From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Monday, July 12, 2004

Movie Review/commentary: Fahrenheit 9/11 (It's a long one)

Writing a review of a documentary in general is pretty freaking tough if you ask me. You obviously are looking for different things, as the director has to utilize very different devices to move the narrative along. When I first saw and wrote up Errol Morris' The Fog of War for the old Hankblog, it was hard to figure out exactly what to say without diluting and disseminating too much of the message publicly. I thought it was a very important movie for people to see, and still feel very strongly that way now that it's out on video.

For Fahrenheit 9/11, the problem is much more different. No documentary has made as much as this one has. I don't think there's ever been a documentary that more people have talked about because of the subject matter. As such, I think it's better to talk about this film in three phases: thoughts I had about it prior to viewing, during the film, and after.

Going in: Biases and Prejudices
To date, I've seen 1 1/2 Michael Moore films. I saw Bowling for Columbine on its original release. I've seen bits and pieces of Roger and Me over the years since it first came out.

I can say that from my perspective, I saw what I perceived as a stark change in tone from Roger to Bowling. Say what you will about the problems or misrepresentations in Roger that have been taken apart by Moore's detractors since its release, but the film had a heart that seemed like a genuine need to try to do some good for an underrepresented portion of the population. Moore seemed to really want to give voice to the downtrodden.

By contrast I felt like Bowling for Columbine was more an ego trip than anything. I think that while I was in synch with some of the anti-gun arguments that Moore tried to make, that the entire enterprise was ham handed and grossly oversimplified too many arguments. Someone can correct me if I've got the point wrong but you will never convince me that Marilyn Manson has less input and influence in teenagers lives than the President of the United States in terms of driving kids to doing things with guns or anything else, which if I remember it right was one of the principle arguments Moore tried to push when he has his little sit down with Manson. There were other issues I had with the movie, but that's the one that I remember having the greatest issue with out of the gate.

That having been said, my first fear walking into this movie was that it would wind up being some kind of self congratulatory suckoff. Moore had made it clear that part of the motivation behind this movie was to validate the charges that he made in his Oscar acceptance speech for Bowling, which resulted in him getting booed off the stage. It's one thing to know you're right. It's a much more obnoxious thing to try and beat it into peoples heads that you're right, and I know this, because on more than one occasion, I have been that obnoxious browbeater. It was not right for me to be that person then, I didn't think it would be right for Moore to be that person now.

I also had a secondary fear that Moore was trying to position himself as the left's answer to Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and the like. I detest the loudmouth demagogues of the right as much as anything I have ever hated in my life. As much as I hate what they offer to the "debate" of right and wrong in this country, I hate even more that the left side of the political spectrum feels a need to have someone along those same lines to counter that kind of influence. If two wrongs can not generate a right, two loudmouths can not generate intelligent discourse. And I was terrified that having a leftie "Rush" might be the escalation that would cause discourse to spiral downward even further into oblivion.

So that's the set of mental and emotional Louis Vitton I was carrying with me as the theater darkened and the film started.

In the theater: Immediate impressions (some "spoilers" ahead)
A lot of the comments I've heard from people who've seen the film and read here and there all make the same observation that it's almost like watching two different films. The first half seemed starkly different from the second both in the terms of tone and how Moore chose to convey the message. Nothing I saw in this movie did anything to dispel that criticism, so rather than talk about that too much, I'll focus on what worked for me and what didn't.

Much of what worked for me in both halves of the film had to do with simplicity and letting the images and sounds of people and events tell the story itself. I think one of the single smartest decisions Moore made was in not showing the footage of the planes hitting the twin towers, just leaving the screen black and letting the audio of the impacts and the initial news broadcasts wash over the audience. I think everybody came away from the events of 9/11 with different thoughts and feelings, and in leaving the screen blank, each viewer's individual imagination recreates the event as they remember it when it happened. That has to be one of the smartest decisions a filmmaker has ever made in my mind. Fading in with the streets covered in debris and the reaction shots brings the audience in visually with where we are mentally: coping with the aftermath.

In the same way, much of the second half of the movie works most effectively at its simplest. From the images of dead and wounded (both Iraqi and American), to the thoughts of the men and women in the field, and the experiences of Lila Lipscomb, a mother in Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan who finds herself doing a 180 on her position on the war when it winds up hitting far too close to home what the real cost of the war is, Moore is at his best with this message. We can truly empathize with a lot of these folks we meet along the way. Lipscomb's story is the heart of the matter, and I can say that there were few if any dry eyes in the auditorium as her story unfolded.

