Fahrenheit 9/11 opens to great acclaim, and some damnation

Note: I plan to write my own review of Fahrenheit 9/11 later this week. This is a look at some of the reviews to date.

I’ve always believed that Michael Moore needs to be taken with a gigantic grain of sea salt.

I’ve also always believed he is brilliant, funny, artistic, and a true muckracker. One must never rely on him for the entire story, whether it’s in regard to guns in America, the Iraq war or Saudi influence over Bush. He is not a documentarian, he is an entertainer, a film maker and a propagandist. That doesn’t mean he is not valid, or that he should be slighted or ridiculed. Quite the contrary.

I’ve been delighted to see the flood of positive reviews for Fahrenheit 9/11 today. Many of them make the same point, which is: Say what you will about Moore, but he is brilliant at what he does, and what he does is important.

Of course, at its roots, “Fahrenheit 9/11” is no laughing matter. It calls George Bush and his tight band of cronies a bunch of irresponsible fools who have led the United States into this war without reason. Does Moore play with the order of events or edit out parts of speeches or, in other words, manipulate the film and its viewers? Maybe, but he also backs himself up with corroborative facts.

Michael Moore’s purpose as a filmmaker is to teach, unflinchingly, what those facts are. And he does so in gloriously rabble-rousing manner. He’s a sort of modern day Thomas Paine, unafraid to say what he feels, and damn the establishment. After all, for those of us who believe in what he says, and shows, the establishment – in this case Bush – is all wrong.

The best single piece I’ve read is Andrew O’Hehir’s review in Salon, which goes so far as to compare Moore to Dickens and Solzhenitsyn.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is an enormous film, an angry film, a flawed film and often a very, very funny film. There is anguish in it and death, and not as much coherence as there might be. It’s a political screed that makes our commander in chief look like a simpering dolt (and also like the instrument of a massive machine he cannot control), but — as in the horrifying scenes where Bush sits in that Florida classroom reading “The Pet Goat,” clearly nonplussed, while people dive from the twin towers — it is not entirely devoid of a certain curious compassion for him. It contains multitudes. In its bigness and rage, its low humor and its sentimentality, it has something of Whitman, something of Twain, something of Tom Paine. Love him or hate him, Michael Moore is becoming one of the signal artists of our age.

O’Hehir’s most significant point is that moore is not a journalist, but a story teller. He has an agenda, he takes a side, he has a point to get across. The storytelling and the comedy — Moore uses these to give you a picture you won’t get from reading the NY Times.

My point is not to damn Moore as a fabricator, but rather to suggest that from early in his career there were signs that his true calling lay not in journalism but in storytelling, or, more specifically, in the dangerous and difficult territory that lies between them. In the years since “Roger and Me,” he has become an increasingly skillful entertainer and propagandist, probably the closest American parallel to Dario Fo, the Italian radical clown, satirist and Nobel laureate. Moore might be understood as a court jester in the vein of King Lear’s Fool, whose burlesques and exaggerations and farcical asides are meant to cast light into shadowy regions where the sober, scrupulously neutral Ivy League guys and gals of mainstream journalism dare not venture.

This is crucial. Some critics watch the movie looking for holes, the way Chrtistopher Hitchens did in a beautifully worded and terribly weak and silly review yesterday. Of course Moore is going to be slippery at times. He isn’t documenting history so much as getting us to think. And in a world where so many outspoken “journalists” (Hannity, Limbaugh, Coulter, Horowitz, Shapiro, O’Reilly, etc.) go to criminal lengths to embellish what is actually being presented to us as journalism, I think Moore should actually be congratulated for having so few slippery spots in a work being presented as entertainment.

Maybe we need to look at Michael Moore the way we do at great war poets like Wilfred Owens, who I wrote about some months before. Bear with me for a moment. Owens is not really a reporter or a documentarian, and yet he is telling us the story of World War I as he sees it, from the very narrow perspective of a soldier experiencing the gore and the horrors of the battlefield. True, he doesn’t give us perspective on the geo-political factors that led to the conflict, nor does he describe opposing points of view. It is just his story as he sees it, the flying streams of intestines of disemboweled young men, the soldiers chocking to death on gas as white froth oozes from their lungs…. It’s not complete. It’s not necessarily a fair picture. It paints a hideous portrait of the masters of war, sitting in their parlor rooms in London sipping Courvoisier as an entire generation is sent into the meat grinders in Ypres and Verdun and Gallipoli. But that does not make Owens’ telling any less great or less important or less valid. Moore may not be quite on this level of artistic genius, and he may want to perceive himself as a teller of The Whole Story and of The Complete Truth. All I am saying is that I think this is where he really belongs, in the realm of the gifted storyteller, as O’Hehir says.

The NY Times offersa strikingly similar review of the movie, contending that whether you agree with Moore’s worldview or not, the film’s artistry and power make it a must-see.

It is worth seeing, debating and thinking about, regardless of your political allegiances.

Mr. Moore’s populist instincts have never been sharper, and he is, as ever, at his best when he turns down the showmanship and listens to what people have to say. “Fahrenheit 9/11” is, along with everything else, an extraordinary collage of ordinary American voices: soldiers in the field, an Oregon state trooper patrolling the border, and, above all, citizens of Flint, Mich., Mr. Moore’s hometown. The trauma that deindustrialization visited on that city was the subject of “Roger and Me,” and that film remains fresh 15 years later, now that the volunteer army has replaced the automobile factory as the vehicle for upward mobility.

