Fahrenheit 9/11

Review by © Jane Freebury

The deliberations of the jury at the Cannes film festival this year aren’t on public record, but it’s hard to imagine how Fahrenheit 9/11 could have beaten the pick of the pack when new work from the best of the world’s directors was in competition. Critics enthused over Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 and Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, but the doco won.

Jury leader Quentin Tarantino surely has a story to tell, but to the media he says disingenuously that the decision to award Michael Moore the Palme D’Or wasn’t political. With a war being waged a short distance away across the Mediterranean, were the jurists feeling they should brush the usual aesthetic criteria aside and pass the prize to an angry polemic against the Bush administration? This precedent will surely be felt at Cannes for years to come.

The early sequences are telling and well constructed, revisiting the election events that saw Bush take office, and recalling the awful moment of 9/11 when the screen goes black, the audio stays on and the camera turns to eyewitnesses in the streets for a reaction shot. But after this initial restraint, it begins to feel like everything is being thrown into service for Moore’s argument, including the kitchen sink.

As a compilation of actuality footage with TV and fiction feature interposed, Fahrenheit 9/11 can claim to fit the documentary category, but it pushes the generic envelope for all it’s worth. While it’s refreshing to see audiences addressed in this gutsy way by a single voice (Moore wrote, directed and produced), and it’s a tribute to American democracy that such a film can be produced and exhibited (Disney notwithstanding), it’s a movie that’s partial and selective use of the truth comes closer to political propaganda material. And that’s exactly what Michael Moore said he wanted, a campaign to dislodge Bush from the presidency.

It is a devastating portrait of Bush, a lampoon really, which will be wounding for Americans who respect the presidency. Nonetheless the choice bits of footage that Moore has used to represent Bush project a cocky, elitist and shallow man, more interested in his aim on the golf course or at the shooting range, than in affairs of state. And Moore’s right to ask what the President was thinking in those seven minutes that ticked away after he’d been told of the second plane hitting the WTO towers.

During Reagan’s presidency there was a film called Being There, in which Peter Sellers had the role of a do-nothing, say-nothing character who became a serious presidential candidate. But Bush has quite a bit to say in Fahrenheit 9/11, and in fact Moore attributes his funniest lines to him.

Yes Moore gets lots of laughs out of George W – this director is a talented satirist – but after a while uneasiness about tendentiousness, selectivity, and archival snippets out of context starts to grow.

There’s much been written on the assertions that Moore makes about the Unocal pipeline, a US visit by the Taliban, the background of Hamid Karzai, the satirical national caricatures of the Coalition of the Willing (perhaps we should be grateful were we left out) and how and when the decision that allowed Saudis to fly out of the US was made. Can anyone afford to be an uncritical viewer in these times?

When Moore declares his roots in Flint, Michigan and gets to know a grieving mother who has just lost her son in Iraq, and when he follows a pair of marine recruitment officers doing their creepy work around the shopping mall where the socially disadvantaged hang out. The film moves away from agit-prop and is on much firmer ground as a documentary.

This is a Battleship Potemkin or a Battle for Algiers of our time. You have to see it, but you don’t have to buy it.

3.5 stars

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