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26 June 2004

Fahrenheit 9/11 - A Distancing Documentary

me and Ollie North In high school, I bought a t-shirt out of the back of Rolling Stone magazine that read BUSH in all capital letters, where the S had been replaced by a swastika. I felt that strongly that Bush senior was a hypocrite, because of his pandering to social conservatives, but moreso for his duplicitous circumvention in the Iran-Contra affair. It's part of what motivated my Oliver North encounter as well.

But I found myself really unable to wear that shirt much after I got it. As strongly as I felt, calling anyone a Nazi seemed cavalier, trivialing the scale of that disaster. I didn't understand Bush, or Nazis enough to make that kind of a comparison. And besides I didn't want to immediately upset anyone with my political beliefs. I had family members of the conservative persuasion, and while I might have reviled their political priorities, the longer I lived the more I wanted to bridge political distance and not increase it.

So that's what I see here - Moore is irate, excited, passionate about the hypocrisy and double-dealing of the Bush administration. He accuses Bush and his people of coercing an entire nation. In order to prove this point he leads his interview subjects, putting lines in their mouths, cuts them off mid-statement. The film is essentially an emotional appeal, which is important in it's way. I do agree that "the other team," if there really is such a thing, successfully engaged the United States in an inappropriate war through chicanery. So it's important to stir people up in opposition to those practices. I was especially glad to hear Moore quote Orwell in this regard, and to see Moore demonstrate the price of the Iraq war disproportionately paid by America's unemployed poor.

But ideally, political discourse can be a shared examination of facts and a rational conversation about collective goals. Moore's film plays like a home run for the liberal team, and less like an effort to improve the overall quality of political dialog in the United States.

Muttawa! Moore includes an extended montage of Bush family members greeting members of the Saudi royal family. Even though I read The Religious Policeman regularly, I don't know one Saudi royal from another. And I wondered how this footage was meant to play in Middle America? "Look at them Bushies! Hanging with guys wearing sheets on their heads! How suspicious!" Moore demonstrates the Bush-Saud friendship; we are left to wonder what kind of sinister plans they might have been making. It's a play to America's ignorance, the same thing he's critiquing.

Similarly, Moore mentions how these Ayrabs own maybe as much as 7% of America. So what? That baiting reminded me much of the "Japan Scare" of the 1980s, when just mentioning the fact that Japanese companies had bought major US assets was enough to stir some kind of unsettled feeling in the hearts of patriots. We're in a global economy Michael, people from one country buy things in another country. There are productive discussions we can have about the rights and control that foreign property owners can have in America, and special privileges that Saudi royals may have here. But I didn't feel that Moore was appealing to reason in these segments; he was playing to fear.

The film effectively skewer Bush's limited capabilities as a leader. Footage of Bush sitting in a classroom reading My Pet Goat as New York burned is just damning. The man is a smirking enigma, I would say he's a puppet. But he has his own motivations I don't entirely understand and I definitely don't trust. The film does little to get inside the head of George Bush; Alexandra Pelosi's Journeys with George is better for that - following Bush the candidate, we get a much more nuanced sense of Bush's character. He's still confusing, confounding, and he still shouldn't be president. I watched Pelosi's film and I thought, well, he'd be a fine Little League Baseball organizer, but he should let someone else run the country. Moore's film wanted me simply to hate Bush because he's an exploitative idiot - less specific grounds for political change.

I found Fahrenheit 9/11 to be one of the most snappily edited film productions I've ever seen, but maybe the film's pace and at-times glib use of pop culture only appeals to young liberal sensibilities as well. In other words, Fahrenheit 9/11 is no tikkun - no bridge, no middle way.

I went to see the film with Scott, Jen and Joanne - we were compelled by the film but they shared some of these misgivings above. We lingered hours afterwards on a balcony above the courtyard at the Arclight theater talking about politics and media. I worked to unpack this notion of "the extreme right." There are people who vote for Bush because he makes them richer. They don't care about this Iraq duplicity crap. There are people who vote for Bush because he was sent by God. They don't care about this godless carping. Who is left in the rational middle?

Critics are favoring Fahrenheit 9/11, according to reviews collected by RottenTomatoes.com. Perhaps there are enough curious citizens who will see this film and feel informed and roused by Michael Moore's muckraking. Maybe this film, with its frank portrayal of loss and grief surrounding the Iraq war will be meaningful for families of soldiers. I'm fascinated to see the effect this artful political document has on the current American political conflict, at the same time I lament the distance between the sides.

