The preview really got my attention. The New York Times called the documentary “entertaining, moving and historically significant.” Details dubbed it “an instant and incendiary classic,” and Entertainment Weekly called it “epic storytelling…one of the most revelatory…portraits ever made.” Thoughtful words for an important moment in film. But Metallica: Some Kind of Monster won’t be released until July 9, and, anyway, I was in the theater to see Fahrenheit 9/11.
Satire in wartime is an ancient art–Aristophanes made a career of it. One can appreciate the humor in a well-made caricature regardless of one’s view of the issues it makes light of. But listening to the banter amongst the Left-wing crowd in the theater, I concluded that this was not simply lampoonery. Moore accurately reflects the beliefs that most Democratic voters hold as true: President Bush was not elected legally; the United States is run by a wealthy white oligarchy (of which Democrats are somehow not a part, but sometimes facilitate); the military is comprised of an underclass that is sent to die in wars to keep the ruling oligarchy in power and make its members even wealthier; and invading Iraq was the idee fixe of the Bush administration from day one, for which the war on terrorism simply provided a convenient pretext.
As a film, Fahrenheit is uneven. A few parts are visually entertaining (e.g., the Bonanza parody) and some are very moving. But other segments wander to no particular point (such as a night patrol in Iraq, dimly filmed and inconclusive) or are simply confusing (are there really insufficient numbers of state troopers in Oregon, and if so, isn’t that their problem?). Mostly I was interested in how Moore employed the various elements of his shtick, which he has been developing at least since he emerged on the scene with Roger & Me in 1989. All the tricks were in evidence:
Exploit the ignorant: Talk to people who are inexperienced with media, and encourage them to say things that they probably should not. It is especially effective when giving a straight interview to people whose views are preposterous. The Daily Show does this regularly, and it is very funny, but hardly profound. Moore shows, among others, a woman in Saginaw, Michigan, who explains why her town could be a target for terrorism, and a clip of a hapless entrepreneur hawking an “escape chute” for emergency evacuation from tall buildings. These people were used to illustrate the irrational fears the oligarchs had conjured in order to prepare the hoipolloi for the case to invade Iraq. Congressman Jim McDermott called the fear campaign a “skillful and ugly” manipulation of the American public, underscoring the sense of paranoia that pervades the film.
Stage ambushes: Track down famous people and pose difficult questions while filming them, hopefully catching them in an embarrassing moment. Moore presents congressmen with the idea that their children should be sent to fight in Iraq, his reasoning being that if the lives of the progeny of the oligarchy were placed in danger we would only fight wars that were really necessary. Unfortunately for Moore, he is too well known and instantly recognizable for the ambush to work very well, and most of the shots show his intended victims avoiding him. Perhaps he should work through proxies.
Capitalize on the nonsequitur: The most noted example of this technique, and one being used to promote the film, features President Bush on a golf outing. He states to reporters, “I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive.” This scene got big laughs. Moore makes it appear as though the president convened the reporters in order to make a major policy statement, and then get back to his golf game. However, this was a routine press availability in which the president gave a standard answer to a stock question. Had he shown the entire Q&A it would hardly have been as interesting, but it would definitely have been more truthful. Moore also delights in running out-takes, pre-interview preparation shots, and other images that editors do not usually find newsworthy. People sometimes do strange or potentially embarrassing things before the cameras come on. For example it is not particularly edifying to see Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz coping with a bad hair experience, but apparently Moore found it significant.
Juxtapose: Juxtaposition is a very important aspect of Moore’s technique, but he is not very subtle. For example, he shows a clip from al Jazeera of an Iraqi woman wailing about her house being destroyed by American bombs, then cuts to a soldier talking about how they are there to make life better for the Iraqi people. The low point in the film is a series of street scenes of happy Iraqi children interspersed with shots of the attack being readied. The implicit–perhaps explicit–message is that life under Saddam was just fine. (Moore doesn’t much discuss Saddam, or why Bush was out to get him, except to imply it was because Saddam had tried to kill Bush 41.) We shortly see images of Iraqi children killed or horribly wounded, an echo of the “baby-killer” rhetoric of the Vietnam era.
Mess with the soundtrack: This is another form of juxtaposition, and the least clever aspect of Moore’s act, the kind of technique anybody could employ. Just take a serious situation and put frivolous music behind it, or illustrate a popular song with images of your victim that place him in a bad light. Moore sometimes showed a little imagination, such as showing tape of President Bush landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln while playing the theme from The Greatest American Hero (“Believe It or Not”). However, frequently his selections were of the “cheesy sounding circus music in the background” variety, what one might call French humor, which is probably what caught the attention of the folks at Cannes.
Milk the pathos: Moore appeals to emotion throughout the film, for example showing wounded servicemen, most of whom bore their situations stoically. A 9/11 victim’s family member discussed at length how her life had been devastated, though she seemed to be one of the professional victims attending the 9/11 Commission hearings. Moore could have engaged in some clever juxtapositioning here by flashing up the average payment from the victim funds ($2.1 million), especially compared to the minuscule benefits paid to families of troops killed in the war. The most poignant story was Lila Lipscomb’s, whose son Sgt. Michael F. Pedersen was killed April 2, 2003, in a Blackhawk helicopter crash. Moore presents Lipscomb as a proud service mother, a self-described conservative Democrat who ran the flag up every day and despised the antiwar crowd. After her son is killed, Moore documents her descent into despair. She is currently getting involved in the peace movement she used to oppose.
There was one scene where I felt Moore had reached high art. He portrayed the 9/11 attacks using sounds and a blank screen. He passed up using the most compelling visuals of recent decades, appealing instead to the viewer’s imagination and memory, with an auditory prompt. It was disorienting and frightening, and in my opinion the best moment of the movie qua movie. Nevertheless, it was soon over, and then it was back to the shtick.
Moore is the perfect person to engage in this kind of manufactured public embarrassment, largely because you cannot imagine him being embarrassed about anything. Not because he doesn’t have reason to be, but because he is completely unselfconscious. Faulty reasoning, slim evidence, outright foolish statements, nothing slows him down. The film has a number of factual errors, and the 9/11 Commission, which he portrays sympathetically, has since undercut some of the pillars of his major arguments. Moore passed up a great opportunity for irony with respect to one Commission finding: The movie dwells at length on the issue of the Saudi flights out of the U.S. after the attacks, and Moore shows a clip of Senator Byron Dorgan asking who was responsible. Later when showing Richard Clarke making his argument that the president had ordered him to find Iraq responsible for 9/11, Moore could have scrolled text across the bottom of the screen saying, “Hey Senator! This is the guy!” But that might have disrupted the conspiratorial story line with unnecessary salient facts.
The Democratic leadership embraced Moore at the premier at the Uptown Theater in Washington, and the heavily liberal audience applauded the film vigorously. It was a great moment of candor. Moore has the guts to say the things they think but will not utter. If the film encourages them to speak up, all the better. I cannot see Middle America finding much intellectual appeal in the film’s underlying feeling of ill will and dread. It is at base very hateful. Conservatives should not protest this film; that only gives it more notoriety and makes its multimillionaire “everyman” director even wealthier. I would sooner acknowledge Moore as the intellectual leader of the Left, and this film his (and their) emblematic masterwork. This is the best they have to offer.