Fahrenheit 9/11 (Review)
MICHAEL MOORE came to Canada last week to take a break from the war. Not the one in Iraq, but the one brewing in the United States over his new documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11. He'd just weathered an abrasive interview with Matt Lauer of NBC's Today show. A number of U.S. theatre chains were under pressure to boycott the film. And he said that Karl Rove, George W. Bush's senior adviser, had launched an e-mail campaign to discredit him. "This is unlike anything I've seen with my work," Moore maintained as he rode an airport limo into Toronto, his bodyguard in the front seat. "They're coming after me with everything they've got. So I called up the Fellowship." He's referring to the "coalition of the willing" that Miramax's Bob and Harvey Weinstein formed to distribute Fahrenheit after Disney, their parent company, blocked them from releasing it. "I said, 'Look, I haven't asked for any perks, but it would do me a lot of good if I could watch this movie with a Canadian audience. I'll do some interviews to justify the trip, but I just want to relax and see it with an audience that's going to get it - and them some."
Moore, the populist renegade from Flint, Mich., is a kind of honorary Canadian, a Yank who's learned to hop our border like a backyard fence. In Flint, he grew up watching the Vietnam War on the CBC. And he owes his career to Canada, from the discovery of Roger & Me in Toronto, to the Halifax producer behind Bowling for Columbine. He even made a movie about the border, casting John Candy in the ill-fated Canadian Bacon. Like us, Moore likes to observe America from an ironic distance, with a high-octane blend of journalism and satire that's as Canadian as Mary Walsh.
Where the resemblance ends is in his demeanour. Moore is not polite, he's pugnacious. He has the killer instinct of the picked-on fat kid getting even with the schoolyard bully. If Bush is the smirking frat boy, Moore is the avenging underdog, with a mean sense of humour. Behind the joker in the ball cap, you sense a deep reserve of anger.
I first ran into him on a Toronto sidewalk in September 1989. Back then he was unknown, but somehow he'd gathered a crowd. As this big scruffy guy walked to the premiere of his first movie, Roger & Me, at the Toronto film festival, he looked like he was leading a small demonstration. There was already some buzz, the screening had been vastly oversold, and it was pandemonium. The fire marshal was ready to shut down the event, until the mob jamming the aisles was finally persuaded to leave. The next day the local press reported a near-riot, which Moore found hilarious. "What a Canadian would call a riot, we'd just call moving forward," he told me. "For a riot in the U.S., you have to have some gunfire and arson going on. You can't just nudge people."
After the festival, the self-made phenomenon turned down a $1-million deal from Disney, and $1.5 million from Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein - who, as Moore recalls, "literally chased us down the hallway with scrambled eggs on his Mickey Mouse pyjama top." In the end, Warner Bros. forked out $3 million to distribute Roger & Me, which became the most successful documentary in history, a record now held by Moore's Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine (2002).
Fifteen years after igniting his career, and alarming a fire marshal in Canada, Moore is the most influential leftist on the planet. And with Fahrenheit 9/11 - which Disney financed through Miramax, and then dropped like a hot potato - he's lighting a bonfire under George W. Bush. Over the next few weeks, the movie will reach 140 screens in Canada and 500 to 1,000 in the U.S. - depending on the boycott. Either way, it's a record release for a documentary. Fahrenheit, which won the Palme d'Or in Cannes last month, is the most controversial movie to inflame North America since The Passion of the Christ - but a lot easier to watch.
It's Moore's best movie. With Columbine, he targeted gun-crazy America and the National Rifle Association while mounting an oblique argument that a racist culture of fear, not firearms, was at the root of American violence. Fahrenheit 9/11 takes direct aim at President Bush, and plumbs the moral quicksand on which he built the foundations of the war in Iraq. Uncharacteristically, Moore stays off camera for most of the movie, letting Bush serve as the star of this screwball tragicomedy. But what makes Fahrenheit so essential is the timing. Moore has made a film that incarnates the current groundswell of anti-Bush sentiment. And with the presidential campaign in full swing, it could have a serious impact.