The parts that lost me on the movie were Moore's trademark humorous bits where he tries to make light of some kind of perceived insanity. Personally, I think that in light of the subject matter, it's entirely inappropriate even as a means to try and break some of the tension created by the more serious moments of the film. If it is inappropriate for President Bush to make jokes about missing WMD's because of the number of people who have dies in the search (and I think this was highly inappropriate when it happened), then I don't think it's any more appropriate when Moore makes jokes using the current administration's heads grafted onto the figures from Bonanza, and make the war in Afghanistan some kind of joke to illustrate the stupidity in how the war there was carried out. It undermines the moral authority we have in criticizing how this war was carried out, and it trivializes the deaths of those who fought there. Moore was trying to be too damn smart for his own good there, and he really needed to show some better judgment on that, in my opinion.

Along the same lines, I think he flubbed his criticism of the Patriot Act with the number showing him reading it via loudspeaker for the benefit of Congressional members who voted for it without having read it. I thought the scenes showing who has been clamped down on because of the passage of the act was much more exemplary of what kind of problems there are with the act. Riddle me this Batman: if you're going to criticize members of Congress for not examining the flaws in the Patriot Act in total, shouldn't you do a bit more in pointing out the problems with it than a silly little shtick and a couple of real world examples?

I think there are other quibbles to be had, both good and bad, but I think these examples highlight the general strengths and weaknesses of the movie. It's much more compelling when you're not staring at Moore's fingerprints all over the damn thing. When he's so obnoxiously trying to be the focus of the action, the movie loses a fair amount of its momentum and focus. Thankfully, I think the film carries that momentum very well in the final act, and finishes with a fair amount of pop.

Out of the dark and into the light: Final thoughts and further reflections around the web

Walking out of the theater, the first thought that came to mind was the fact that it was significantly more restrained than I thought it would be. Granted when Michael Moore dials his voice down a notch, it's not that appreciable a drop compared to others. Considering that I think that Moore usually keeps his rhetoric dialed "all the way to 11", going down to an 8 is still pretty freaking loud. But the much gentler hand was readily apparent to me at the films strongest points, what I thought were it's most important ones. That goes a long way in my mind towards making the film more compelling to me.

And I can not argue with one positive aspect of the outcome of this film: people ARE asking more questions of the government that at anytime I can recall since 9/11 occurred. Though Moore on glosses the surface of the media bias that exists in favor of the president (contrary to the so called liberal media that the right has been peddling since time immemorial), he does hit it enough that I think people are taking their news with a few more grains of salt than they had previously. Maybe not a lot of people, but more than before is still a good thing. Florida in 2000 reminded us of just how much impact a few people can have in the outcome of events that define nations.

I think that the relative criticisms that have come from the right on the movie demonstrate the strengths that it has in that it seems like they're splitting particularly fine hairs in order to try and gain some kind of moral high ground. The largest and most significant accusations that are made within the film seem to have gone largely unchallenged. To me, that seems to say that there's not enough ground to try and dispute them, or doing so could unearth more skeletons than the right wants to see.

But above all else, I just like the fact that people are talking about the issues in a more intelligent fashion that what I heard around me prior. Sometimes that distinction is very slight. Sometimes it's very much evident. All change that I've heard has been good change. But I'll be the first person to admit my exposure to the political dialogue at large is still pretty limited.

I think this is a flawed but very important movie. I think that whether you lean left or right politically that you have some obligation to see it, or at least see/read more about the issues it addresses in order to be able to present a more well rounded opinion on what is happening in the world around us.

I don't claim it's unbiased. No story ever really is, whether it's film, literature, stage, etc. When we're told a story, we're invariably going to see it from the slant of the person telling the story, and we're going to be more or less receptive to that slant depending on the biases we carry with us once we go in. But I think this story tries to get you to look behind the curtain a lot more than most. I think that's a really important thing to do these days. And I put my liberal bias out there so you know exactly what you might need to consider in reading this.

That's more than we've gotten from the current administration. Chalk one more up for dialogue.

Bonus Reading:

Billmon at Whiskey Bar gives us a good read on why a loud voice like Moore's is needed on the left.

Jeanne at Body and Soul talks about one of the aspects she found most disturbing, something that I also found uncomfortable, but couldn't articulate nearly as well as she does.

Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly talks about the mirror Moore holds up to the right.

Lastly, Spinsanity takes apart the half truths that exist within the film. They're fairly evenhanded more often than not, so this is well worth reading if you agree with the movie, but still need your grain of salt.