Fahrenheit 9/11 wasn’t what I expected.
First, forget any argument about whether it’s fair. It’s not. Moore admitted that on the Jon Stewart show. And so what? It’s an essay by a guy with a strong point of view. He gives other positions none of his screen time, and he marshalls everything he can to get us to see things his way, including crossing several lines in several ways.
The movie operates at two levels which felt oddly distinct to me.
At one level, it’s a set of arguments about why we are in the war: Saudi influence, corporate profits, the use of fear to manipulate us, etc. But it’s mainly an argument by juxtaposition, as if two facts stated in succession must be related. In part that’s because it’s a big argument that can’t fit into a two hour movie with lots on its mind, including entertaining and outraging us. Moore may be wrong, he may be right in whole or in part, but at least he’s saying some things out loud that need to be aired. For example, the fact (or is it?) that Saudi money accounts for 7% of our economy does not prove that the Bushes favor Saudi interests over American, but, man, that’s a big chunk of our economy.
You will not hear in this movie about the abominations of the reign of Sadam Hussein, because the movie is about our response to 9/11. We were told we were going to war because Iraq was a threat to the US. Other possible reasons for invading Iraq — including that Hussein was a murderous tyrant — are irrelevant to the movie’s topic. (The images of happy children in pre-war Iraq come close to white-washing Hussein, however, a disturbing lack of judgment on Moore’s part.)
At the other level, the movie is a stream of images that hit emotional nerves, from laughter to grief. But emotions aren’t arguments. The fact that Wolfowitz spit-combs his hair doesn’t lead to any conclusion, although it’s fun in a mean way. And yet, there is a truth to some of the footage that goes beyond accuracy and fairness. Seeing Bush smirk here and preen there shows us something that words can’t articulate. The selection is certainly unfair, and of course images can always mislead us into thinking we’re glimpsing something important within the person, but, the images of Bush seem to show someone playing at being a war president, a shallow son of privilege essentially disconnected from reality. Now, I already believed that, so the images work for me. I’d love to hear how they affect the undecided. (Note to The Undecided: What the hell more do you need to know before making up your mind? Just wondering…)
When the images departs from ridicule — there was actually less ridicule in the movie than I’d expected — their effect is more questionable. Although the footage from Iraq is raw and awful, similar footage could be found from every war, just and unjust. And a mother’s grief — Iraqi or American — is not an argument against the war, although it may be an argument against all wars. On the one hand, such footage overwhelms reason. On the other, it’s placed in the movie after Moore has shot his argumentative wad and is intending, I assume, to move us to action now that we have been “convinced” that the war was not fought to protect us.
Will this movie change minds? Not mine. But no single movie could change mine: I’ve had four years of reasons to believethat Bush is an apocalyptically bad president, so it’d take a least a couple of years to talk me out of it. For people on the fence? Yeah, some of the facts will feed people’s suspicions that W’s policies can’t be explained as a reaction to terrorism, and some of the images may be enough to stop giving this guy a pass. By itself, it certainly isn’t a complete argument. It is manipulative and unfair. And very funny and surprisingly moving. It is an act of provocation, the starting place for arguments we need to have.
If you’re as firmly for the president as I am against him, you’re a better person than I if you can sit through this movie. If you’re one of the choir or want to see our leaders in a light they’ve been careful to stay out of, then join the line around the block…