Justin's Links: Fahrenheit 9/11 - A Distancing Documentary
commentson 26 June 2004 : 14:34, Joao Paglione sez:

Enjoyed your review because you pointed out some flaws that Moore also did with Bowling for Columbine, at times catering to peopleīs fears rather than intellect. Too bad the documentary isnīt showing in Brazil yet. I will have to wait until I return!

commentson 26 June 2004 : 17:02, Jun sez:

justin--if you're into cheap, eclectic dvd rentals, check out 'a video store named desire,' la's 99 cent, bastard child video store and lovely secret. on santa monica at barry--pretty close to you. disorganized but vast selection of anime and porn as well as foreign classics.

commentson 26 June 2004 : 17:31, Ryan T sez:

What I liked about Bowling for Columbine is Moore hadn't really made up his mind about the roots of violence in America. I mean, he does punt at the end and sort of half-heartedly blames the media (real original), but you got the feeling he was making a genuine effort to explore the issue.

Reading your review, the New Yorker review ("Moore canít resist amusing his campus and conspiracy-nut following, along with the gleeful sophomore in all of us, but, as the man said, when you aim at the king you had better kill him. At the moment, the stakes may be too high for shenanigans.") and the WSJ review, it appears Moore has gone back to the simpler, more self-satisfied days of Roger & Me, where Moore knows all the answers before he sets off into the world with his camera. Which is really too bad -- America could use less dogma right now, and more thoughtfulness.

commentson 26 June 2004 : 18:56, Liz sez:

Moore brings up an excellent point at the end of the film about the Bush's family motives stemming from protecting their station in life. No one speaks for the working class (of which I am a member) in this country. In your review, you make no mention of how much time Moore spends on profiling exactly who joins the military, the poor and the working class. It's like shopping at Wal-Mart, you need cheap prices, thanks to a low paying job, and Wal-Mart is a just low paying employer who exploits people just like you. The cycle goes on and itís all a setup! Justin, as Iím sure you are aware some people live life without a safety net. By that I mean, if they donít work at some job, they have no money. No financial help will miraculously appear from family; and letís not forget jobs can be menial with no college degree in ones background. I appreciate someone like Michael Moore consistently using his art for the benefit of the working class, whom clearly the politicians, Democrats and Republicans have forgotten.

commentson 26 June 2004 : 19:14, justin sez:

Liz - I agree with you - Moore makes an extremely important point: the cost of war is borne disproportionately by America's poor and working classes. Here's what I wrote in my review; maybe you missed it or maybe I didn't spend enough time on this: "I was especially glad to ... see Moore demonstrate the price of the Iraq war disproportionately paid by America's unemployed poor."

commentson 27 June 2004 : 09:07, kareem sez:

Interesting review. With regard to your point about Arabs owning ~7% of the country, my thought is that Moore wove this into his storytelling to underscore the Bush willingness to pander to the them, which came in the form of flying the Bin Ladens out of the country, dealing with the Taliban in Texas, etc. Those acts are better understood with the context of Arabian ownership of the US than as standalone events.

You are right about this movie not being a bridge-building piece. Unfortunately, with the level of political discourse and untruths that I've heard from pundits like O'Rielly and Coulter, up to those from Bush and Cheney, one thing seems clear to me: the Conservatives play dirty, and it works. What was inspiring about F-9/11 is that in got people riled up and talking about things the current administration is doing. It grabbed them by the collar and screamed "WAKE UP! THIS IS WHAT IS HAPPENING IN YOUR COUNTRY!" Moore played to emotion instead of fact several times (the Flint mom of the fallen soldier comes to mind) and I'm sure he glossed over facts that didn't fit his arguments, but the point is that as a liberal, he played far dirtier than any have yet played thus far.

And under this incredibly polarizing administration, when people often define themselves as pro-Bush or anti-Bush (not pro-Kerry), playing dirty is sometimes what you gotta do to get the Job Done.

commentson 27 June 2004 : 09:30, jlw sez:

I'm so glad to see this. It seems many liberals are so eager for ammunition against Bush that they are no longer questioning the source. Moore is a propagandist. We should all be very wary of his films.

As a libertarian, I'm not exactly a Bush supporter and issues like the Patriot Act terrify and anger me, but Moore seems to think that his audiance is even stupider than he portrays Bush to be.

