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Unbalanced Checks


Fahrenheit 9/11

Michael Moore, USA, 2004

Rating: 3.4



Posted: July 1, 2004

By Laurence Station

Fahrenheit 9/11 is the hot button movie du jour. Less than a week after opening in the U.S., it's already the highest grossing documentary of all time, besting Moore's last effort, Bowling for Columbine. It won the coveted Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival (a case of politics trumping art, obviously, but still a notable achievement). Critically, for Moore, Fahrenheit 9/11 is causing exactly the type of furor he'd hoped for. Love him or hate him, Moore knows how to push peoples' buttons and let the court of public opinion sound off on issues he raises.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is an unapologetically agenda-driven film, which is as it should be: save for nature films, few documentaries are completely objective, and Moore makes no bones about his subjective point of view. Indeed, there's no real way to approach the film's subject matter objectively. It's an election year, and American troops are occupying foreign soil. For the liberal-with-a-capital-L Moore, who passionately believes Democratic leadership has failed to take a stand against President Bush and his Republican administration, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a full frontal assault on what the director views as a crooked, greedy and negligent Commander in Chief who has led this country into a war few want (save for the Military Industrial Complex Bush and his associates have disturbingly close ties with), and being asleep at the wheel when Osama bin Laden attacked the country on September 11.

Moore is an irreducibly polarizing figure; it's difficult to have an indifferent opinion about the man or his work. What's refreshing about his approach to Fahrenheit 9/11 is how little he appears on camera. There's no badgering of GM chairman Roger Smith or NRA president Charlton Heston here. The closest Moore gets to harassment is when he attempts to hijack members of congress on their way to work and request that they sign their children up for duty in Iraq (apparently, only one member of Congress has offspring serving active duty). Moore strives mightily to entertain (the pop music is queued at appropriate moments, the most amusing being "Greatest American Hero" blaring while President Bush boards an aircraft carrier for his embarrassingly premature "Mission Accomplished" speech), and he doesn't miss an opportunity to present Bush as a dimwitted boob via carefully chosen and edited footage. The lack of Moore's substantial physical presence helps keep the focus on the key issues: The war in Iraq and the price the country has paid (and is still paying) for its involvement in the conflict.

Fahrenheit 9/11 works best when Moore sticks to Bush and his reasons for going to war: Oil, oil, and oil. The notion that the president wanted to deflect from his failure to capture Osama bin Laden by going after a far more accessible target -- Saddam Hussein -- is also argued, though Moore's attempt at connecting the Bush and bin Laden families contains no compelling smoking gun. The idea of two wealthy families aligning is hardly revelatory, and the fact that a few of Osama's relatives attended his son's wedding in Afghanistan is hardly evidence of Bush having a bias for the world's most wanted terrorist. The point that members of the Saudi and bin Laden families were allowed to travel after 9/11, despite the grounding of all commercial flights is thin, as well. Rich people with influence in government operate by a different set of rules, and it's been clearly documented that the departure of Osama's relatives took place after commercial flights were cleared to resume flying. But such facts don't jibe with Moore's program, so they're overlooked.

Moore hits his mark examining the war's toll on American families, and the businesses in this country (Halliburton being the most egregious) eager for the conflict to go on as long as possible so they can profit from the immediate contracts and long-term infrastructure needs. It's fairly obvious the war in Iraq did not have to happen; there was simply no immediate threat to the United States or its allies from Saddam Hussein and his admittedly ruthless regime. If there is any backlash against President Bush in November (aside from the economy, stupid), it will arise from resentment that we conquered a country we had no business invading in the first place.

It would have been nice if Moore had pointed out the larger issue of Bush's rush to war: Namely the complicity of the Republican-controlled Congress. Moore singles out Bush as the prime mover, which is undoubtedly valid, but gives little mention of the fact that whenever Republicans or Democrats have a majority in Congress and control the Oval Office as well, a particular agenda will be pushed through, be it welfare or war. Without checks and balances -- the fundamental criteria for a democratic society -- abuses are inevitable. Absolute power is a seductively powerful corrupter of even the noblest civil servants. Bush is the too-easy target, but the mess the country finds itself in stems from a larger trend of one party out-campaigning the other to the point that a fair and balanced government body has been knocked dangerously askew.

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