A strong toxin requires a strong antidote. In the case of the Bush administration, the cure is being served in significant part by Michael Moore, he of the Peter Jackson Diet (and similar pop-culture ambition), who previously delivered the rousing documentaries Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine. This time, however, the exposé feels even more personal, as Moore reveals footage of George W. Bush publicly jeering him. "Behave yourself, willya?" barks Dubya. "Get some real work!" Thus begins Fahrenheit 9/11, which feels like a grudge match between playground adversaries, with the Likable Dork finally standing up to the Repugnant Weasel. Except now they're using the whole world to duke it out.
With its title a nod to one of America's most passionate populists, Ray Bradbury, there's loads of intrigue and emotion here, but don't expect drama; since director Moore claims the home-field advantage in the movie house, Bush loses this match before the opening credits begin. Preceding them, we get Moore slyly recounting that terrifying lapse of democracy back in 2000, when Bush "won" the presidential election. We get stunned newscasters, 16,000 stultified (and mostly black) voters, and Bush's limo pelted with eggs on his First Big Day. Moore chases all this with the startling figure (from The Washington Post) that George Sr.'s happy-play-hooky son spent 42 percent of his first eight months in office far away from Washington.
The mocking touch of adding the Go-Gos' "Vacation" seems a little presumptuous so early on, but soon Bush struggles in an archived interview to describe "things" and more "things" and "matters" he's considering, until his flitting consciousness crash-lands upon the assertive-sounding word "initiatives," and he effectively says nothing yet luxuriates with patriotic pride. This dense appraisal (and appraisal of denseness) is just the beginning for Moore, who spends the whole movie making Bush look bad -- his telling placement of the riff from Eric Clapton's "Cocaine" is priceless, likewise Joey Scarbury's "Believe It or Not." But Bush does nothing within this context, indeed within his career thus far, except make the task a cinch.
At the time of this writing, national headlines are trumpeting a bipartisan commission's finding that no causal connection links the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, with the tyranny of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Given an ever-mounting death toll and irrevocable damage following the U.S. invasion of that nation, this is potentially damning news for a certain politician and his posse, who remain as aggressively vague in today's paper as they are throughout Moore's documentary, which meticulously and harrowingly covers the same issues. Moore also scrutinizes the Bush family's ties with the bin Laden family and wealthy Saudi royals, and questions why CIA warnings about potential Al Qaeda attacks within the United States were not given adequate attention before 9/11.
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Fortunately for viewers of any bent, Moore is just about a genius of his craft by now. He sucker-punches the crap out of Dubya, then moves his audience with a black screen and an audio replay of the attack on the World Trade Center. I wish I'd placed a bet that the ol' bleeding heart would fade back in on a black woman howling in misery and horror -- indeed he does -- but thereafter he fairly objectively allows the Bush administration to tie its own noose and hang itself. (Again, Bush cheerfully assists, declaring, "A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier, no question about it!") In keeping with his previous work, Moore also prompts copious belly laughs (re-editing Bushisms is hee-larious), welcomes compassionate sobs for the dead and their survivors, and leaves us facing utter madness with a sense of renewed purpose and perspective. Whatever his bumblings, bless him for his gifts.
Much like America itself, this project's strengths lie in its diversity. Via loads of archived clips and new interviews, Moore deftly juggles Bush's dubious business affairs, exhausting terror alerts, the bizarre, misguided crackdowns on congenial citizens via the Patriot Act, and then the casualty-strewn war in Iraq itself. By juxtaposing unctuous military recruiters stalking the low-end shopping districts of his own Flint, Michigan (where unemployment has been estimated at 50 percent), with psychologically unformed teens gunning down civilians in what appears to have been a not-unpleasant Baghdad, Moore postulates that blood for oil is a bad, bad thing. There's simply no arguing.
Since he's fighting a tyrant, though, Moore's biggest jeopardy here is becoming one, ideologically alienating those outside the choir with his mocking and finger-pointing. Indeed, regardless of its fancy awards, distributor quests and rating controversies, this would be ten times the movie if it featured an actual debate between Moore and Bush. Nonetheless, the man makes a remarkably strong case, tastefully inserting himself into the Bush-baiting only when necessary -- one such stroke of brilliance involves personally urging congressmen to send their own kids to Iraq.
Still, it's Bush himself who does the heavy lifting. All Moore needed to do was slow down the video of Dubya's glazed face, sitting and reading My Pet Goat with schoolchildren in Florida for seven minutes while his nation was under attack, to make the disturbing case that George W. Bush is a dangerous idiot. While Fahrenheit 9/11 is certain to have some impact on the upcoming election, it also presents an artistic challenge: What's Michael Moore going to do when all the punks leave the playground?