I wrote a similiar review (only a little more tounge in cheeck/devil's advocate) for Bowling for Columbine which can be found here: http://www.geocities.com/isisinator/columbine.html

I encourage everyone to really think about how your are being manipulated by Michael Moore's films before you jump on his bandwagon.

commentson 27 June 2004 : 09:40, spiral sez:

politics is dirty and so is democracy, both inherently so. as for playing dirty, it's not just conservatives-- it's everyone. I agree with kareem. the Clintons were/are crooks and the Kennedys are a perfect example of a clan who are effective in politics, but who have been involved in rather dubious behavior to push their agenda.

factual or not, Moore's film gets people talking. And Getting People Talking is *exactly* what this country needs right now.

commentson 27 June 2004 : 10:48, Sebastian Hassinger sez:

I'm afraid Moore didn't do that great a job structuring his rhetorical argument clearly.
The point about the Saudi influence was to provide justification for Moore's central thesis - that the Bush administration wanted to deflect attention from the Saudi connection to 9/11 and Bin Laden by linking Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda and invading Iraq. Actually there were many pre-existing motivators for invading Iraq, and 9/11 was merely justification for Bush.

The 2nd half of the film, with the powerful emotional content having to do with the cost of war and who pays it, derailed the money & power discussion of the 1st half. The overall impact was diminished.

commentson 27 June 2004 : 15:27, Luke sez:

I object to your scare quotes around "documentary" -- documentaries are expected to take sides, and not to be objective pieces of journalism. I personally thought that the way Moore framed the war as a project of the global elite at the expense of the poor was quite good, and a critique more or less missing from the current discussion of the war.

commentson 27 June 2004 : 21:02, Grail sez:

Everyone with a position in life worth protecting spends it protecting that position. Liz similarly protects her and her family's position in the working class from descending into poverty.

Likewise, it is a lie that lacking a college degree leads to menial jobs. Without a college degree I picked up a quarter million dollar per annual job with Wal-Mart. I suppose I should feel exploited. Perhaps I was worth more. I'd like to think so.

commentson 27 June 2004 : 21:19, Randy sez:

on a pure execution level, i thought moore did a bad job connecting the dots. fact A segueing with one of his snide quips into fact B often didn't add up to anything larger for me. i wonder how much of that was deliberate? a series of lightly-connected images and emotional buttons designed to rally up middle america? or what WAS it designed to do? i couldn't really tell, but my spidey-sense was telling me it was untrustworthy media, very biased and infrequently qualified. the film really has fed a lot of discussion, though, and i agree that is a major accomplishment.

commentson 28 June 2004 : 08:40, egg sez:

As Denby points out, Moore is a polemicist, not a reporter. The stakes are so high in this year's election that I'm grateful for this deeply American (inaccurate, dumbed down, sensationalist, manipulative, invigorating) propaganda designed, im sure, to provoke action this fall. I am so alienated by this administration that I'll make no pretense about "bridging political gaps"; you could say I view it as my enemy, as it has made an enemy of mostly everything I care for and believe in.

I have often felt despair at the ability of the right to unify itself while the left bickers and pisses, and gives up elections. We are maligned in mainstream media and have few allies with big broadcasting money. Criticism of Moore is often correct and he's no hero of mine; however, I am grateful to have a Big Poppa with Top 40 visibility, who seems remotely interested in my values. Right now, it's something to be grateful for.

Just as the Lila Lipscomb material was the strongest, most earnest portion of the film, her saying that she could feel the absence of her child "in her body" serves, for me, the crucial function of this film, which is not dissimilar to that of the porn or the melodrama: physical carthasis. It is a ritual that, while misguided in many ways (which I will leave to others to enumerate), unifies us with the magnitude that moves masses, and elections.

commentson 28 June 2004 : 12:08, Chuck Olsen sez:

I agree completely. As a liberal, as an independent thinker, and as a documenary filmmaker I had mixed reactions. Overall positive and I was often moved, but I can't help but play "Spot the manipulation!"

Last weekend I interviewed some prominent conservative bloggers, and got their take on F 9/11:


They were afraid I'd "Michael Moore" them. But being an open source documentary, it's impossible for me to "Michael Moore" anyone because the complete interview footage will be available for anyone to see if they're skeptical of my editing. Hooray for transparency.

commentson 29 June 2004 : 14:00, banteron sez:

The Silent Majority of the Nixon years are the same ones who feel protected by the current administration. All media is manipulated in some fashion, whether it is a 'sound byte' or a leading question. I commend Michael Moore for his ability to develop an evolving, singular voice in his documentaries. Unfortunately, it is not what you say or don't say that gets makes a difference. It is how it is said, by whom and when...After all, timing is everything.

commentson 30 June 2004 : 16:40, Kevin Emery sez:

With the little bit of independent research I've done on Farenheit 9/11 and the political debate surrounding it, I've come to the conclusion that both the liberal and the conservative viewpoints on the issues are more or less bogus, or if they're not, I have no way of telling which opinion is more valid, and so I feel that I must base my political views on something other than political arguments. I will explain: The reason I like Farenhiet 9/11 is not for its politics or for Moore's propagandistic ramblings, but simply because it actually *SHOWS* the horror of what's going on in Iraq.