The most moving sections of “Fahrenheit 9/11” concern Lila Lipscomb, a cheerful state employee and former welfare recipient who wears a crucifix pendant and an American flag lapel pin. When we first meet her, she is proud of her family’s military service — a daughter served in the Persian Gulf war and a son, Michael Pedersen, was a marine in Iraq — and grateful for the opportunities it has offered. Then Michael is killed in Karbala, and in sharing her grief with Mr. Moore, she also gives his film an eloquence that its most determined critics will find hard to dismiss. Mr. Bush is under no obligation to answer Mr. Moore’s charges, but he will have to answer to Mrs. Lipscomb.

And let’s not forget that even my nemesis, Fox News, gave the picture highest marks last week:

It turns out to be a really brilliant piece of work, and a film that members of all political parties should see without fail.

As much as some might try to marginalize this film as a screed against President George Bush, “F9/11” — as we saw last night — is a tribute to patriotism, to the American sense of duty — and at the same time a indictment of stupidity and avarice.

Most of the reviews note that, unlike Bowling for Columbine, Moore depends less on his silly gimmicks and narration and more on actual video clips, without his bloviating in the background. This lets the viewer do more of his own thinking — although Moore no doubt wants to get his very pointed message across.

It looks as though, like it or not, Fahrenheit 9/11 is set to impact the nation in a way no other film ever has. I think we are so polarized it won’t have much effect on most viewers in terms of changing whom they’ll vote for. I certainly hope it becomes a hit among young people, notorious for not voting, not to mention the undecideds, who will have a big say in who our next president will be. After being pounded by the non-stop, deafening right-wing noise machine for years, Fahrenheit 9/11 should restore some terribly needed balance, despite Moore’s mischievousness and biases.

The Discussion: 6 Comments

After seeing all of the right-whinger blogs linking to Hitchens’ review, I went to check it out. I stopped about halfway through because it was “vacuous”. It was so lacking in content or ideas that I wouldn’t say it was good or bad… just “vacuous”. If this is the best that the right-whingers can come up with, then I can see what slim straws they are grasping at in these last days of the Bush administration.

June 23, 2004 @ 7:02 pm | Comment

While I enjoy Michael Moore, and know fully well that he’s going to spin the way he wants to spin – let’s face it, statistics lie – his movies are always entertaining and make for fun viewing. The Big One, Bowling for Columbine, Roger and Me – all were funny movies with poignant points.

And, I’m sure this movie will be in the same vein – truths that need to be seen and heard, with some shlubby humor from Moore himself.

My problem is this:

The movie industry publication Screen Daily reported, “In terms of marketing the film, [distributor] Front Row is getting a boost from organizations related to Hezbollah which have rung up from Lebanon to ask if there’s anything they can do to support the film.”

The story then quotes Front Row Managing Director Gianluca Chacra: “We can’t go against these organizations as they could strongly boycott the film in Lebanon and Syria.”

Granted, Front Row is out of the United Arab Emirates, and there might be issues for them to refuse the help of Hezbollah (think Mafia dons).

I really hope that this is an issue for Miramax, Lion’s Gate and Moore himself. How big of an audience is Syria and Lebanon going to deliver? How much is that going to affect revenues? Wouldn’t it be better to forgo those countries anyway, and not end up have money go into the pockets of terrorists?

Yes, I did read this story first of Little Green Footballs, but did the backward check on the source (through two other conservative sources). The story was originally in The Guardian | Fahrenheit 9/11 gets help offer from Hezbollah, a pretty respected paper from London.

June 23, 2004 @ 7:15 pm | Comment

Jeremy, please don’t fall into this trap. The right is going to sling whatever it can at Moore. He has never courted terrorist groups like Hezbollah, and if a marketer did something stupid then it’s too bad, but I saw some of the LGF people making it read like this movie was sponsored by Hezbollah terrorists instead of two Jewish guys who own Miramax. Let’s discuss the film on its merits, not Charles Johnson’s fantasies.

June 23, 2004 @ 8:15 pm | Comment

Tom, I was dumbfounded by Hitchens’ lack of substance in that review. I’m often a big fan of his, despite his bi-polar swings, but all of his complaints were so easy to counter and void of specifics. I expxect him to come out swining at moore, as he does at Kissinger, Clinton, Reagan and Mother Teresa. But this time he didn’t have a leg to stand on. He can do better than that.

June 23, 2004 @ 8:16 pm | Comment

Granted, Front Row is out of the United Arab Emirates, and there might be issues for them to refuse the help of Hezbollah (think Mafia dons).

It’s not a marketer, it’s a UAE distribution house. My guess is that they distribute films throughout the Middle East Arabic countries. Yes, Miramax is named after the Weinstein’s parents Miriam and Max. And, yes, they funded it. Give me some credit to think independently of the comments (which most of the time I don’t even read since I can read only the post through my wonderful FeedDemon RSS reader).

My point is that the film does not need to be distributed through the Middle East if any funds end up in Hizbollah coffers. It’s not a trap I am falling into, but logical steps. Why even court the possibilities?

June 23, 2004 @ 8:20 pm | Comment

Jeremy, let’s discuss this on the phone. You’re letting the LGF people get to you. Meanwhile, I hope you can see the movie on Friday. If you’re up to it, we can go to the matinee at the Esplinade. I promise, Hezbollah isn’t distributing it here in AZ.

June 23, 2004 @ 8:57 pm | Comment

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