Thursday, July 01, 2004

Reflections on Fahrenheit 9/11

Saw Fahrenheit 9/11 last night with some Microsoft intern friends. My conclusion, when I compare the advance press with the actual film, is that most reviewers totally missed the mark. To recap in PowerPoint bullet-list form, the typical Fahrenheit 9/11 review --- and most have been similar enough that they could have been written by filling in blanks in a PowerPoint macro --- goes like this:

  • Fahrenheit 9/11: controversial.
  • Some footage rather effective.
  • Flaws:
    • cheap shots
    • innuendo
    • emotional manipulation

This treatment is about as fair and perceptive as noting that Chris Rock says ridiculous things in his standup routine, or that Tom Tomorrow's This Modern World is cartoonishly drawn. Which is to say, it's completely, obviously, trivially true, and also beside the point. Fahrenheit 9/11 is not, and was not meant to be, a dispassionate investigation of the Bush administration's accomplishments; it's a combination of pep rally and polemic on celluloid, and on that level it succeeds rather well. Michael Moore isn't a journalist or a scholar, or even much of a filmmaker in the ordinary sense. He's more like a political standup comic who uses the medium of carefully edited documentary footage rather than live performance.

Hence, there are roughly two relevant questions when considering the merits of a film like Moore's. First, is it boring? Second, does it, like all truly great comedy routines, speak to a deeper truth, regardless of its sometimes outlandish treatment of particular details? Your answers to these questions will depend a great deal on your relative opinions of Bush and Moore, but mine are: no, it's not boring, and yes, it does speak to a deeper truth.

For example, when Moore accosts Congressmen to encourage them to enlist their children for military service, it's pure theater. The stunt isn't even logical: you can't, of course, enlist your children in the military; you can only enlist yourself. But the rapid-fire montage of Congressmen turning tail and running away from Moore's entreaty nevertheless hits home, because Moore has provoked them into enacting symbolically exactly what they did with the resolution authorizing war: they ran away from their responsibilities.

Additionally, a lot of the journalists who are running down Moore are far more unfair and tendentious than Moore's film. Today I listened to David Denby, Richard Just, and others on NPR call Moore a conspiracy theorist. Someone (a caller? a journalist? I missed the name) said that the film claims that because certain corporations profited from the war, those corporations therefore controlled the decision-makers who sent us to war. The film says no such thing, and you must be either obtuse or prone to conspiracy theories yourself to draw that conclusion. To me, it was obvious that Moore was drawing a contrast between the devastating grief that the war has inflicted on people like Lila Lipscombe (whose son was killed in Iraq), and the combination of frivolity, greed, and even delight with which Bush and his associates greeted the war. Is it a "conspiracy theory" to suggest that people who bear so few of the burdens of war --- who, on the contrary, reap enormous benefits for themselves and their cronies --- would be less hesitant to lead us to war than the American people would prefer?

But then, perhaps subtle concepts like "common interest" are lost on most journalists. Perhaps their imaginations are delimited to the much simpler movie logic of "sinister white-haired men smoking in darkened conference rooms and plotting world domination". Perhaps if you don't have incontrovertible video evidence of a claque of sinister white-haired smokers in a conference room, then you have no point.

Now, Fahrenheit 9/11 has its flaws: it is disorganized, it rambles, and sometimes you wish Moore had been more sparing with the voice-over. Still, it's a movie worth seeing on the big screen. When I said this movie was like a rally, I meant it: watching this movie in a theater, where you can collectively laugh, cry, and gasp in outrage with your fellow moviegoers, is a qualitatively different experience than watching the video at home will be.

We live in charged and fateful times. In years past, the performances of brilliant orators or musicians might have crystallized the national mood, and speeches or concerts might have provided the occasion for dissenters to gather. For better or for worse, we've got, instead, a movie, made by a shaggy, tubby, disreputable guy from Flint, Michigan.

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