You’ve really got to hand it to Michael Moore’s most vocal detractors: They’ve given him the kind of publicity most filmmakers couldn’t buy. And in so doing, they’ve caused his Fahrenheit 9/11 to do something that no other documentary film has ever done: take the No. 1 slot for its opening weekend.
According to projected figures from box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations, the film had a total weekend gross of $22 million, while its nearest competitor, White Chicks, came in at $19.6 million. This is even more impressive when you take into account that Moore’s film has been in only 868 theaters, while Chicks has been in 2,726. There’s an irony here, too, since the pressure groups trying to halt Fahrenheit 9/11‘s being shown were claiming victory last week, saying their efforts had thwarted the film opening as widely as the distributor had wanted (in 1,000 theaters). Meanwhile, on the local level, 16 of the 17 showings thus far at the Fine Arts Theater have sold out. This is remarkable any way you look at it.
Back in 1915, Woodrow Wilson voiced the opinion that D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was like “writing history with lightning.” With Moore it might be said that he has made history with lightning. In this past week, I’ve heard all the usual charges leveled against the filmmaker:
* He’s a grandstander. Yes, he is. But so, for that matter, is anyone who’s hawking a movie. By the very nature of the medium — of any commercial venture, really — it’s essential to draw attention to what you’re doing.
* He’s not objective. No, he isn’t. But isn’t it time we buried the myth of the “objective documentarian?” There ain’t no such animal. Even within the dictates of D.A. Pennebaker and cinema verite, there’s no real objectivity; the filmmaker inherently “takes sides” by choosing what — and what not — to show. Similarly, Moore’s detractors typically hold that the news media is liberally biased (they’ve obviously never watched Fox News!), a charge that’s been around since Spiro Agnew was fighting for his political life. (And, true to form, the bulk of the negative reviews the film has garnered have invoked that hoary bugbear, the “liberal media.”)
* He’s potentially “dangerous.” That one’s arguable, but it may be true — and it may not be a bad thing, either. I’m not sure that any artist who is likely to make a difference — aesthetically, sociologically or politically — can be anything but potentially dangerous.
But what of the film itself?
Fahrenheit 9/11 is occasionally brilliant, rarely less than thought-provoking, almost constantly entertaining — and just about the most explosive work imaginable. It’s also much more of a piece with Moore’s own Bowling for Columbine than has been casually assumed. Yes, Moore keeps more to the background this time — at least as an onscreen presence. In any other sense, he infuses himself into his film almost from beginning to end. When Moore crafts a sequence presenting Bush and his compatriots as the stars of a Bonanza-like TV show called Afghanistan, there’s no question as to whose very distinctive voice is behind it.
Similarly, Moore’s underlying theme has not changed. Though Columbine is typically thought of as a plea for gun control, it’s more fundamentally about marketing fear. At the time of Moore’s last film, I wrote that he puts forth the idea that “we — more than any other society — are fed on fear.” That’s also an underlying theme in Fahrenheit 9/11. And, in Moore’s view, the current administration is very, very good at marketing fear — and getting us to allow our rights to be eroded by virtue of our being so frightened.
Where Fahrenheit 9/11 differs from Moore’s earlier work is in its ever-increasing darkness. The documentary starts off in typical Moore fashion — letting its subjects hang themselves by their own words, manipulating existing footage to make Moore’s points in the manner of a wise-cracking provocateur. The effect is similar to that moment in the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers, where Groucho listens to some scientific babble from a college professor, only to ask, “Say, is this stuff on the level, or are you just making it up as you go along?” It’s the same thing that Moore is constantly asking his subjects.
The primary difference here is one of tone, which is slightly altered from Moore’s previous works. And this is clear even early on, when the filmmaker offers a voice-over for what Bush might have been thinking during those peculiar seven minutes after he’d been informed of the second attack on the World Trade Center, where he remained seated in an elementary-school classroom reading My Pet Goat to the children. It’s a bold — even brazen — move on Moore’s part, suggesting what might be going through the man’s mind at that time. And it’s telling that, for once, Moore isn’t wisecracking, and he isn’t content to let the images speak for themselves. Moore justifies taking this approach by amassing an amazing amount of evidence to support why he believes these proposed thoughts might well have been Bush’s own.
It’s been argued that little — if indeed any — of this evidence is new. Well, no, it’s not new, if you follow the news. But the idea that it’s all common knowledge is coming from people who actually are part of the media, and are therefore apt to just assume that everybody knows it because they do. Moreover, there’s something to be said about the information being marshaled into one two-hour chunk. The very act of distilling it into this form gives it an enormity that doesn’t exist when the various pieces are disseminated by different sources over months, even years.
I’d be willing to bet that few viewers are actually familiar with the process by which Congress ratified the Supreme Court’s decision that Bush had won the 2000 election. Nor do I think most of us are familiar with the footage of Bush addressing a fundraiser, obviously reveling as he looks out over a sea of faces that he characterizes as “the haves and the have mores,” adding, “Some people call you the elite; I think of you as my base.”
But perhaps the most important thing in Moore’s newest film is the way he puts a human face on those impacted by the events of 9/11 and the war on Iraq — both here at home and abroad. And this is where the film becomes truly dark and disturbing — and where Moore finds no need for comment. It’s strong stuff, perhaps the strongest I’ve seen in a mainstream release. And, yes, it’s inflammatory and subjective — and how you’ll feel about it is sure to be heavily shaped by where you fall in the political spectrum.
It’s been said that Moore’s film is a case of preaching to the choir, and there’s certainly some truth in that; yet it’s ironic that those very people who find his movie a little long-winded tend to be those who also share his views. But whether you love this documentary or hate it, whether you consider it a blast of truth or a shameless manipulation of the facts, one thing seems certain: You will not be indifferent to Fahrenheit 9/11. And there aren’t too many films about which that can be said.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke