Burning Down the House...


Dan and I went to see Michael Moore's new documentary Fahrenheit 9-11. Two screens of the theatre were packed, the audience clapped at the end, and it was well worth seeing.

That's the short review.

Emerging from the theatre after Fahrenheit 9-11 into the midnight parking lot Dan (left amazed, disgusted and heartbroken by the film) and I (left somewhat less of the three, but still very impressed) had a strong conversation on its implications. It's a fine film, I said, but not one designed to change minds.

I'm beginning to doubt that minds can be changed, said Dan. Everybody's opinion is so different and so desperately clung to. Ideologically, the United States has to tip one way or the other.

That's not a good thing, I replied. The two sides have to sit down and talk over their differences at some point. If their opinions have so hardened what's left, civil war?

Neither of us could come up with a good answer to that.

I sincerely hope that a lot of Republicans do go see this movie, and give themselves the strength to see it through with an open mind. Yes, it can be called propaganda, and Michael Moore makes it clear that this film was born out of his personal point of view. However, the Americans featured in this film who are most critical of the Bush Administration aren't propaganda. Rather, they are real people with real opinions who are in a lot of pain. What they have to say may not be comfortable for others to hear and their points of view may be as arguable as they are difficult to argue, but Americans owe it to themselves to look across the ideological divide that Michael Moore screams across and see the real people on the other side. Americans owe it to themselves to offer up some sympathy and understanding and (in last night's strangest dream) compromise.

My great disappointment with Fahrenheit 9-11 is that this is not a film designed to bring about that understanding and compromise, though I frankly doubt that any such film is possible. Rather this film, whether intentionally or not, hardens attitudes, and it will likely do so on both sides. Rather than sway the results of the 2000 Presidential election, Moore will rally Democrats, but he will also rile Republicans. The vote totals will be the same, but the rhetoric will be decibels louder.

But instead of producing a movie designed to foster understanding and compromise between the factions of America, Moore does the next best thing: he expresses himself. Fahrenheit 9-11 is one man's enraged scream over the direction his country has taken. It's no more and no less valid than the times we've wanted to scream. If there are facts in this movie that are provably maliciously false, I don't see them, and if such things do exist, then the film's detractors should do us all a favour and sue for slandar. Until then, I'm taking the points raised as strong arguments to be debated. Moore crafts a compelling case behind his argument that the Bush Administration is, at least, making as much of a hash of the global war on terror as it is making a hash of domestic and fiscal policy in America.

Fahrenheit 9-11 charts the rise of the second Bush Administration and walks us through its response to the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Where possible, footage has been used that portrays President Bush as ineffective and out-of-touch. It's a cheap trick, but effective, and it helps that Bush actually did say and do these things which made me wonder how he could possibly have become President. Moore hammers on many themes: that the Bush Administration's connections to big business (particularly Enron, Halliburton and Texas Oil) calls into question George Bush's ability to govern with the general public in mind. That the Bush Administration's obsession with Iraq twisted the response to the September 11 attacks, leaving Afghanistan in a mess and committing the bulk of the U.S. military in a country that had nothing to do with Al Queda or the original attacks. That the Bush Administration's tactics in trying to destroy terrorists have instead created terrorists where none existed before. That keeping Americans in an everpresent state of fear is not only damaging to society, but it may even benefit business, the media, and possibly even the presidency itself in such a way that it becomes in their interest to maintain that same everpresent state of fear.

I could go on, but that's the other problem with Fahrenheit 9-11: there's too much in it. In his desire to explain in detail every example of the Bush Administration mismanagement of America's foreign policy, Moore packs his movie so full, it's hard to follow.

For example, Moore makes a significant connection noting that, before the September 11 attacks, a firm with Bush connections (Unocal) met with representatives of the Taliban (who were as misogynist on camera as their reputation suggested), even though Afghanistan was providing a haven to wanted terrorist Osama Bin Laden, who had already attacked American interests (the USS Cole). Why were U.S. officials, Unocal and the Taliban meeting? To negotiate construction of a gas pipeline through the country that would route natural gas from the Caspian Sea, around Iran, through Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. Moore notes that, though the Taliban became persona-non-gratia in the weeks following September 11 and were quickly ousted, the U.S. never forgot about that pipeline. The United States hand-picked Hamid Karzai as the new Afghan president -- a staunch American ally, well-educated, moderate and, conveniently, a consultant for Unocal. The agreement to build the pipeline was signed by Karzai soon after taking office. Moore even goes so far as to suggest that the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan was half-hearted, either because the Bush Administration's attention was elsewhere (Iraq) or because they weren't interested in jailing the Taliban after doing business with them just months before.

What takes me several lines to explain in the paragraphs above, Moore does in five minutes, but he quickly moves on, to fascinating shots of the war in Iraq, where we can see newborn terrorists emerging out of the rubble of destroyed civilian homes, and initially gung-ho coalition soldiers becoming disillusioned and discouraged about their tour of duty. And then the movie follows the grief of an American mother who loses her first-born to the war. And, oh, remember those weapons of mass destruction? Here are some clips from early in 2001 where the Bush Administration suggests they knew that they didn't exist. And did you know that the Bush Administration evacuated members of Bin Laden's family immediately following the September 11 attacks...? And did you know...? And did you know...? It becomes very difficult to keep up with all the reasons why George W. Bush is a bad president, and ironically that's to Bush's benefit.

The best moment in this film for me, but also the most telling is when the grieving mother, an undisputed patriot, heads down to Washington for a conference and, in her spare time, tries to see if she can visit the White House and gets some answers on why her son had to die in Iraq. While talking with an anti-war protester, she's confronted by a Republican supporter who sees the cameras and accuses the mother of staging the event. The mother then hits her with the fact that she lost her son when his blackhawk helicopter was shot down in Baghdad. The look of sheer terror that crosses the Republican's face when she realizes that she's stepped out of her depth is a wonder to behold, but it passes within seconds. After stumbling over a few half-hearted responses, the woman manages to blurt out after the mother that she should "blame Al Queda" for the death of her son.

One of the more effective tools of this presidency, intentional or not, is that it puts out so many controversial or downright stupid policies at once, that opponents are at a loss to figure out which policy they should oppose first, and how. Moore manfully tries to craft a message that is hard-hitting and appealing, with powerful images and well-timed bits of humour, but it still takes two hours to get it into the brains of viewers, and those are just the receptive ones. The Bush Administration can (and has) countered with positive and negative images which hit the brain in seconds.

It may be telling that Michael Moore uses no images of the planes hitting the two towers on the morning of September 11, or the buildings' subsequent and highly photogenic collapse. Instead, viewers stare at a black screen while they hear the noises of the planes striking the buildings, followed by lingering visuals of expressions of pure horror from the witnesses. It's an effective sequence, artfully done, but shying away from the brutal images of the terrorist attacks themselves. This may have been as much a step to prevent these images from subconsciously undermining the message of Moore's work as much as it is a (somewhat) respectful gesture to the families of the victims and all the people who've seen that carnage too many times.

Bush's "Bring them on!" response to terrorism may be foolhardy or even ultimately disasterous, but it appeals at the emotional level to human beings who, quite understandibly, are prone to react to terrorist carnage with pure and dangerously unfocused rage. Anybody trying to present counter-policies on the basis of facts and wordy explanations (like this post of mine) is going to find themselves at a disadvantage in this debate. It is for this reason that Moore crafts his work to be as in-your-face and downright manipulative as it is, but not only is this unlikely to make Moore's opponents look like illogical fiends in comparison, my fear is that it will not work in convincing the average American of what needs to be done.

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