Michael Moore hurled a flaming thunderbolt in what may become the most historically significant documentary film ever made. “Fahrenheit 9/11” smoldered for months as censors at Disney and the White House tried to prevent you from seeing it. The film may boil the besieged Bush right out of his ailing presidency.
The folksy, shuffling, overweight populist Moore takes on “the leader of the free world.” Moore won round one by getting the film shown and round two by garnering awards and front page stories around the world before the film even opened. Becoming the highest-grossing documentary of all time in its opening weekend gave him round three. A growing mass movement may deliver Bush a knockout punch.
“Fahrenheit” ignited a brush fire that a grassroots internet group fanned into a firestorm. Moveon.org’s more than 4,600 “Turn Up the Heat” house gatherings throughout the republic on June 28, where Moore was piped in via a live video internet simulcast, were attended by over 55,000 people. That event will be followed up by another national gathering on July 11 to register people to vote. Such gatherings may join people’s voices together to become the wind that carries the fire that sweeps Bush out of the presidency.
“Fahrenheit’s” most self-incriminating scene is Bush hearing about the second plane striking the Twin Towers. He is listening to “My Pet Goat” with a group of Florida elementary students, which he continues to do casually for seven long minutes, as if nothing significant had happened.
Bush fiddled while New York burned. Bush’s befuddled look and slow, hesitant response to the disastrous news will be etched deeply in the American mind. This is the real Bush, behind the carefully crafted TV images. Moore scorches the veils off to expose a naked, vengeful, mechanical Bush. Moore’s comments during this part of the film were distracting, as he attempted to analyze what Bush might have been thinking. The image alone would have allowed viewers more freedom to think for themselves.
Though Moore is often the hero of his own films, this film’s hero is Lila Lipscomb of Flint, Michigan. When we first meet her she cheerfully speaks proudly of her daughter who served in Desert Storm. She comes from a military family, as does this commentator. Lipscomb talks of “hating the protesters.” A transformation occurs after her marine son is killed in Iraq.
Lipscomb speaks for the many military families who have already lost members or whose children have been wounded in Iraq. As one wonders, “For what?” Uniformed soldiers also bravely speak out on camera against the war. Whereas Bush boasts “Bring ‘em on!” Lipscomb comments, “A parent is not supposed to bury their child. My flesh just aches.” She cries uncontrollably on the White House lawn on behalf of all America for our fatal
losses. She has more in common with a wailing Iraqi mother than with Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Wolfowitz, and the other neoconservatives responsible for sending their children to early deaths.
The admittedly one-sided film has humor, but seeing it is sobering. My main memory of meeting Moore in Santa Rosa, California, a couple of years ago when he spoke about his still best-selling book “Stupid White Men” is how funny he is, which hearing him at one of Moveon.org’s “Turn Up the Heat” gatherings confirmed. But tears slowly came to the eyes of this military vet as I saw our soldiers torturing other humans, our wounded vets receiving inadequate care, and our president looking so stupid. The cries of those dying and wounded still echo in my ears.
“Fahrenheit” is hard to watch; viewers cover their eyes at certain scenes and sobbing is not unusual. It evoked “Platoon,” the last war move I saw, which portrayed American soldiers in Vietnam and their degradation. Some of the most disturbing scenes in “Fahrenheit” are of the young American men and women appearing so dazed and confused in Iraq in contrast to the cocky old men who sent them there. Thousands of vets are already returning home after fighting in a war that many of them publicly denounce. Re-integrating them into civilian society will not be easy.
Moore reports having received over 1,500 letters from American soldiers expressing opposition to this war, which he may compile into a book. Such opposition within the military at the early stages of what is predicted to be a prolonged war is unprecedented in American military history. Criticism of the president at high levels in the military and the intelligence community, especially the CIA, will contribute to Bush’s downfall. I wonder what will happen to the brave soldiers and other whistle-blowers who are speaking out against the folly of this war.
14-year-old Joshua Canning spoke to me about the film’s scenes that moved him, “The US is dropping bombs on people’s houses. Kids watch as every person they have known and loved gets blown up. What have they ever done to us? Then these kids become the terrorists. I can understand how they feel. Think about it. How would you feel if a bomb landed on your house and every person you have known is all blown up. For no reason. You did nothing to them and now people are being killed everyday for nothing. How would you feel ?”
