Security Issues Project
How sad it was to find that Michael Moore’s documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11 delivered merely a glancing blow at its mile wide target, the regime of George W. Bush. From the many reviews I had read, I expected to find that the film was greater than the sum of its parts and that I would emerge from the theater inspired by the sense that the real Bush administration was powerfully reflected in a mass culture vehicle. I had hoped that the film would go a long way toward exposing the Bush gang for what it was, an up to date incarnation of the administration portrayed in Sinclair Lewis’s classic, It Can’t Happen Here, the story of a fascist takeover of the United States. Instead, I left the theater rather dispirited because I felt that Moore, the premier documentarian and public relations magician of our age had largely failed to make his case.
There were some good moments, especially the scenes from Iraq where the quotes from a number of soldiers were effective, as were the scenes of some of the destruction there, including a midnight raid by young American soldiers at the home of an Iraqi family. However, a Bush partisan might simply discount much of this as the inevitable tragedy of war.
The least effective moments for me were the scenes of Bush, Wolfowitz, Rice, Powell, and Ashcroft prepping for the camera. I felt these scenes backfired by confusing the audience: were we supposed to identify them as villains because they were waiting for the cameras to roll? As much as I despise Wolfowitz’s policies and the power he wields, why would I want to see him putting his comb in his mouth? What did this reveal to me about his politics?
Similarly when Moore tried to score a point against Ashcroft by saying he was beaten in his last senate campaign by a dead man without pointing out that the late Mel Carnahan’s wife was running in her husband’s place, I was put off by the unfair charge. It’s hardly a proof of villainy to lose an election.
Also troubling was the long section on the Bush family connections to the powerful Saudi monarchy. As one writer has pointed out, demonizing the Saudis puts Moore in the camp of one of his ideological enemies, Richard Perle, who reportedly has advocated a military takeover of Saudi Arabia’s oil fields. Is Moore arguing that the government of Saudi Arabia and/ or the top Saudi officials with whom the Bush family have been friends and business partners, was somehow involved in the 9/11 attacks? It doesn’t make any sense. At the same time, Moore’s film correctly highlighted the issue of the scores of prominent Saudis including members of the Bin Laden family who were allowed to leave the U.S. within days of 9/11, an issue that remains mysterious and largely whitewashed.
Some have raised the issue of Israeli involvement in the 9/11 attacks, and questioned why Israel was not mentioned in the film since it strongly supported the war, and its partisans in this country played a decisive role in allowing Bush to attack a helpless Iraq. Although I agree, yet I don’t blame Moore for not raising the Israeli issue because I understand that had he done so, his film would never have been made, or would never have found a distributor. Many years ago, Moore learned a painful lesson about casting Israel indirectly in a negative light when he was hired and then quickly fired as the editor of Mother Jones magazine. His crime was to announce that he was planning to run a picture of a Palestinian guerilla on an upcoming cover.
I was generally convinced by the sound bites Moore chose of Bush and other top administration officials in the run up to war insisting that Iraq was a threat because of its WMDs. In this case the context of the remarks is widely understood. However, even here, I found that Moore overdid it and I wished that he could have more deeply contextualized Bush’s lies for maximum impact. For example, his film could have played a valuable educational role had he aired some of the skeptical voices, drowned out by the media blitz, who pointed to the evidence that there were no WMDs in Iraq: people like Hans Blix, Scott Ritter, and others. Moore might have contrasted the findings of the U.N. inspectors who found no evidence of WMDs weeks before the March 2003 invasion with the Bush administration’s dismissive spin. Moore might have referenced the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which declared that by 1998 when Clinton pulled out the international inspectors, all Iraq’s WMD facilities were destroyed, a fact well known to the Bush administration. Had I been one of Moore’s consultants, I would have urged him to find a way to suggest that the U.S. went to war against Iraq in part because we knew Iraq had no WMD’s. Is there any doubt that the Bush team well understood that Iraq’s military forces were so degraded by more than a decade of sanctions that they would be helpless before a U.S. onslaught?
