Fahrenheit 9/11 Review

The basic argument of Fahrenheit 9/11 can be summed up quite simply. An incompetent President who wasn’t elected, implicated in financial collusion with a corrupt Middle Eastern regime, deliberately used a terrorist attack to start an illegal war with a country that had never attacked his people. Obviously I’m simplifying, because Michael Moore has obviously learned a lot since Bowling For Columbine and packs his film with detail to support his central premise. It’s entirely possible to quibble with his conclusions. It’s also entirely reasonable to question some of the methods used by Moore to convince us of his case. But the power of the film lies in its existence in a society which has grown increasingly paranoid and intolerant over the past three years – and I mean Britain just as much as America.

The film can be divided into several sections and the effectiveness of these varies dramatically. The best is the first, relatively brief, segment which deals quite devastatingly with the hard-to-dispute details of the Florida vote which got Bush into the White House and the subsequent failure of the legislature to deal with the obvious flaws in the electoral process. Moore has examined this before, in his book “Stupid White Men” and it’s effective because it’s pointed and patently grounded in verifiable fact. As we watch congressman after congressman try to protest the election and get shot down because no senator was willing to support their case, it’s like watching the death throes of democracy.

I’ve detailed this opening, despite its brief duration, because it sums up what the film does best – make a simple case with powerful evidence. When the film gets involved in more expansive issues, notably the rights and wrongs of the war on Iraq, it begins to get a little too diffuse and too reliant on the emotional manipulation of Lila Lipscomb, mother of a US soldier killed in Iraq. There are some stunning scenes in this part of the film – the abuse of prisoners, the Iraqi civilian casualties, the extraordinary moment when troops ransack a house and decide to arrest the householder for no good reason other than he happens to be there. But it doesn’t seem to be saying much except that war is a bad thing and that this war is particularly bad. Personally, I agree with this conclusion but the use of Lila Lipscomb, even with her evident willingness to be used, is troubling. Private grief never looks comfortable when forced to support public propaganda. I’m fairly certain that Moore could have easily found an equivalent of Ms. Lipscomb who supports the war despite losing a loved one. These scenes sit badly with the rest of the film. Nor am I entirely certain that the lack of detail regarding Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq is a good thing. It’s undoubtedly the case that many Iraqis supported their leader but the extent to which this support is engendered from fear is never explored in the film, which instead prefers to suggest that Iraq was a peaceful, happy little country until America came along. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the USA has managed little but to make the situation worse, but the initial context is lacking. Nor am I entirely convinced that his revelation that the US Military target underprivileged and black households for recruitment is anything very surprising. I seem to recall this point being used in several documentaries made during the Vietnam war.

However, the first half of the film – largely a diatribe against George W. Bush and his administration – is magnificent, stirring stuff. Moore’s commentary is typically sardonic but often the images have already spoken for him. Regardless of the reasons for Bush not responding immediately to the news that the World Trade Centre had been attacked, the image of him sitting in a classroom reading a book about a goat is unforgettable. The most powerful man in the Western world looks befuddled, hopelessly out of his depth and completely lacking in the kind of decisive strength that he has since tried to evoke. Information about Bush’s fondness for vacations and his tolerance for staff – notably Condoleeza Rice – who didn’t seem to have a clue what was going on is pretty damning. More terrible truths begin to pile up – the Bush administration’s reluctance to co-operate with the 9/11 Commission; Bush’s failure to hold a single meeting about the terrorist threat despite a security memo warning of Osama Bin Laden’s intention to attack the US; the bizarre alterations to Bush’s army record to delete all mention of a connection with a Bin-Laden moneyman in Texas; the strange co-incidences regarding the Bush family and the Bin Ladens. I found the small things even more suggestive – Bush’s past business affairs which include an SEC investigation for financial misdoings is particularly interesting and could have been examined further. There’s also a very amusing collection of anecdotes about the practical, somewhat Orwellian consequences of the Patriot Act.

Some people will dislike the tone of Fahrenheit 9/11 which veers wildly between horrific footage of the war in Iraq and intentionally comic interpolations of stock footage and the use of “Bonanza” to represent the pro-war coalition (including our own dear Prime Minister). There’s some great use of music throughout, notably the Attorney General John Ashcroft’s memorably appalling rendition of “Let The Eagle Soar”. More to the point, a good many of Moore’s facts and figures, and his interpretations of them, are open to question. However, I understand that all of them are available to be examined on his website. My own view is that for every simplification and exaggeration, there’s a solid fact included. Moore’s use of his patented showbiz tactics is less successful. The scene where he hires an ice-cream van in order to read the Patriot Act to the Senate – having heard one senator tell him that they can’t possibly read all the laws they pass – is about as subtle as a boot to the face but makes its point. The scene where he tries to get some senators to sign up their children to serve in the military is simply embarrassing.

