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Moore preaches to the choir in ‘ Fahrenheit 911’

The film is an angry polemic against the Bush administration. By Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

In “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Michael Moore drops any pretense that he is a documentarian to pull together from many sources an angry polemic against the president, the Bush family and the administration’s foreign policy.

Where “Roger & Me” and “Bowling for Columbine” were personal quests for truth, looking at a subject from different angles and talking to people polls apart in their points of view, Moore stays “on message” here from first shot to last. There is no debate, no analysis of facts or search for historical context. Moore simply wants to blame one man and his family for the situation in Iraq the United States now finds itself in.

The film arrives, of course, amid recent revelations of Bush insiders Richard Clarke and Paul O’Neill, the turmoil over the 9/11 commission and the growing sense that the Iraq problem is not going away anytime soon. And the very public dust-up between Moore and the Walt Disney Co. CEO Michael Eisner, which has left Moore momentarily without a distributor, certainly raises the film’s profile even further. So the film should reach a large enough audience; the question is: Will Moore be preaching to the choir?

Charting the American political scene during the past 3 1/2 years, Moore is forced to rely mostly on other people’s material. The assertion that America’s Saudi policy has been determined largely by financial ties between the Bush family and the Saudi royals — including another Saudi clan, the bin Ladens — comes largely from “House of Bush, House of Saud,” by Craig Unger, whom he interviews.

The Bush White House’s obsession with Iraq in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 despite overwhelming evidence that al-Qaida was behind the attacks comes from former counterterrorism czar Clarke in his book “Against All Enemies.” Most of the film’s interviews come from TV network news shows or CNN’s Larry King.

The movie begins with the contested 2000 presidential election. Moore takes the usual anti-Bush view that the election was stolen. Moore then characterizes Bush as a country bumpkin in the initial months of his presidency, spending 42% of his time on vacation and falling rapidly in public opinion polls.

Then comes 9/11. Moore touchingly conveys this day of infamy with a montage of sounds and visuals that refrains from showing images of airplanes hitting buildings or the World Trade Center collapsing. Instead, we get noise of horror over a blank screen, then shots of crying, horrified people staring into a sky filling with smoke and debris.

Moore recounts the Afghanistan invasion, the “botched” search for Osama bin Laden and the administration’s alleged fear-mongering through constantly upgraded, color-coded levels of the terrorist threat issued by the Homeland Security Department, all designed to make the public more willing to back the invasion of Iraq.

Even if one agrees with all of Moore’s arguments, the film reduces decades of American foreign-policy failures to a black-and-white cartoon that lays the blame on one family. He ignores facts like the policy to arm and support Afghan rebels that began in the Carter administration. For that matter, the Clinton team never mounted a serious effort to go after al-Qaida even after the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa.

The Iraq violence is more gruesome than what normally appears on American TV. One particular sequence follows an American patrol on Christmas Eve, but Moore never identifies who shot the footage. Because Moore is very good at jumping in front of a camera when he is around, one can only assume he shot none of the Iraq footage. But his editing is designed to emphasize Iraqi suffering and U.S. military personnel indifference or even hostility.

The movie contains only one episode of Moore’s patented “ambushes” of the famous. He collars congressmen leaving Capitol Hill and tries to persuade them to enlist their children to fight in Iraq. Not surprisingly, he has no takers.

When the movie devolves into problems of veteran benefits, harassment of peace groups or the grief of one family over a killed son, Moore simply loses his focus. These are worthy topics but have nothing to do with why the United States is in Iraq.

What Moore seems to be pioneering here is a reality film as an election-year device. The facts and arguments are no different than those one can glean from political commentary or recently published books on these subjects. Only the impact of film may prove greater than the printed word. So the real question is not how good a film is “Fahrenheit 9/11” — it is undoubtedly Moore’s weakest — but will a film help to get a president fired?