I found the section towards the end with bereaved mother, Lila Lipscomb, overlong and its impact diluted except for parts of her son’s letter citing his doubts about the justice of the Iraq war. Much of the rest of the episode I found awkwardly handled and confusingly edited. When we first see Ms. Lipscomb we learn that she used to be a Reagan Democrat, and a supporter of the Iraq war. We then learn of her advocacy of multiculturalism. Later we find that because of her son’s death she is firmly opposed to the war. Then we see that she is married to a black man and they have bred a large multiracial family. It’s not clear why Moore avoided a more straightforward accounting that would have clarified the issues immediately.
The editing of the family portrait too often drew attention to the camerawork which cut arbitrarily and confusingly to some of her children and grandchildren. I couldn’t help wondering if Moore was more interested in a sociological portrait in how a multi-racial marriage produces various shades of white and black in their offspring. It’s a measure of Moore’s lack of focus that our attention was thus distracted.
Moore’s film contains some other good scenes. A trademark Moore episode included soudbites from Middle America where ordinary people reacted to Ashcroft’s and Tom Ridge’s arbitrary and manipulative terror alerts. Moore created a hilarious moment by showing a TV ad detailing the mechanics of a personal parachute designed to aid people in case they are required to jump out of skyscrapers. “Don’t worry about it,” says the salesman to a potential customer as he moves to adjust an apparently faulty apparatus.
Also effective was the clip of Richard Clarke’s public testimony indicating that Bush’s priority was to make Iraq the villain of the 9/11 events instead of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Similarly the sound bite of acting FBI director Thomas Pickard giving evidence that John Ashcroft refused briefings about terrorism prior to 9/11 worked well. Perhaps these clips have awakened many fair-minded people to the criminal negligence of the Bush administration. Nevertheless, I found that such valuable and contexualized footage was drowned out by material that tended to trivialize the issues.
More typical is the way Moore dealt with the subject of Bush’s inordinate vacation time before 9/11 and his apparent disregard of a terror alert citing Bin Laden while he was at his ranch at Crawford, Texas. Moore begins this section well but we are soon treated to a series of shots of an inarticulate Bush amid the sagebrush. Moore seems to miss the point that citizens don’t necessarily begrudge a president vacation time if they feel that his policies are working for them. In the same section, Moore shows Bush in a widely distributed clip seamlessly moving from giving reporters a sound bite on fighting terror to his golf game. But the same footage might be seen by many as an effective example of Bush’s sense of humor. Such a clip might be valuable if Moore could have found a way to make the case that Bush typically takes a jocular, careless and irresponsible attitude toward the most serious issues.
Towards the end of the film, Moore quotes a key passage from Orwell’s 1984 about Big Brother’s technique of controlling the populace by arranging for endless war. The passage is a somber reminder of how the terrible events of 9/11 have enabled the Bush administration to take our country to the point where Orwell’s nightmare vision perfectly reflects our current reality. It was Moore’s job to make the case that Bush should be compared to the worst of all fictional or real life rulers.
If the film is as imperfect as I think, why has it turned out to be so successful? The answer probably lies in the impoverishment of our political culture and the clear threat that a second Bush administration will pose to the world and to our futures. The public is so starved for someone speaking truth to power, someone who can manage to break free of the lid that the media has put on anything challenging the official version, that a public relations phenomenon was created out of a mediocre anti-Bush vehicle.
Nevertheless, the country owes a supreme debt to Michael Moore’s ability to pull back the curtain a little on the real evildoers. It’s a testament to his creative and political vision, his energy and his extraordinary public relations gifts that Moore has managed to play a role in the 2004 election. Mediocre as Fahrenheit 9/11 might be, just think of the alternative, a campaign season deprived of the film’s relatively far-reaching voice pleading for sanity and hope.
Security Issues Project