Everyone knows that Michael Moore is against George Bush, but after watching “Fahrenheit 9/11” last Friday I was left wondering what he’s for.
Is he for peace, or is Moore just against Dubya? Remember, this is a guy who endorsed General Wesley Clark for President. Fox News dubbed “Fahrenheit 9/11” an “ultra-patriotic film.”
Overall, the movie suggests that Bush was duped by America’s enemies into believing they were his friends. Bush is a fool who needs to be kicked out of the White House so America is free to kick its real enemies’ collective ass, beginning with the Saudis, or so Moore’s film would have it.
Basically, “Fahrenheit 9/11” is a “documentary” that exposes the world’s war profiteers and America’s current political leadership -- rather than its political economic system -- as the main culprits behind the current chaos in Iraq. Remove the corrupt scumbags in charge and everything will take care of itself.
To be fair, Moore includes the issues of race and class, but only to the degree that poor people are dumb and desperate, with no hope for a better life other than joining the Marines.
One can’t help but be moved by those living in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, which “Fahrenheit 9/11” claims has a real unemployment rate, one that includes under-employment and those who’ve just given up, of 50 percent.
But when a young African-American man, speaking on the street (presumably in his own neighborhood), says he sees his own community whenever images of the bombed out cities in Iraq appear on TV, Moore uses the statement as fact rather than a gross exaggeration or symptom of a mind pathologically detached from reality.
Later in the film, he uses images of Iraqi children playing in the streets of Baghdad to suggest things weren’t as bad under Saddam Hussein as they are now under U.S. occupation, or on the neglected streets of urban America.
“It looks just like this place,” says the young man, the camera panning the shot’s desolate street corner backdrop. “What about us? Who’s going to liberate us?” he whines, marking one of the film’s lowest, cheapest points.
The movie doesn’t invite people to think for themselves, as you would think it might if it were a true instrument of democracy and human freedom. For starters, Moore’s perspective leaves little room for other versions of the “facts” he presents, which he claims are “irrefutable.” Yet he’s hired a squad of lawyers to blunt criticism about their credibility. In that respect, Moore is identical to the Bush Regime. Each side vociferously pronounces the validity of its claims, and rather than seeking truth seeks victory.
Documentaries that openly promote themselves under the labels of liberal or conservative, left wing or right wing, fall into the existing modes of polemic that preceded them. Like George Bush, Moore fails to look in the mirror and reflect upon his actions in the film. Propaganda is always free of self-doubt, seeking to maintain the militaristic fortress mentality of the masses, which can be manipulated to achieve the aims of those in power, whichever party that may be.
If “Fahrenheit 9/11” is truly a populist documentary seeking to awaken and liberate the average Jane American, as he was in his first film, “Roger & Me,” he might discard the use of sacred national symbols altogether, or mock them as he did in “Bowling for Columbine” (the interrogation of a befuddled Charlton Heston in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease comes immediately to mind -- he made Moses look like an ass, then portrayed the dear old matinee idol as being manipulated by the National Rifle Association).
What was particularly galling about “Fahrenheit 9/11” were the soft hewn shots of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the White House used as backdrops for scenes following a soldier’s grieving mother, Lila Lipscomb, around Washington while she struggled to make sense of her son’s death.
The scenes, as staged, suggest an America lost, an America that soldiers like Mrs. Lipscomb’s son had proudly volunteered to defend, only to discover they’d been screwed by leaders who had lied to them. The viewer is led to believe, like Mrs. Lipscomb, that what’s being experienced is real, but is never asked to question the foundations of that reality. America’s “greatness” is not questioned, its fundamental goodness is accentuated, and the viewer must accept these facts or be repelled by the spectacle of their presentation.
This suggests that Moore longs for the good old days of Bill Clinton, despite the fact that was the America of Columbine, Oklahoma City and Waco. Yes, the lesser evil is preferred to the present situation, but the filmmaker’s preference need not be idealized. If you really want people to doubt something, get them to start doubting what they’ve believed in. Moore, it seems to me, reinforces much of white America’s mythical vision of manifest destiny.
In suggesting that a real war needs to be fought against real enemies, that the war we’re fighting is a mere distraction from the real war, Moore misses the point: It was America’s unjust foreign policy before Bush was selected President by the Supreme Court that got us into this mess. Bush is a temporary blip on the screen that has sought to personally benefit from human tragedy. The previous and next president will likely do the same. Moore doesn’t come close to making this point, but then again he knows his audience.
The aim of Bush’s war on terror -- to rid the world of evil -- is not disputed by “Fahrenheit 9/11,” merely its tactics and the way the administration has bungled efforts to make us safer receive attention. It rightly attacks the PATRIOT Act, but fails to dig deep enough into the fear that let it happen in the first place. Rather than mentioning the anthrax attacks on Democratic legislators on Capitol Hill, he shows Rep. John Dingle, D-Michigan, lecturing the camera about how Congress doesn’t read any of the bills it votes on. Rather than analyzing American fear, it attacks its bureaucracy, something conservatives are wont to do.
In this respect, I think “Fahrenheit 9/11” is the very antithesis of “Bowling for Columbine.” Where “Bowling” connected the dots between America’s military-industrial complex, the exploitation of fear and our nation’s blood-soaked mythology, allowing viewers to see how they’ve been manipulated into believing what they believe in; “Fahrenheit 9/11” uses the M.I.C. to turn the audience’s fear in a different direction, and merely suggests that someone else needs to bleed.
That someone else, according to the movie, is the war profiteer. Ironically, Moore ignores the fact that he too is making a hefty profit from this war. Like all propagandists, Moore fails to perceive himself as part of the problem.
