Michael Moore’s scathing indictment of the Bush administration, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” winner of the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, doesn’t break a lot of new ground.
If you’ve been watching recent installments of “60 Minutes” and Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” or if you’re familiar with this year’s best-seller list (especially Craig Unger’s “House of Bush, House of Saud”), you won’t find many surprises here.
Indeed, the opening scenes amount to a condensed version of Richard Perez and Joan Seckler’s 2002 documentary, “Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election,” which made the case that the 2000 election was stolen. Much of the rest is reminiscent of Robert Greenwald’s 2003 documentary, “Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War,” which used interviews with CIA, Pentagon and foreign-service experts to demolish the rationale behind the war.
But put all these approaches together, connect the dots, throw in a few brand-new interviews and never-seen-before clips of President Bush looking especially befuddled, and you’ve got a remarkably powerful narrative — and a movie that communicates an unshakeable sense of non-fiction tragedy. No wonder conservatives are trying so hard to shut it down before it reaches theaters.
The freshest ammunition in Moore’s arsenal is a camcorder tape of Bush’s ultra-delayed reaction to the news that the World Trade Center had been hit by terrorists. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush was reading to kids at a Florida elementary school. After being informed of the attacks, Bush froze and continued with the classroom lesson — for nearly seven minutes.
This gives Moore more than enough room to ponder what Bush could be thinking during this moment of apparent paralysis. He fills in the vacancy on the soundtrack with a collection of possible Presidential thoughts, including worries about his friends, the Saudis, and whether he should have paid more attention to counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke.
The first half of “Fahrenheit 9/11” is filled with such Moore-ish mischief-making, guaranteed to embarrass Republicans. Especially excruciating: Paul Wolfowitz licking his comb to slick back his hair for the cameras, John Ashcroft singing a patriotic song he composed, and Bush preparing to deliver an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, as his eyes nervously dart from side to side. The jokiest touch is a faked clip from “Bonanza,” with the faces of Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Tony Blair placed over the bodies of cowboys.
But there’s a somber quality to the film’s second half, as the cost of the Iraq war becomes harder to hide. Interviews with fed-up American soldiers and furious Iraqi citizens are particularly chilling. So is Moore’s talk with a woman who lost her disillusioned son in Iraq and tearily confesses that she should have been paying more attention to the reasons he went.
“Fahrenheit 9/11” isn’t entirely designed to skewer the current administration. Democrats are chastised for voting for the war and for not challenging the Supreme Court’s decision to anoint Bush, while senators of both parties are condemned for not backing African-American Congressmen who questioned the Florida election. Moore’s final hope, delivered in a non-partisan spirit, is that “we won’t get fooled again.”