Moore’s big screen critique extends beyond Bush and his cronies. Democrats are presented from the opening scenes as weak, submissive, and inept. The film offers much information and many arresting details are offered; for example, only one of the 535 members of Congress has a child enlisted in the military in Iraq.
“War is good for companies in the business of war,” a businessman notes. The cozy relationship between the Bush family and Saudi rulers, including the bin Laden family, is revealed. The oil connection in Iraq is well-documented, as the film skewers corporations like Cheney’s Halliburton, the Bush family’s Carlyle Group, Enron and Unocal. The Carlyle Group, a major “defense” contractor, recently bought Loews Theaters, the nation’s third largest cinema chain, for $2 billion. It has also purchased various local phone companies in its efforts to further control the media and telecommunications.
“Fahrenheit” indicts the media. Its made-up stars are exposed for their unwillingness to report important news. Moore condenses into feature film length what television could have presented among its many broadcasts since Sept. 11, using archival footage from the networks. If the American press were independent and not corporate, the stories Moore tells would have been reported in different ways by different journalists to inform the American people about many aspects of the Iraq War and Bush.
The beyond-expectations success of this film opens up a space for others to speak up, at least for now. Perhaps other professional and creative filmmakers, artists, and journalists will now film, speak, and write the many truths that have been so under-reported. But watch the corporate media and its icons hack at Moore. Expect Bush, his cronies, and those envious of Moore’s success to continue their counter-attack. They will pick, pick, pick at this film and its director, inflating its imperfections to increase your doubts.
Finding details to criticize “Fahrenheit” about is not difficult. But the film is presented by a provocateur, not a prosecutor. It is intended as political satire, dark humor and social criticism not as a legal brief, though it is well-researched and Moore is prepared to substantiate his allegations. Bushies are complaining about the film, but not filing suit in court. The footage does not lie.
During the Iraq War I have felt many different things, including sadness, shame, anger, and depression. This movie’s fire is a good antidote to depression and could help ignite a mass movement to restore democracy and decency in our beloved republic. This patriotic film is a gift to our country. It personalizes war. Perhaps non-voters, America’s largest block, who see the film will be motivated to become “active participants in our democracy,” Moore commented to Reuters after the film’s opening.
In the college classes that I teach on cinema we talk about how films can evoke feelings, which is what characterizes great art. “Fahrenheit” succeeds to evoke feelings, including those of opposition to Bush and the Iraq War and those who are so mad that they denounce the film without seeing it. Rational arguments against Bush and the Iraq War need to be augmented by art that stimulates people to feel. The various feelings that “Fahrenheit” stimulated in many people—including sadness and anger—may take a while to evolve into action.
Be sure to seek “Fahrenheit” for yourself, despite what the media that it exposes says about it. But try not to see it alone. As you watch it, imagine yourself an Iraqi, European or other citizen of the world and what you might think of America, its leaders, and its passive citizens. Though depressing in the reality that it reveals, the movie is ultimately hopeful and is building a momentum that can move into action to mobilize voters. As the previously politically inactive host of the Moveon.org home party I attended commented, “We need to break our reliance on mainstream media. This film is a tutorial to awaken our sleep-walking nation.”
Or as Bush himself says in the film’s closing words and images, “There’s an old saying in Tennessee, I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee, that says fool me once... uh... shame on...shame on you...uh...wuh... fuh... won’t get fooled again.” Bad as it may be, one has to laugh at the absurdity of such a fool running these United States and trying to run the world.
Bush may not have to answer to Moore, but he does have to answer to the mothers, like Lipscomb, wives, children, and family members whose beloved ones were killed or wounded or harmed innocent civilians in the doomed Iraq War. Those men and women open up a deep wound in the American Soul.
Dr. Shepherd Bliss teaches Communication at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo. His most recent contributions to books include an essay to Shattered Illusions: Analyzing the War on Terrorism and a poem to An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind: Poets on 9/11. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.