Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Fahrenheit 9/11



USA 2004 : Michael MOORE : 121 mins (approx)

Moore’s anti-Bush ragbag comprises five sections of uneven length and effectiveness:

1) 2000 election / Bush’s holiday-filled first months in power. (*****)
2) 9/11 and aftermath. (***)
3) War on Terror : Afghanistan. (***)
4) War on Terror : Homeland Security and the Patriot Act. (****)
5) War on Terror : Iraq and aftermath. (***)

Each section could easily inspire a ten-hour TV serial: post-Clinton American history provides no end of red meat for liberal jaws to chew on. And so it’s perhaps inevitable that, by condensing the whole thing into two accessible hours, Moore has bitten off too much in one go. His scattershot approach will hopefully lead viewers to investigate more deeply on their own: first stop Amazon, to order the book House of Bush, House of Saud by Craig Unger (who appears here).

The first hour easily the strongest: absorbing and urgent Moore’s unashamedly partisan analysis of Bush’s “election” and its fallout makes everything else Hollywood has come up with this year seem somewhat trivial. He makes hay with copious entertaining/horrifying footage of Bush acting buffoonish and/or sinister, and VP Cheney acting simply sinister. The pace flags somewhat in second half, when Moore covers familiar territory on the Iraq issue, with footage that takes up too much running-time.

The main problem is that picture loses energy whenever transparently malevolent arch-villain Bush isn’t on screen, though Cheney is also fascinatingly hissable (Rumsfeld and Blair remain surprisingly sidelined), and Mr President does return for leave-em-laughing final gag. Moore is easily at his most focussed when squaring up against this one specific foe – just as Hunter S Thompson was never really quite the same when he didn’t have “Dick Nixon to kick around any more.” (NB: Thompson consistently rated George Bush I – a shadowy presence here – a far bigger crook even than Nixon).

Moore is, of course, aiming for broader exposure than Thompson’s relatively rarefied/educated Rolling Stone readership. He deploys familiar small-screen documentary techniques, many of them crudely manipulative: broad (and often very funny) satirical humour, unsubtle scoring (Jeff Gibbs), heavily skewed footage (most objectionable: smilingly content Baghdad citizens shortly before the US invasion.)

As in Bowling For Columbine, Moore has some excellent arguments but often lacks judgement to say “enough”. He ends up intruding into grief of Lila Lipscomb, proud mother of a US soldier killed in Iraq. Easily the worst moment in film comes when Mike Desjarlais’s camera briefly tilts down when Mrs Lipscomb buckles with grief on a visit to the White House, the cinematographer worried we might not get a full-on view of her tearful face. The tilt-instinct is bad enough – leaving it in counts as an even worse lapse of judgement (presumably Moore’s choice, though Kurt Engfehr, Christopher Seward and T Woody Richman named as editors).

As often in previous work, Moore undermines his case (and lessens chances of reaching beyond already-sympathetic audiences) by indulging (himself) with silly stunts. He uses an ice-cream van to broadcast the Patriot Act to Congress after he’s when shockingly informed by a sympathetic Congressman that “we don’t read most of the bills.” In same the same august DC locale, he approaches House of Representatives members in the street, asking them to sign up their children for the army, and thus Iraq service. (Nowhere is it stated that Moore is also a father).

A more serious failing is that many of Moore’s arguments are shaky at best. Much is made of Osama Bin Laden’s family members, and their connections with the House of Saud. Moore either doesn’t know, or doesn’t say, that Bin Laden’s immediate aim is the removal of the House of Saud – his sworn enemies – and Moore’s basis for suggesting Osama has re-established connections with his family (evidence cited: one appearance at a wedding) is too skimpy. But Moore is in too much of a hurry, bouncing along to the next cheap shot: his very selective roll-call of tiny ‘Coalition of the Willing’ members, which doesn’t include the likes of the UK or the Netherlands; a crying Iraqi woman juxtaposed with an airheaded Britney Spears; Republican big-wigs having make-up applied before they go on TV…

As someone says of Bush’s Texas oilman days: “He was very good at drilling dry holes that nothing came out of.” At times, the comment could also be applied to Moore, who certainly offers nothing in the way of an alternative. (And any decent documentarian could probably come up with a depressing expose of Moore’s presumably preferred candidate, Al Gore*.) In retrospect, the film’s flaws become more apparent – while watching, one is buoyed along by the film’s humour and Moore’s evident anger. But on reflection, much of what he says and shows is spurious, facetious or downright sloppy. This is all the more infuriating, because when Moore has a large, specific (easy) target in view – Bush, or his apologists at Fox News (whose climate-of-fear tactics are skilfully exposed) – his aim is impressively spot-on.

What effect will the film have? In one way, Moore couldn’t have hoped for more perfect timing: his Oscar-winning, box-office-record-breaking Bowling for Columbine (an inaccurate title, though not as meaningless as the catchy-sounding Fahrenheit 9/11) gave him the platform for this much more ambitious polemic, a magnet for publicity and controversy, and timed to explode at a crucial stage in Bush’s re-election programme. But the film’s flaws and Moore’s own established polarising persona (though he’s not on screen that much here) mean that Fahrenheit 9/11 unlikely to sway Republicans towards voting Democrat. Some floaters may be swayed – but the chief impact will be to encourage Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters to actually turn up and vote. And that is surely enough. In’shallah.

8th July, 2004
(seen same day : Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne : press show)

[rewrite 11th July]

* James Benning: We always have a right-wing government business runs America. Sure, there’s lip-service to those kinds of things, but both Clinton and Al Gore owned oil stock. Al Gore owned oil stock in South America where they were devastating particular Indian lands, and he continued to hold that stock while he was running for president. So you know where his heart is. If you write a book one way and live another, what do you believe in? If I wrote that book, then I wouldn’t own stock that’s devastating really spiritual lands for people who claimed it thousands of years ago.

interview with Neil Young, Berlin, February 2002

by Neil Young