But there’s one thing which comes through loud and clear. No amount of disagreement with Michael Moore should blind anyone to the fact that Fahrenheit 9/11 is a great piece of impassioned filmmaking, one of the best of the year with an emotional power that many dramatic films would give their eye-teeth for. What Moore has brought back to the documentary form is brazen subjectivity, quite awesome energy, an ability to manipulate masses of material to support his argument and a willingness to use film to his own propagandistic ends. Provided one is aware of this and doesn’t feel that a documentary film should, a priori, be balanced and objective, I don’t see anything remotely wrong in that. I can understand why some people get hot under the collar about it, although I suspect that they’re mostly pissed off that Moore has gone out and out his opinions on film when they’re incapable of doing anything except sound off on an internet forum. But it has to be placed in context. Moore is making a film about a system which is spending millions of dollars pumping out its own propaganda and it seems entirely appropriate to me that he should be fighting the system on its own terms. He's also fortunate that his biggest critics are as guilty of exaggeration and manipulation of the facts as he is. Of course, he’s already at a disadvantage because his film is incapable of being seen by the numbers of people who are affected by government propaganda every day of their lives. But the very fact that this film exists – and has made over $100 million at the box office - is proof that the First Amendment of the American Constitution remains in place, despite the energetic efforts of the Bush administration and Moore’s opponents, to suggest otherwise.

The Disc

Optimum’s Region 2 disc of Fahrenheit 9/11 is a very impressive package indeed. Spread over two discs, it gives the film an excellent presentation and enhances it with extras which are both interesting and genuinely informative. Although it’s not likely to convert anyone who is set against Moore’s arguments, it should at least give every viewer pause for thought – not least for the material included from the front lines in Iraq.

Picture and sound quality are both first rate. Considering that much of the film is made up of footage from a variety of sources, it’s not surprising that the visual experience varies from scene to scene. What is certain is that this is the best presentation of the material you could hope for. The scenes shot by Moore himself on digital video are sharp, crisp and colourful. The film is presented in anamorphically enhanced 1.78:1.

The soundtrack is similarly as good a presentation as the material can offer. The use of the surround channels on the 5.1 track is not especially aggressive but then you wouldn’t expect it to be. The war sequences are impressively dramatic and the music frequently spreads across the channels to pleasing effect. In particular, Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World’ over the end credits sounds like the joyous release it’s intended to be.

The extras are divided into a number of sections and all are presented in non-anamorphic 1.78:1 with Dolby 2.0 sound.

The Release of Fahrenheit 9/11
Running approximately eleven minutes, this deals with the success of the film at Cannes – where it won the Golden Palm for Best Film – and its release in the USA. There isn’t a great deal of material on the opposition to the film, although White House spokesman Dan Bartlett’s comment that “We do not have to see this film to know that it is filled with factual inaccuracies” speaks volumes.

From Iraq

Three excellent short documentaries make up this section. “The Eve of the Invasion” is an eight minute collection of news footage, without commentary, featuring the reactions of the Iraqi people to an impending US attack. I found this heartbreaking and the second featurette, “Outside Abu Ghraib” – running about seven minutes – is just as affecting as it shows relatives desperately hoping for their loved ones to be released from confinement in the notorious prison. The weightiest feature here is “Eyewitness Account From Samarra”, which runs eighteen minutes and contains the detailed testimony of a Swedish journalist, Urban Hamid, who accompanied Charlie Company on a raid in Samarra. His comments on being a war journalist in Iraq and on the American troops in action are eloquent and revealing.

From Washington

The three featurettes in this section are less satisfying, largely because they contain less new information and simply repeat what we’ve either seen in the main feature or already concluded from it. “Rose Garden Press Briefing” deals with the laughably brief 5 minute press statement given by Bush after his visit with the 9/11 Commission in April 2003. I don’t know if Bush realises how badly he comes across on these occasions but it’s hard to believe someone hasn’t tried to tell him. “Condoleeza Rice’s Testimony” is an eight minute account of the testimony given to the 9/11 Commission by the National Security Advisor. This speaks for itself quite eloquently. Finally, “Lila Lipscomb At The Premiere” is a four minute statement given by Lila Lipscomb in which she repeats her support for the film.

Additional Scenes

Five additional scenes are offered. The best of these deals with “Arab American Comedians” and is often devastatingly funny. Three comics discuss, with great insight and humour, the problems they’ve encountered since 9/11 and the ways they’ve dealt with it in their comedy. There’s also an “Extended Interview with Abdul Henderson”, one of the Marine Reservists called up to serve in Iraq, which is very touching. “Kudos Youth Group” presents the work of a community group in Flint, Michigan which is trying to raise the expectations of young black men in the town. “Career Gear” is a quirky look at a service offered in Flint which enabled the unemployed to borrow clothes for job interviews in order to help them find employment. Unfortunately, despite its high intentions, this service closed down in April 2004. Finally, “Homeland Security Miami Style” looks, in an affectionately humorous way, at the use of retired men to patrol the coast line of Miami.

The final extra is a brief “Soundtrack to War” feature which looks at the music beloved of US Servicemen in Iraq. We don’t get the System of a Down music video which is on the US Disc or, rather regrettably, the John Ashcroft karaoke.

The film is divided into 16 chapter stops. English subtitles are available for the film but not for the extra features.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is a biased, exaggerated, somewhat unsubtle, occasionally confused and undoubtedly contentious film. It’s also brilliantly well made, powerful, moving and heartfelt, the kind of movie which reminds you why you love movies in the first place. Anyone who thinks documentary should be an objective form will probably hate it. Anyone with an open mind and a sense of humour should make it their business to watch it. Optimum’s DVD is a good package and is highly recommended.

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