The film tries to cover a lot of ground. It begins with the Florida ballot debacle that brought Bush to the White House, then goes on to explore the Byzantine intrigue of his family connections with arms dealers, Saudi oil tycoons and the bin Laden clan. Moore ponders the astonishing fact that up to 142 Saudis, including 24 relatives of Osama bin Laden, were flown out of the U.S. while most air travel was grounded after Sept. 11. The film's momentum sags a bit in the middle with a looping digression about the absurd hysteria of homeland security - a nursing mother explains how she had to drink from a bottle of her own breast milk before boarding a plane to prove it wasn't lethal. But then it moves to the war in Iraq, with images of civilian carnage and glimpses of a U.S. military we haven't seen on television - from tank gunners discussing the heavy metal music they listen to while enjoying "the ultimate rush" of wasting Iraqis, to embittered soldiers condemning the war as an outrage.
As an investigative documentary, Fahrenheit takes a scattershot approach, and many of its revelations are not new. But it's one thing to read about them, and quite another to see them on screen. The accumulated images have tremendous power. And the picture of Bush that emerges is devastating. Moore depicts him as a lazy dolt who spent 42 per cent of his first 11 months in office on vacation, a guy who would rather play golf and fish than take a meeting on terrorism. He also shows mind-boggling footage of the President in that Florida elementary school classroom on Sept. 11, being informed of the second attack on the World Trade Center, then continuing to read My Pet Goat for nearly seven minutes while America burned.
With Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore's guerrilla filmmaking is no longer a one-man show. He draws on a broad arsenal of footage - pirated clips of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz lubricating his hair with spit before going on TV, freelance interviews with dissident troops in Iraq, an anonymous crew following Marine recruiters as they hustle indigent blacks outside a Michigan mall. Moore still delivers some onscreen antics, such as ambushing congressmen to ask if they'd enlist their kids to fight in Iraq. But he lets Bush drive the comedy, then shifts gears from satire to dire pathos as a bereaved mother from Flint reads a protest letter from the grave - her son, who later died in combat, insists the Iraq war, and Bush, be stopped.
Some of Moore's harshest critics are on the left. I keep meeting cinephiles, especially Americans, who share his politics but find his manipulation of sentiment as vulgar as Steven Spielberg's. But that's why his documentaries get shown in the multiplexes. Moore is crafty. By embracing the troops, and accusing Bush of betraying them, he captures the high ground of patriotism. With his Joe Lunchbucket persona, Moore has perfected the deadpan art of being disingenuous. But with each movie, his filmmaking becomes more sophisticated. To convey the events of Sept. 11, he lets the screen go black for over a minute while we hear the sound of the planes hitting the World Trade Center. Then he cuts to a montage of faces gazing up in horror and disbelief. It's an elegant interlude of pure cinema amid the dirty business of popcorn agitprop. It may say something about the current state of the left that its most prominent voice is a comedian. But as a descendent of the sixties revolution, Moore integrates the conflicting personalities that once tore the movement apart back in the '70s. He preserves the giddy satirical spirit of the Yippie pranksters, while embodying the blue-collar stoicism of a working-class hero. He's America's clown prince of the proletariat.
Moore grew up in an Irish Catholic household, with a father who worked on a GM auto-parts assembly line in Flint for 33 years. An activist since grade school, he toyed with becoming a priest. And he remains a practising Catholic. In fact, he admits having sat through Mel Gibson's Passion twice, although "I come from the other extreme of the Catholic Church." Moore's movie could have the same polarizing effect as Gibson's, but with something more tangible at stake. At this rate, the U.S. election may not be waged on facts or issues, but as a war of righteous values. And as Fahrenheit 9/11 raises the temperature of America's moral outrage, it could affect the outcome. "This thing has now reached into the White House," says Moore. "Karl Rove, Bush's puppeteer, is personally involved in trying to spin the attacks on the film. Kerry hasn't been out there much. Now they've got a target."
As Moore prepares to leave the limo and face the TV cameras, he takes off his sunglasses, apologizing. "The reason I'm wearing them is because I was doing Letterman last night and I got some makeup in my eyes." Back at the airport, that didn't stop everyone from recognizing him, including Canadian border officials. The supervisor even came out to shake his hand, and told him, "You're always welcome here." Moore replied, "I know that. My fear is, will I be able to get back to where I just came from?"
Maclean's July 1, 2004