No right wing or left wing argument can deny the cries of the war-torn Iraqi woman crying to God, "Where Are you?!?". No pro or anti Bush viewpoint can deny the words of the woman who lost her son when she says her "flesh aches" at his death.

War is horrific. As long as there is a reason, ANY reason, for which people are willing to slaughter each other - whether it be for freedom OR oil, Democracy OR money - then the injustice and the suffering will continue.

That Moore may be a liar, I concede, but it was Bush, not Moore, who said that "it would certainly be a lot easier if it were a dictatorship." It was Bush, not Moore, who said on camera that he is a "War president". If you want to change my mind, tell me not that Moore is a liar, but instead show me your own film, propaganda or no, that has footage of a speech from our president that stirs my heart to compassion and justice. Show me footage of Iraqis thanking the soldiers for freeing them from Saddam's regiem, and I will be swayed by that as well.

Right now, it seems to me that if Rush Limbaugh or Bush himself had narrated Farenheit 9/11 instead of Michael Moore, I would be every bit as opposed to the war after seeing it.

-Kevin Emery (fulvius3@hotmail.com)

commentson 1 July 2004 : 02:12, Mike B. sez:

I admire Kevin E's post. I admire honesty. I admire admitting truth, even when it is unpleasant. I admire questioning ďwhyÖĒ even if there are no easy answers. People willing to work toward a better society, knowing perfection is impossible, are admirable. Who, between Bush and Moore, makes a presentation to the American people that is most congruent with the truth? Perhaps we should abandon our search for the "perfect" political argument.

Sometimes it seems that a given viewpoint is immediately suspect of leaning too far to the left or too far to the right. Can't it be defined by some part of both and still be true? I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who wrote something to the effect that if you aren't either right or left in this country, "you might as well be a doughnut".

Justin: "Similarly, Moore mentions how these Ayrabs own maybe as much as 7% of America. So what? That baiting reminded me much of the "Japan Scare" of the 1980s, ...But I didn't feel that Moore was appealing to reason in these segments; he was playing to fear."

I'm going to go out on a limb here, but I'm confident in the stability of the branch. In today's Global economy, it really is a bad thing that Saudis own ~6% of "America". Japanese invest in America and Saudis invest in America. All men may be created equal, but they do not stay that way as they age and as they are exposed to human culture. All men may be created equal, but their motives vary.

We are hooked on thier drug and we're willing to commit violent crimes to get it. Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is a dysfunctional one. We must work to maintain peace with the Saudis, but we must also remain vigilant. If we continue to welcome their investment while turning a blind eye to the sentiment of their population, we might as well consider ourselves blubbering and passive fools. From the American population, the Saudis deserve a good sneer and the evil eye.

On 9/11, Americans had to suffer the pain and humiliation of a foreign attack. After that date, we had to suffer pain and humilation from our own government as they sought to augment our fears and failed (in a most spectacular fashion) to appropriately respond to the threat. Whatever his slant, Michael Moore effectively and factually illustrates this.

commentson 1 July 2004 : 10:41, d sez:

Since I haven't seen the film myself, I dont know how accurate this transcipt is, but:

(via Boing Boing)

Assuming it's reasonably accurate, perhaps this transcipt could give you further source material to cite to support and elucidate your arguments.

Although I understand, and agree with your basic sentiments regarding polarisation, I do have a few reservations and objections to your piece.

1) "But ideally, political discourse can be a shared examination of facts and a rational conversation about collective goals." Well, a film can *contain* a discourse and converstations or spark them among the audience, it's still a passive medium. Within the context of a film, there can be no conversation between audience and filmaker.

If what you're saying is that you expected a more rational/Socratic dialogue within the film, then fair enough, this is clearly the wrong film for you. Not to say that it's the right film for very many people, neccessarily. For people like me, it generally tells me what I already know, so it's a waste of time. For people on the right, it'll likely distance them. If as Kareem suggests, it sparks new discussion, and the appeal to emotions is its' wake up call, then great.

