'Fahrenheit 9/11': Overheated, Overstated ... And Great

Film lays it on thick — but its arguments need to be heard.

In "Fahrenheit 9/11", there are no millionaires throwing pies at homeless people. Crackers the Corporate-Crime-Fighting Chicken is nowhere to be found. In fact, the gleefully absurd send-ups in Michael Moore's earlier work — "TV Nation," "The Big One" — are kept to a minimum in his new movie. There is a lot in "Fahrenheit 9/11" that can even be called restrained, like Moore's decision to replay the attacks of September 11 using only sound. So, apart from an errant attempt to draft Congressional offspring and a public reading of the Patriot Act, if you're looking for Michael Moore's same old shtick, expect to be disappointed.

What you will get from "Fahrenheit 9/11" is Moore's take on the ascendancy of the Bush White House and its march to war in Iraq. It is funny, sad, outrageous and great. Despite depressingly recent conventional wisdom, the Cannes Film Festival does not hand out its top prize, the Palme d'Or, simply because France hates America. They still recognize good craftsmanship, and Moore is a wizard at taking stock footage and teaching it how to act. But his true talent is as an editor: What he presents and what he omits in his telling of the last four years will make this movie the most contentious bit of pop culture this year.

Yes, "Passion of the Christ" fans — it's true. Moore outdoes even the Road Warrior because, unlike Jesus Christ, there's videotape of George W. Bush. And the portrait of George W. Bush, as viewed through Michael Moore's lens, is a leisure-loving good ol' boy whose implication of Iraq in the 9-11 terrorist attacks was done with the express intent to kick back fat contracts to energy, construction and defense companies. To say that there is room for debate on this contention is one super-sized understatement. But Bush supporters and Moore haters should not sit this film out just because of its politics. To make a convincing rebuttal to Moore's Bush bash, Bush supporters will have to pay the ticket price, because Moore's charges are likely to haunt them, echoed by Kerry and Anybody-But-Bush voters, for months to come. It would be naïve to expect this picture to just go away or its fans to just shut up. This is barn-burning at its finest.

Moore begins his charges against Bush by asking why more than 100 Saudis — including 24 members of the bin Laden family — were assisted by the U.S. government in returning to Saudi Arabia two days after the attacks of September 11, when all commercial flights were grounded (a claim that had been circulating for years before Moore's film, and which has recently come under fire). Moore's paper trail begins during Bush's own Air National Guard days, connecting James R. Bath, a principal investor in Bush's Arbusto drilling company, with the bin Laden family, which hired Bath to invest its assets. After that, it is a freefall of not very new — but very damning — information: the relationships between the Saudis and the Bushes, the Saudis' favored-nation status in the U.S., the history of connections between energy corporations and U.S. foreign policy, the neoconservative fixation on Iraq, Bush's initial opposition to the 9-11 Commission, and on and on until we are brought yet again to Moore's ancestral home of Flint, Michigan, to meet a grieving mother whose son was killed in Karbala and a pair of Marine recruiters cruising the local mall.

But while Moore makes a persuasive argument, it is an imperfect one. Onscreen, prewar Iraq is a halcyon place of café culture where children fly kites in the street. The White House and Senate's (including Senator Kerry's) shortcomings range from pure evil to banal silence. American soldiers are portrayed as either videogame-loving baby killers or working-class martyrs, terrified and far from home, as suits Moore's purpose. At times Moore relies on Leni Riefenstahl-style sensationalism, rolling footage of a wounded Iraqi child undergoing a head operation as Donald Rumsfeld speaks about precision warfare.

All of this is a disservice to Moore himself. Moore's movie need not drive its point home so forcefully, as it is clear from the beginning that he is speaking from the heart in a way he hasn't since "Roger and Me." "Fahrenheit 9/11" is at its best when Moore re-airs cringe-worthy news coverage, shows you real images of the war that you may have missed, and lets real people do the talking (prepare for a harrowing look at the Iraq-reconstruction bargaining table). But, speaking from the halls of MTV (or just about any other major media outlet these days), to brand Moore as sensationalistic smacks a bit of the pot calling the kettle black.

The bottom line is that this is a movie worth watching and worth talking about, — although not everyone feels that way. The attempt to keep "Fahrenheit 9/11" from being widely released has been under way for months (see "Michael Moore's Embattled 'Fahrenheit 9/11' To Be Released In June"). Disney — owner of Miramax, the film's principal financier — forced the sale of the documentary to two smaller studios, Lions Gate and IFC Films, reportedly to avoid a showdown with Florida Governor Jeb Bush over tax breaks its theme parks routinely receive. This week, news came that "Fahrenheit 9/11" would indeed be slapped with an R-rating, making it a decidedly non-family movie and tough to get into if you're under 17. But go see it if you can — then decide for yourself what all the fuss is about.

Gideon Yago

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