Saturday, June 26, 2004
By Micah Holmquist
It was June 25 and I was walking towards a theater in Grand Rapids, Michigan to see a showing of Michael Moore’s new film Fahrenheit 911. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t think to ask him what movie he was talking about, but I did say, “Yeah. I’d planned to?”
“Why’d you want to do that?” he said, as I walked toward him, thinking this could be entertaining.
“I don’t know…” I replied realizing that was wearing a t-shirt that said, “NEUTER CLINTON” while trying to think of something to say. “I hear it is a pro-President Bush film.”
“Where would you hear that?” he asked.
It was a good question, but I knew enough to say, “Oh I don’t know, say my name’s Micah. It’s nice to meet you.” I reached out to shake this gentleman’s hand.
He shook my hand and replied, “Pleasure. My name’s Ron.”
Ron was about six feet tall and only slightly heavyset. A white man with black hair, Ron had male pattern baldness.
“Like the late great President Reagan?” I said.
“Yes, sir!” Ron said with a smile. “You don’t want to go see this movie. It is undermining America.”
“Wow! That’s a powerful movie,” said I in a tone intended to convey false sincerity. “How ’s it doing that?”
“It is against President Bush and our troops,” he answered. “It’s dishonoring them.”
“That’s some movie,” I said. “What happens if a million people buy tickets?”
Ron had a puzzled look on his face, so I added, “I mean will that result in the destruction of America? Or do 10 million tickets need to be sold? What about the tickets sold here to people who aren’t U.S. citizens or aren’t registered to vote?”
Ron still looked baffled, which lead to an awkward pause.
Twenty or thirty seconds of two people who don’t know each other staring at one another as they search for something to say isn’t one of life’s most comfortable experiences, but finally I added, “I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t think it was a pro-Bush film and I actually can’t stand the guy, or Kerry for that matter, but I promise to never spend any money to see it if you can explain to me how exactly this movie is undermining America.”
“Go on to your dirty movie, red,” Ron responded.
(All the above dialogue is accurate to the best of my memory.)
I don’t think I made a new friend, but talking to Ron did make Fahrenheit 911 a tad more enjoyable.
A more blunt title for the film would be “George W. Bush is an asshole! Don’t support him” since that was the basic message. In its nearly two hours of running time, Fahrenheit 911 hits most of the major topics you’d expect from someone on the left side of being a liberal when they are addressing Bush. The outcome of the 2000 election wasn’t legitimate, Bush isn’t very smart but his administration is dishonest, more could have been done to fight terrorism prior to September 11, 2001 and more could still be done now but isn’t because Team Bush wants to fight a war in Iraq, Bush and his family have ties to royal family of Saudi Arabia and the bin Ladens, the Patriot Act is repressive, some corporations stand to make a lot of money off of war and the Democrats need to grow a backbone all come up. The arguments are hardly impressive or original but they are presented in an enjoyable manner. Furthermore I was filled with joy at the end when I realized that the movie never presented the U.N. Security Council‘s failure to give approval for the invasion of Iraq as an “anti-war” argument.
The film’s most impressive segments, however, come when covering topics that aren’t found in the standard liberal complaint list. Fahrenheit 911 looks at why someone would join the military and the deceptive practices of military recruiters in addition to how the invasion and occupation of Iraq has resulted in U.S. soldiers doing, both intentionally and not, horrendous things to Iraqis. (This makes the film a continuation of the “violent America” theme that Moore began in 2002’s Bowling for Columbine.) Moore deserves special credit for the way he handled footage of the bodies of dead Iraqis being carried off and of an Iraqi child with a gruesome head injury screaming in pain. Such images cannot be made “tasteful,” but they don’t have to be exploitative, and here they weren’t.
Moore understandably doesn’t bother to attempt the arduous task of quantifying these subjects, but strangely neither does he seek out voices that could provide a broader picture. Interviews with people such as psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, former Marine recruiter’s assistant Chris
White and the folks behind Iraq Body Count could have gone a long way towards convincing the unconvinced. Moore appears to think the film’s footage can sufficiently speak for itself, and he may right. The Pentagon can’t be happy with the footage in the Fahrenheit 911 of two recruiters in Flint, Michigan, as the duo appears to have no shame in either blatantly lying to young people or being filmed while doing so. (A great stunt would be to have had a camera follow some muscular 18-year-old male to the recruiting station. He tells the recruiters he wants to sign up today in order to realize his dream of becoming a military recruiter and convincing other young people to go kill and be killed for God and country. What would the reaction be?) The greatest value of the film may be that it alerts more people to how the U.S. military is an operation with bloody hands that should make anybody uncomfortable.