Moore’s genius, however, is in being a working stiff’s James Bond, who shows the people what startling intelligence his camera can gather. What’s great fun about all of Moore’s films, even “Bowling for Columbine,” is how they visually document the weaknesses of those who have the power to do something about whatever it is he’s filming.
The most effective scenes in “Fahrenheit 9/11” are those that show members of the Bush regime in their true light: Dubya goofing off moments before telling the nation he’s ordered the invasion of Iraq, the Department of Defense’s use of buckets of spit to control the colic in Paul Wolfowitz’s hair, John Ashcroft belting out a patriotic song he’d written, and Bush telling an audience in good humor that “some people call you the elite, I call you my base.”
The camera is mightier than the system, and to those in power, if they’re arrogant and selfishly motivated, Moore’s a real psychological terrorist. People like Moore make the elite paranoid, and it’s fun to watch them squirm. When Moore shows up with his camera, he becomes father confessor, he’s offering redemption for those who will tell the truth, and their failure to take him up on his offer always fits in like a perfect piece to the puzzle he’s illustrating.
An example is how members of Congress ducked him outside their office buildings when Moore wanted them to enlist their children for the war in Iraq. The point was visual and obvious, much the way it was when Dick Clark ducked him in “Bowling for Columbine” and Roger Smith did in “Roger & Me.” The guilty, in Moore’s cinematic world, usually plead the Fifth, which makes them look like hypocrites and cowards. They leave it up to Moore, like a federal prosecutor, to assemble the pieces of the truth they’re hiding.
The mere fact the puzzle solver begins by assuming a particular truth exists guarantees the likeness of the image that will be formed. The puzzle solver’s ideology crushes the truth signified by the original image, then slavishly reconstructs it according to the design he’s bought into.
The puzzle solver, however, misses the reality of the original image and makes it harder to analyze anything in and of itself, or approximate its actuality. The puzzle solver does not make the original image more transparent, but reconstructs it according to the whims of the butcher who chopped it up in the first place.
“Fahrenheit 9/11” makes it difficult to understand anything beyond Bush is bad, but America isn’t. Moore promotes the authoritarian either/or aesthetic in this film, in which all possible meanings are narrowed down to just one thing: Bush has got to go. Gone are the complex ambiguities of “Bowling for Columbine,” which made viewers look at themselves as part of the problem.
This film is more in line with his biggest flop -- “Canadian Bacon,” a hilarious movie that lacked intellectual clout -- than his poignant earlier documentaries.
If Moore was really subversive, he might set out to reveal the absurdity of war itself, rather than the corruption that always leads to it. Rather than focusing on the connections between the Bush and bin Laden families, it might have been more interesting to analyze why masses of people cooperate with them even when it’s against their interests to do so. That would require a close look at the methods of propaganda, something that was not in Moore’s interest to do in “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
In that Moore begins with questions and ends with answers, rather than the other way around, I think it’s possible he’s one of those rich authoritarian white guys whose brains are infected with a narcissistic form of patriotism. They love in their country what they love about themselves. Woody Guthry’s America is good, but it only ever existed for Woody. That was his reality.
What is Michael Moore’s? He obviously sees that average Americans are losing out because they see only the spectacle of power, rather than the reality behind it. In his earlier films, Moore succeeded in translating his vision to those who would benefit from it. Laborers recognized in “Roger & Me” the truth behind their political economic reality. “Columbine” revealed to its audience how fear and guilt regarding its privileged position in the world fueled America’s high rate of violence. In “Fahrenheit 9/11”, however, Moore validates his audiences’ preconceptions rather than deconstructs them.
Moore, it seems, never asked himself before shooting this film how he might best present an argument that will change the minds of people who are not fans of his work. Where his earlier films were aimed at waking viewers up to their roles in society, “Fahrenheit 9/11” seeks to define them: It is the job of all good Americans to overthrow the Bush regime.
One may not argue with his overall vision, but Moore’s methods of representing that vision are severely flawed because they leave ample room for the overriding ideology that has led us into the current mess -- militarism.
Rather than questioning why America needs to be the world’s only superpower, “Fahrenheit 9/11” asks the audience to push for national leadership that won’t abuse that power. Rather than questioning the nature of American dominance, Moore is seeking to tweak and manipulate it to realize his own idealized vision of America.
“Fahrenheit 9/11” does not document America’s war on terror in such a way that will transform the nation’s fear and guilt into more progressive forces. Those who support Bush will refuse to see the film and remain blind to what they’re doing to billions of people in the developing world just by going about their daily routines. Nothing this movie says will reach them.
Moore’s “documentary” fails to explore the sociopathic nature of Bush’s religious and political-economic beliefs, which are rooted in America’s sense of the planet being its own private property. One might assume Dubya was a secularist from watching this film. Israel was never even mentioned.
“Fahrenheit 9/11” never touches on what America most fears -- falling from first place and all that might entail. The movie doesn’t even begin to address these questions, choosing instead to ignore many of the key elements informing the current conflict.
In the end, Moore has created nothing but a campaign commercial for John Kerry, and that’s disappointing.
Chuck Richardson is editor of www.niagarabuzz.com. An experienced poet, journalist, newspaper columnist, produced playwright and award-winning literary critic, he has just published his first book, Memos from Apartment 5, available now from Page Free Press. His writing has appeared on ZNet, The Smirking Chimp, Buffalo Report, Buffalo Alt Press, Graphic Truth, corporations-suck.com and JuryFury.com, among others. He can be reached at Richardson@niagarabuzz.com.
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