However, I don't see how the use of emotion in the film alone removes this film from a documentary classification. The Further insinuation seems to be that there are lots of *misleading* cuts and such. If so, please use the link above or some other transcipt to point some out.

2) On the Saudi Segment.
Although to some extent I can see where you're coming from on possible fear-mongering angle with respect ot Moore's 7% quip, I don't think that invalidates the rest of the segment.

Reading through the transcript, it struck me mainly as establishing the profiteering angles of the current US administration.
"NARRATOR: Okay, so let's say one group of people, like the American people, pay you $400,000 a year to be President of the United States. But then another group of people invest in you, your friends, and their related businesses $1.4 billion dollars over a number of years. Who you gonna like?"

2.5) Granted, though, there are places where I would've appreciated some elaboration. (just below the above quotation:) For example, when he states that an immediate investigation was launched for both the JFK assassination and the Pearl Harbor attack, I don't think he clearly stated whether those reports were immediately fully disclosed in an uncensored fashion.

Also, when he says
"MICHAEL MOORE: So I read where like the Saudis have a trillion dollars in our banks of their money. What would happen if like one day they just pulled that trillion dollars out?

: A trillion dollars, that would be an enormous blow to the economy."

Perhaps it's just an off the cuff remark, but this one struck me as Moore fear-mongering more than anything else; usually, from what I recall, he cites proper sources.

3) Also, when someone produces *anything*, it's going to have a bias; they're putting the work into it, so they're trying to get they're personal views across (or acheive whatever alterior motive they happen to have). Nothing is a pure statement, completely unbiased, unqualified, and fully contextualised. Especially when you're covering the events of four years of presidency and a series of events that lead up to said presidency, in a two hour film.

One could have filmed a two hour discussion on eny one of the events mentioned, with both sides presenting their cases. In full Socratic form, if you like. However, it'd be hard to convince me that it'd make it into as many theatres. He had to cut stuff out to fit it in two hours, and I don't blame him for cutting out the stuff that detrated from his view. Though the 7% bit and a couple others I'd have cut out along the way.

commentson 3 July 2004 : 08:55, Rick sez:

When in doubt, take a look at Spinsanity's coverage of anything Michael Moore - or any other politician, commentator, etc... writes in the area of politics. They do a rather good job of pointing out all inconsistencies, outright falsehoods and such. I highly recommend them. I believe their most recent post was on "F9/11".

commentson 7 July 2004 : 21:35, Randy sez:

here's the best analysis of / response to the film i've read yet:

commentson 27 July 2004 : 17:14, Dave sez:

Great review, great discussion, i think you have summarised the film well. As a British citizen the two main problems with the film were his portrayal and views of the American soldiers and the US's support for the war. I immediately found myself wondering just what he was trying to say of US soldiers. On one hand he shows footage of soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees and portrays them as childish, triggerhappy and stupid. Soon after, and particularly in his final summary, he could not show more respect for the troops and their sacrifices. As for his piece on the US allies, he announces each country in a demiening tones of voice and only mentions small countries such as Costa Rica, Republic of Palau, etc. He does not list any of the major European countries, notably the UK. Nor does he mention the reasoning behind the absence of France, Germany, Russia. Not that I want to go down the route of the UN relolution debate, but my understanding was that France, Germany, etc disagreed with the timing of the attack, not the attack itself.

commentson 8 August 2004 : 11:03, karima sez:

hello and peace upon you all
first ,i would like to say that my English is not that good , However , my name is karima im 18 ,im an Arab and Muslim , i just came home from the cenima and da` i watched fahrenheit 9-11
AND I LOVED IT ,,,, for once it was a voice of trueth ,which brought to me a clean and fresh breth of air .

im not from Palistine ,and im not from Iraq .
im from i country that Bush might attack when he gets bord ... LOL

ANYWAYS ,,, i would like to say ( as a humen being ) that i im sorry for what happened on 9-11
i know the peaple who did it are muslim ,, but i tell you they are not by doing so ,,,


although it might seem to you that way

i could go on forever and even make a documentry about it .

that you for reading my comment


commentson 4 September 2004 : 17:58, Chloe sez:

Surely if the public had been adaquatley and honestly informed then they would not need to look to this film for answers. Micheal Moore seems to have tried to answer the questions most people are asking and whether biast or not he has only been enabled to do this because of the US Goverments bad handling of the situation.I personally find it very disturbing that a man who calls himself a "War President" holds such a powerful if not the most powerful position in the world.I would have thought that a boast not many would be proud of.

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