As a documentary filmmaker myself, I do not take lightly the task of publicly critiquing another non-fiction filmmaker’s work. Therefore, I should say right away that Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is a great film, a very good documentary, and an important look at recent history. Moore is a complicated filmmaker and 9/11 is his most inventive, skillful and angry film.
Technically and artistically, Moore’s films are as complex in form as documentaries come, incorporating interviews, voice-over, animation, guerrilla street theater and archival materials from every imaginable source into cohesive stories about modern American culture and politics. While he is best known for his confrontational gimmicks, Moore is highly skilled at virtually every documentary form and style.
As in his earlier films, Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine, Moore’s confrontational style of filmmaking plays a significant role in 9/11. But 9/11 is more essay and historical documentary than street theater.
Fahrenheit 9/11 opens with a recounting (pun intended) of the 2000 presidential election, with Moore’s sarcastic narration dominating. The supporting material is so strong, and the story so compelling, that the attitude feels unnecessary, though it hardly diminishes the film’s intensity.
The documentary continues with a familiar series of events leading up to the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, but still manages to include fresh material. The opening section on the election scandal, for example, is topped off with scenes from the U.S. Senate floor where Democrats from the Congressional Black Caucus one after another step to the podium to officially protest the results of the Florida recount. Without a single U.S. senator signing on to the objection, however, their protest could not be recognized, and then-Senate President Al Gore, with a sense of humor mostly absent during his campaign, is forced to reject their complaints.
After the film’s lengthy introduction, the opening credits present the main cast of characters—the President and his cabinet—being made-up for an unknown press event, lending the impression that our top government officials are nothing more than actors reading scripts prepared for them by behind-the-scenes political strategists. We hear little unscripted testimony from any of the cabinet members during the film, and obviously the administration would not consent to interviews with Moore. In the few moments when Bush and company are unscripted, Bush in particular comes off as a buffoon, his handful of candid comments illuminating and surprisingly incoherent, even given what we have already seen in television appearances. But even these moments, shocking as they are, are overshadowed by the events documented in the second half of the film. From the Iraq war onward, Fahrenheit 9/11’s subject is too powerful for Moore to get in the way. Wisely he keeps his distance.
Fahrenheit 9/11 then proceeds into a somewhat complicated investigation into connections between the Bush family and the Saudi Arabian elite, including members of the bin Laden family. This sequence is a bit difficult to follow, but while Moore stops short of suggesting an illegal relationship, it is clear that there are serious ethical considerations surrounding the Bush family dealings with the Saudis.
Fahrenheit 9/11 presents a tremendous amount of factual information without degenerating into a tedious educational-style or historical documentary. What separates Moore from Ken Burns, Bill Moyers and many of the hundreds of other political and educational documentary filmmakers is his ability to keep us entertained during the presentation of essentially depressing material. At moments when you start to feel overwhelmed by the barrage of complex information, Moore turns comical with the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, for which he reconfigures the opening sequence of Bonanza. Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, and Bush’s faces are superimposed over those of the original actors, riding in to face the enemy Taliban on horseback. These fully manufactured absurdities provide necessary levity throughout the film. Fahrenheit 9/11 also draws on an astonishing array of archival materials, from TV news outtakes to Halliburton promotional reels, as well as compelling original interviews by Moore and camera operators in Iraq and elsewhere.
But it’s the rest of the film that is truly gripping. Drawing on footage from the Iraq war and testimony from American military personnel stationed there, it paints a picture of the war run by an American oligarchy for no purpose other than to further enrich the few corporations with direct connections to the administration. In contrast, Moore interviews Flint, Mich., resident Lila Lipscomb, a self-described conservative Democrat with two children in the military. A hardworking middle-class white woman married to an African-American man, Lipscomb is a proud and patriotic citizen who hangs the flag outside her home every morning. Her story will be devastating to any American viewer.
There’s a significant amount of factual information in the film that was poorly covered by the news media, and seeing it all in a coherent chronology of American politics since November 2000 is remarkable. This is undoubtedly the first time that a political documentary has been released theatrically while the recorded politics are still playing out. Great political documentaries like Primary, A Perfect Candidate, and The War Room all provide important windows into the world of politics and history, but none had their release until the story had completely unfolded. The release of Fahrenheit 9/11 during this election year is itself a historic political event.
Without a doubt, the film will be wildly successful at mobilizing the “progressive base” that John Kerry hopes will vote (for him) in record numbers this year. Less clear is how effective Moore’s film will be at converting those Americans on the political fence, let alone die-hard Republicans who might object as strongly to Moore’s tone and tactics as liberals do to Rush Limbaugh. Intelligent, politically right Americans could very well be convinced by a less polemic film. But open-minded viewers will find Moore’s version of the “truth” powerful indeed, and those who make it through the cheap shots and self-righteous anger will find a great deal of clarity in Fahrenheit 9/11.
A political junkie myself, I enjoyed the film most on my third viewing. It is fascinating that in a country where the citizenry is characterized as generally uninterested in politics, people are crowding theaters in every region of the country and paying to see an alternative viewpoint on politics-as-usual. What that says about the fate of the current administration, the mainstream media, and the film entertainment industry remains unclear.
Doug Hawes-Davis is a co-founder of High Plains Films and the director of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.