As I said to someone recently, Michael Moore has never been a real documentary film-maker; he is a satirist who uses the documentary style as the tool of his trade. There is a vast difference between the two, and Fahrenheit 9/11 demonstrates just how wide that yawning gap is.
A good documentary builds its case from the inside out, like the construction of a house–showing us the foundations of its subject and then what was built on top of them–or from the outside in, like peeling an onion–showing us what’s on top and then slowly removing layer after layer to reveal what the surface was hiding. Moore’s film does neither. Fahrenheit 9/11 is structured like one of those grab-bags you get at a carnival: it’s got a little bit of everything in it that happened to be lying around loose when it got put together.
There is no attempt here to make any sense of what happened on 9/11 or of what it led to. This isn’t a documentary, it’s a polemic designed to pick out the most startling images and/or facts it can find and then throw them all in the same bag. The only thing that holds it together is that it all has something to do with 9/11 or Iraq. It doesn’t make clear the connection between them and it doesn’t show how one led to the other in any substantive way, in fact it barely gets around to suggesting that there is a connection.
And yet Moore clearly had more on his mind than a simple polemic. One of the longest and most connected sections of the film deals with the business relationship between the bin Laden family and the Bushes, including the relatively minor conspiracy around getting them out of the country after 9/11 so that potential investigations wouldn’t inconvenience them in any way. Compared to some of the other issues Moore raises–the oil imperative, the Halliburton-Cheney conspiracy, the Israeli Army-derived tactics against the civilians of Iraq practiced by our military, and most importantly perhaps in this context, the power of the Saudi Royal Family to influence the decisions of the Bush Administration–the ‘planes’ incident tends to pale into insignificance, yet he spends more time on it than on all those other issues combined.
Worse, he never finishes what he starts. The connection between the bin Ladens and the Saudi Royals is never made; he doesn’t detail any of the disturbing proof of the Saudi govt’s support for terrorists, including Al Qaeda; he shows that Iraqi oil was clearly a large part of the motivation for the Second Gulf War and brings the Afghanistan pipeline into the equation for what may be the first time, but he doesn’t connect those dots to the larger strategy the neocons have had for the Middle East since the late 80’s. Where is PNAC? Where is Richard Perle? Where, for god’s-sake, is Israel? No genuine documentary would ever have left out such key parts of the puzzle that is 9/11.
He follows a similar pattern throughout the film, lingering over insubstantial or less substantial aspects of the 9/11 fall-out while rushing through or brushing past far more lethal topics, a tack no self-respecting documentarian would take after his first student effort had been roundly criticized. How else would you explain that Paul Wolfowitz–a chief architect of the neocon strategy that led straight to Iraq–makes his only appearance combing his hair with his own spit? or that John Ashcroft’s only appearance involves a singular, not to say peculiar, instance when he sings a song–badly; there is nothing as sad as listening to somebody who thinks he can sing and can’t, unless it’s listening to somebody who thinks he’s funny and isn’t–of his own composition about an eagle soaring, soaring, soaring… OK already, I get it, John: eagles soar. Got anything else to say? Not in this film, he doesn’t, and that’s a problem.
Part political invective, part satire, part self-righteous polemic, Fahrenheit 9/11 stands or falls on the strength of its images and its ability to ridicule public figures who deserve it, and on that score it’s much more successful. Nobody who sees it is ever going to forget the image of the President of the US sitting in that second-grade classroom, immobile, for almost ten minutes after he’s been told that a second plane has hit the WTC, his face a mass of confusion and doubt. Moore speculates on what he might have been thinking, but if you look at his face it’s pretty clear that what’s running through his mind is one simple question: ‘What should I do?’ It’s equally and shockingly clear that he doesn’t know the answer.
The footage from Iraq is as stunning and as uncomfortable as anything from Titicut Follies. Iraqi children mutilated by American bombs, what the BA and the Pentagon would call ‘collateral damage’, are juxtaposed with Donald Rumsfeld cheerfully and with great pride and firmness explaining that such things could never happen because of the precision of our technology and the ‘great care’ we take to avoid them. Moore unceremoniously rips away the fantasy that the iraq war–that all modern war–is somehow cleaner and more humane than it used to be. It isn’t. War is still hell and the innocent are still its worst victims and anybody who doesn’t understand that should never be allowed to occupy a position in which they have the responsibility of either starting one or maintaining one.
But the most moving and devasting section of the film doesn’t come from Iraq but from Flint, Michigan. Anybody who can watch Lila Lipscomb trying to come to terms with the death of her son without his heart imploding in his chest is walking around dead and doesn’t know it. Anybody who can listen to her husband’s soft yet deeply angry question–‘And for what? For what?’–without questioning the motives of the leaders who sent his son to his death is either a robot or an alien pod-person, not a human being. You might still decide that Lila’s overwhelming grief is part of the price we must pay for a greater good, but if you don’t at least ask the question and re-examine the supposed reasons, everything from your toes up is no more than petrified wood masquerading as living tissue.
For in the end, Moore’s film isn’t trying to make or prove any particular case. It is aimed toward only one goal–taking you to that moment with Lila and her husband after having put into your head and your hands just enough information to make you question the govt’s quasi-justifications for this couple’s enormous sacrifice. For that achievement alone, it should be honored.