The idea that the Bush Administration is using the threat of “terrorism” (a word the administration appears to believe means whatever they want it to mean at the moment) to keep people in the United States fearful and easily manipulated runs throughout the piece. U.S. Representative Jim McDermott, a Democrat, pops up in several places to charge the administration with this. Although not included in the film, Al Gore has recently made similar comments. This would be heartening if Democrats didn’t in fact do their best to manipulate the public via fear or whatever other means is at their disposable.
Humor fills the movie. Perhaps the best example of this is when “Believe It or Not,” the theme from the early eighties superhero spoof The Greatest American Hero, serves as the soundtrack to footage of Bush on his May 1, 2003 make a wish excursion to an aircraft carrier.
Are there some unfair assessments made and editing that imperfectly crystallizes the issue or issues at hand in a manner that, intentionally or not might mislead members of the audience? Yes, but less than in Moore’s earlier films Roger & Me (1989) and Bowling for Columbine and far less than you would likely come across in two hours of watching cable news.
Despite these many impressive qualities, Fahrenheit 911 fails on the whole because it doesn’t do enough to put events into context. Bush isn’t the first president to lie in order to get a fun little war. Moore doesn’t say that he is, but neither does he make it clear that what Bush has done is not unusual but to be expected. The picture also doesn’t go into the idea that maybe, just maybe, there is at least some reason to consider the possibility that perhaps al Qaeda’s attacks against the U.S. could have been in response to U.S. actions. (Moore’s larger body of work is far better on the latter issue, but many viewers of this film will likely be unfamiliar with it.)
Most importantly the movie does not present the political culture of the United States as complicit in this situation. Yes, Moore does criticize House and Senate Democrats who have rolled over to please Bush, but neither the name nor the face of a certain member of the Senate and likely Democratic nominee for the presidency of the United States of America, John Kerry, shows up on screen. Viewers, particularly those who are less politically savvy, are likely to see this film as backhanded endorsement of Kerry. They will be unaware that Kerry voted as Bush wanted him to on the three most significant votes of the “war on terror.” When it came to authorizing the use of force against those behind the September 11, 2001 attacks, the PATRIOT Act and authorizing of the use of force against Iraq, Bush and Kerry were united.
Fahrenheit 911 could have been made much stronger not by editing out any of the current film, but by adding segments that damned the entire system for producing a non-choice in the upcoming presidential election. This, however, was not Moore’s intention. Having endorsed Wesley Clark in the Democratic primaries and apologized to Al Gore for supporting Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign, Moore appears comfortably back in the Democratic fold. The muddled politics that go along with such a position are evident throughout the movie, but never more so than at the very end. Simultaneously saying the U.S. military protects the “freedom” of U.S. citizens and protects an unjust social order, Moore ends by saying that U.S. troops don’t deserve to be sent to war when it is not necessary. His sentiment is, in all likelihood, sincere, but it comes across as intellectually shallow.
A more radical critique could have out pointed out that the people of the U.S. have, with barely a peep of protest, allowed those who govern them to justify war in the name of fighting a theoretical enemy. The chances of eliminating terrorism around the world are the same as eliminating all bad things. There is no way to reform the “war on terror” as such. It needs to be terminated, the film could have said, and working towards that goal mean, at the very minimum, not supporting any candidate for office who wants to pursue the “war on terror.”
As I left the theater and walked out to my car, I looked for Ron, but he was nowhere to be found. What would he think of the film? I wondered. Assuming that he could get past his pre-conceived antagonism to Fahrenheit 911 and judge on the basis of his logic and political beliefs, which I will assume are mainline patriotic Republican partisan, I suspect he would declare it not worth trusting within the first five minutes when Moore says the election of Bush was illegitimate. Moore cites a reason, the disenfranchisement of black voters, for this claim, but hardly includes any cinematic footnotes. Ron almost certainly wouldn’t spend the time reading articles or even watching films that go into this matter in more detail, and so he will probably never question the 2000 election. And if he ever does see a film that convinces him to rethink supporting the “war on terror,” it almost certainly won’t be Fahrenheit 911.
Micah Holmquist, editor of Irregular Thoughts and Links, is a Cadillac, Mich.-based writer.Share