By Steven G. Kellman
Can movies change the world? For all its brilliance, Roger and Me did not restore manufacturing to Michigan. For all its cinematic power, Bowling for Columbine wields less clout than the National Rifle Association over renewal of the ban on assault weapons. Michael Moore made his latest film, he says, to put an end to the second Bush presidency. Fahrenheit 9/11 is an angry indictment of an illegitimate, plutocratic regime, a government by the wealthy, for the wealthy.
Someone sitting among the capacity audiences - in San Antonio and elsewhere - that applaud the closing credits (the film received a 15-minute standing ovation in Cannes, and won the festival's top prize), might long to measure its influence not in an election but in an insurrection. Yet, to whisper that wish is to risk the fate of a retired Oakland man shown on screen; after disparaging Bush to members of his exercise club, he became a target of the FBI.
To the popular, manipulated mind, the deadly attacks on New York and Washington committed by al Qaeda transformed an executive slacker - a man without a clue or care who spent 42 percent of his time in office away on vacation from the Oval Office - into a cross between Churchill and Roland, a valiant defender of the faith and the hearth. Moore dissents. His post-9-11 Bush is an Orwellian monster who exploits public fear for partisan advantage and fosters ceaseless war in order to consolidate control.
Fahrenheit 451, Francois Truffaut's vision of a world that has eradicated independent thought (based on Ray Bradbury's novel), derives its title from the temperature at which books burn. Moore derives his title from the dreadful day on which the World Trade Center was obliterated, but the date that generates his dystopia is in fact November 7, 2000. Fahrenheit 9/11 opens with a mournful review of the bizarre circumstances that enabled the secretary of state of Florida and the Supreme Court of the United States to anoint a president. "Was it all just a dream?" asks Moore, who proceeds to document the nightmare of the past four years.
Accounting for what went wrong, Moore follows the money - $1.4 billion given by Saudis to Bush, his family, and his friends. The film suggests that Bush's cozy relationship with Middle Eastern oil moguls accounts not only for his own personal wealth but also his behavior after 9-11. Longstanding ties to the bin Ladens, suggests Moore, led Bush to allow 24 members of that clan to be whisked out of the country without interrogation. A pipeline across Afghanistan led him to do business with the Taliban and delay military action for two months. "The president botched the response after 9-11," reports Richard Clarke, Bush's former counterterrorism chief. The diversionary invasion of Iraq enabled military contractors, including and especially Halliburton, to profit excessively from human misery.
Though lambasted for an excessive style, Moore is remarkably restrained. Fahrenheit 9/11 is silent about Bush's war against the environment, his attempt to pack the courts with injudicious zealots, his contempt for separation of church and state, and his policy of lowering taxes for the rich and creating enormous deficits. Moore might have filled two hours illustrating Bush's utter inability to handle English or logic. Though he shows the president sitting lamely for 10 crucial minutes, reading My Pet Goat with schoolchildren while the nation was under attack, Moore's Bush is more Machiavellian than moronic. Nor does Moore sensationalize September 11; in one of the most vivid sections, the screen goes blank for almost a minute while we hear the sounds of havoc in lower Manhattan.
In Moore's hometown, Flint, where unemployment exceeds 17 percent, we follow Lila Lipscomb, a proud patriot whose trust in the competence and benevolence of American leaders is shattered when her son is killed in Iraq. Fahrenheit 9/11 is not "balanced." Its antecedent is not those tedious documentaries whose voice-of-God narration soothes us into submission, but rather Emile Zola's "J'accuse," a fierce and fearless screed against officials who used the conviction of an innocent Alfred Dreyfus to divert attention from their own misdeeds. The imperial president, says Moore, has no clothes, except a Navy flight jacket he never earned. Fahrenheit 9/11 saddens, infuriates, informs, and empowers. •