtakes that we have not seen.   A now famous example of Moore’s technique occurs early in the film when Bush learns of the second attack on the World Trade Center shortly after entering a Florida elementary school classroom.  Most viewers will recall the look of panic that crosses the president’s face as a secret service agent whispers the news into his ear.  What we see in Fahrenheit 9/11 is this panic continuing for another seven minutes as Bush sits silently in the classroom listening to the teacher read My Pet Goat.  We have ample time to observe the ironic chalk sign that hangs behind the president.  It says, “Reading Makes a Country Great!”

Although Moore seldom appears in front of the camera, he is still present in the film, mostly through voice-over-narration, and viewers will hear him make a plausible case for the real motives behind the war on terror.  Regardless of one’s response to this argument, there is no denying the impact of this vast collection of previously unseen footage.  Usually it provokes laughter when it involves Bush.  There is something appealing about a man who can make goofy faces at the TV camera moments before announcing the start of a war with Iraq, or invite us to watch his golf swing after requesting the nations of the world to join the war on terror.  The effect is far more sobering when Moore shows us the amputee ward of a military hospital, or raw bones and tissue in the arm of an infant Iraqi bomb victim.  Even without Moore’s narration we connect the images of a clowning, unreflective president to the horror and death caused by a questionable war.

Moore gradually withdraws as the film progresses, and lets the footage, or more accurately the people within the footage, speak for themselves.  Interviews with soldiers and their families dominate the last part of the film, and their message is that we’ve been had. Nowhere is this more poignant than in Moore’s interview with Lila Lipscomb, a native of Flint Michigan (Moore’s hometown) who loses her oldest son in Baghdad.  Testimony from people like her is the most powerful vocalization of the point Moore has been driving at since the beginning.  The election of 2000, the war on terror, and the occupation of Iraq have all been orchestrated by powerful people who care little about ordinary Americans.  By staying out of the frame Moore allows us to see what the mainstream media does not or cannot.  The result is a damning indictment and an artistic triumph.

The real question about Fahrenheit 9/11 is whether it will succeed politically.   Bowling for Columbine won Moore the Academy Award for best documentary in 2003.  Fahrenheit 9/11, after it's Golden Palme award and unprecedented 20-minute standing ovation at Cannes this spring, is already a critical smash.  Michael Moore, however, is fundamentally an activist who wants political change--at the White House, in this case.  To affect that audience of patriotic "red state" Americans, Moore has to compete with pit bull pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, who have masterfully convinced working class Americans that their interests are the same as multinational corporations.  In Fahrenheit 9/11 Moore has crafted a powerful tool of conversion.  The curtain lifting he does on Bush and the people suffering most from this war will undoubtedly cause some conservative Americans (like Lila Lipscomb) to wonder if maybe Moore's right: we've been had.  If they do Moore might see the fulfillment of a different dream this November.

This article was originally published in my CineMatters column for The Baltimore View, July 2004. Joseph Christopher Schaub