Home > Books > Film review - Fahrenheit 9/11
A film by Michael Moore
August 8, 2004
I've seen the film that everyone is talking about, but I wanted to think about it for a while before expressing an opinion. Briefly, it was better than I thought it would be and worse than I thought it would be, it had brilliant parts and mediocre parts, there was too much Michael Moore and too little Michael Moore, there were compellingly presented facts and distortion to make fatuous points, it contained propaganda, polemic and opinion. In short, it was a Michael Moore film. Anyone going into the theatre expecting anything else was always going to be disappointed.
Much of the criticism of the film has concentrated on five scenes: two where Moore exaggerated by using cheap shots, two stunts where he was supposedly just showing his ego and aggrandising himself, and one where he exploited someone's grief in an unsympathetic manner. I agree with two of the criticisms, but I thought that the others provided some of the most powerful messages in the film.
The film gives the impression that the only countries supporting the US in the invasion of Iraq were tiny countries such as Palau and Iceland which have no effective military forces anyway. The fact is that there were forces from Poland, Britain and Australia there from Day 1 (an Australian SAS soldier fired the first shot in the war), and there was significant diplomatic support from other countries, such as Spain and Italy, who contributed military forces later. I am not offended just because Australia was not mentioned, I am offended that Moore distorted the facts in an attempt to suggest that the US was isolated and acting without the support of its traditional allies. I have no doubt that Moore was fully aware of what really happened, and it was certainly a cheap shot to ridicule small countries as a way of belittling the US government. The other cheap shot was the lingering scenes of the members of the Bush cabinet being preened for television. I assume the intent was to suggest that they were vain people overly conscious of their appearance (a charge which could never be made against Moore), but anyone who has done television interviews knows that the makeup people are always fussing over out-of-place hair strands and shiny spots on foreheads. I know this, and I have been in a lot fewer television interviews than Michael Moore has. I must admit, though, that the sight of Paul Wolfowitz licking his comb was compellingly gruesome.
Moore has been derided for his stunt of asking members of Congress to enlist their sons and daughters so that they could fight in Iraq. This is an important point when discussing who actually does the fighting, and it is perfectly legitimate to ask the people who vote for wars why they don't seem so keen for either their families or themselves to be in the front line. Rush Limbaugh, who in nobody's imagination would be seen as a Moore supporter, has recently pointed out that a member of Congress gets a lifetime pension of $15,000 a month, even if they only serve a single term, but someone can spend twenty years in the military doing everything right and go out with a pension of only $1,000 a month. Limbaugh has also noted that the payment to the family of someone killed in action is only $6,000 (half of which is taxable), plus $1,750 which must be spent on a funeral; the widow gets $833 a month until she remarries. It is easy to see why politicians don't see the military as a viable employment opportunity for their children. In any case, you can always get the Marines to patrol shopping malls in disadvantaged neighbourhoods to recruit unemployed youths to die for the country.
Another thing which has been ridiculed as a stunt was Moore driving around Capitol Hill in an ice cream truck, reading the Patriot Act to the politicians. Everyone knows that legislators do not and cannot read everything on which they vote, and anyone who has observed a parliamentary system knows that the people who control house business love to bring on votes on controversial legislation late at night or at the end of a session so that these things can slide through without proper debate. When it comes to legislation which effectively suspends significant parts of the Bill of Rights, however, there can be no such excuses for voting without reading. Moore was right to point out this disgrace, and the politicians who did it deserve to be embarrassed.
One constant criticism of the film has been that it exploits the grief of Lila Lipscomb, whose son was killed in Iraq. When we first meet Ms Lipscomb, she is patriotically showing the flag each day and very proud of her son, and of her family's history of military service. It was fortuitous for Moore that he had interviewed her for this sequence, as it made it even more poignant to see her distress and disillusionment after her son's death. She started thinking about why he had died, and what his death contributed to the safety or future of the country that she obviously loves. Not only did she find no answers, but she found nobody even prepared to be asked. The images of her grieving family and the Iraqi mothers crying over the deaths of their sons and daughters remind us that while it is rare for the politicians who start wars to be personally affected, it is always the young people who have to die and the mothers and fathers who have to mourn.
For me, the weakest parts of the film were the bits about Saudi Arabia and the Saudis. Everyone knows that the Saudi rulers are nasty, opportunistic people; everyone knows that the Saudis financed Osama bin Laden and, perhaps indirectly, the attacks of September 11, 2001; the links between the Bush family and the Saudis have been an open secret for years; it is no surprise that Saudi Arabia, which runs an enormous trade surplus with the US, owns lots of assets in the US - leaving the money in the debtor country makes a lot more sense than bringing it home to stack up in the desert. I realise that Moore's intention was to dump on George W. Bush as much as possible and from as many directions as possible, but there is such a thing as overkill and it can confuse the message.
So, is it a good film? I think it is, and the judges at Cannes agreed with me. There is no doubt that Moore is a fine filmmaker, whatever you think of his politics. This film is not another Citizen Kane or The Godfather, but it is a lot closer to that end of the quality spectrum than it is to the other end. Will it influence how anyone votes? Probably not, but it might encourage more people to vote than the dismal 40% or so of US citizens who bothered to turn up at the polls for the last presidential election. Whatever its faults, if Fahrenheit 9/11 can have this single effect then it will have made a significant contribution to the process of democracy.