Reviewing a documentary from controversial director Michael Moore can be a tricky thing. Even at this time when the country seems to be growing more politically divided every day, Moore stands out as a polarizing figure. To many of the Left, he’s a champion in the fight for the common man while those on the Right decry him as a charlatan and a shameless self-promoter. But is it possible to separate a film’s message from the mechanics that the filmmaker uses to produce the film? In the case of Moore’s latest film, Fahrenheit 9/11, it may prove exceedingly difficult.
The word polemic comes from the Greek word polemikos, meaning warlike or hostile and there is no doubt that Moore’s film is a broadsided attack on the Bush administration and what may have actually influenced President George W. Bush’s decisions following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center masterminded by Osama Bin Laden through to his order to invade Iraq as part of his ongoing War on Terror. Seemingly recalling Watergate mystery figure Deep Throat’s administration to journalists Woodward and Bernstein to “Follow the money,” Moore traces Bush’s business career to weave a web of connections between Bush, companies like Halliburton, whom was once headed by now vice-president Dick Cheney, the royal house of Saudi Arabia and the one of the richest families in the Middle East, the Bin Ladens, who have invested over $1.4 billion over 30 years into various businesses connected to Bush and associates. Much of what Moore asserts has been a matter of public record and he has woven these facts into a devastating tapestry building up probable reasons for why Bush opposed the immediate convening of a commission to look into the attack (as had been done in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack and the President Kennedy assassination) and why, even though 15 of the 19 September 11th hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, no actions have been taken against that nation.
In previous documentaries, Moore has been known to take outrageous and satirical methods to make a point, in the process making audiences think and laugh. This time Moore reads a copy of the US PATRIOT Act from an ice cream truck driving around Capitol Hill after being told by a Congressman that most legislators don’t read the contents of each bill they vote on. However, Moore is restrained in such antics this time around, as they probably would sit uncomfortably next to some of the more harrowing footage of injured American soldiers and Iraqi civilians.
There are those who will argue that Moore’s documentary is one sided, that a documentary must be unbiased. But they forget that documentary filmmaking is a form of journalism and much like there are differing forms of journalism, there can be differing brands of documentary. What Moore is doing here can best be paralleled to advocacy journalism. He has taken a position and argued for it. Moore has even described his film as an “Op/Ed” (Opinion/Editorial) piece. He’s under no more ethical obligation to present a rebuttal from the Right than Frank Capra was to supply equal time to the Nazis when he prepared his Why We Fight series (1943) for the War department.
Some may complain that Moore manipulates his footage, but that’s what all directors do. With every shot composition they are forcing the audience to look where they want them to look. Every edit forces the viewer to make associations between the two shots. Even choices of music can influence how a person reacts to what is on screen. (I recall a television news magazine show’s profile of composer John Williams from the early 1980s. To demonstrate how music affects the viewing experience they ran a series of shots of Williams walking down a city street twice, once scored to the ominous title music he wrote for Jaws (1976) and then again to more march-like score he scored for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).) Oft times, Moore just lets the footage speak for itself, without any editorial trickery, whether it be Bush sitting with a dumbfounded look on his face in a Florida elementary school classroom for seven minutes after being told of the World Trade Center attacks or a woman from his hometown of Flint, Michigan breaking down in tears in front of the White House over her son, an American soldier killed in Iraq.
Fahrenheit 9/11 is without a doubt an important film and an important piece of dialogue in the current political debate. Moore presents a film and an argument that is strong, well reasoned, inflammatory and persuasive. It may enrage you, move you to terms or both simultaneously. But hopefully, it will encourage people to investigate Moore’s claims for themselves. How accurate are the facts that he presents to back up his case? And if the facts do hold up and you accept Moore’s argument, what will you do this coming election?