Fahrenheit 9/11 sparks Bush fires

Michael Moore's new film raises the temperature by appealing to the guts, not the head.

Helen Searls

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Topics Politics

The opening of Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 has taken America by storm. Moore’s movie shot to the number one slot in the box office charts, and in its opening weekend had already out-grossed all previous documentaries. It has become the prime talking point for political pundits and commentators – as one Washington Post reviewer put it, the film is now ‘required viewing…for anyone who wants to be culturally literate’ (1).

The movie is a vitriolic and unrelenting attack on President George W Bush, beginning with the well-rehearsed argument that Bush stole the presidential election in 2000. Moore depicts the president as work-shy and incompetent, before getting to the meat of his argument – that the response to 9/11 and the war on Iraq were driven by the sordid commercial interests of the oil industry, rather than by a desire to defeat terrorism.

Moore tries to force every fact to fit his own rather unconvincing obsession with oil interests. And he appears to see no contradiction in portraying the president as both an incompetent moron and as the great manipulator with a clear masterplan capable of hoodwinking an entire nation.

Ironically, Moore credits the Bush administration with a much clearer sense of mission in the aftermath of 9/11 than it actually had. The idea that the USA invaded first Afghanistan and then Iraq in order to secure an oil pipeline, or to distract from Bush family ties with the bin Ladens in Saudi Arabia, or to provide profits for Texan oil millionaires, is to credit the administration with more clarity and decisiveness than it actually seemed to possess. In fact, many of the decisions made by the Bush presidency both before and after 9/11 looked more like knee-jerk reactions, as the administration reeled from one crisis to another.

But the film does have its moments. As in his last documentary, Bowling for Columbine, Moore successfully highlights the dangers posed by the culture of fear that now exists in America. Moore’s interviews with US soldiers and their mothers are both provocative and moving. And even when Moore is making rather cheap political points, he often does so adeptly. It makes your skin scrawl to watch the seven minutes when Bush continues to sit in an elementary classroom reading My Pet Goat, after he had been told that the second Twin Tower had been hit.

The film’s success can’t be put down to its political or journalistic merits. Moore pulls together a lot of different strands of evidence, but most of this has been on public record for some time. And it is hardly news that Michael Moore hates Bush. So how has the film managed to polarise America?

Democrats have greeted Moore’s film by block-booking tickets in advance and packing movie houses, just as Christian fundamentalists did for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Cinemas have opened additional screens to accommodate the crowds, and impromptu street parties have sprung up in the lines outside. The film has reportedly received cheers and standing ovations across the country.

By contrast, Republicans are foaming at the mouth and urging boycotts of the film. While the White House has largely attempted to stay out of the fray, the networks and the papers are full of conservative commentators accusing Moore of telling outright lies. One organisation, Citizens United, is even going so far as to sue Moore for violating the McCain-Feingold legislation that limits political advertising in the pre-election period.

Some have argued that the film’s popularity is due to the pre-release furore, when Disney head Michael Eisner refused to distribute it. While this spat certainly helped to win the film a following at the Cannes film festival and sparked curiosity among American audiences, on its own this can’t explain the attraction.

Instead, it is perhaps the film’s visceral and emotional assault on Bush that gives it appeal. When I saw the film in a packed Georgetown theatre on a Sunday afternoon, women and men, young and old, cried openly. The film is less a searing and devastating political attack upon Bush, than an emotional outpouring against him. It doesn’t really matter that not all of the film’s arguments hold water. The movie has succeeded because it has managed to key into a popular air of distrust and anger directed at the Bush administration. As such, Michael Moore has made the political film for our times.

Michael Moore has been able to do what politicians such as Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry could only dream of. While Democrats are the biggest Bush-haters in the land, they find it difficult to translate this sentiment into popular support.

That’s why the passions are running high on both sides. Fahrenheit 9/11 may not be a great film, but both sides understand that emotional reactions could make all the difference in the presidential elections this November. Michael Moore may not, as he hopes, win John Kerry the elections, but he can rest assured that his movie will give the Kerry campaign a bigger boost than anything Kerry himself has done to date.

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spiked-issue: US election 2004

(1) Washington Post, 28 June 2004

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Topics Politics