It might seem cynical, or downright offensive, to suggest that “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Michael Moore’s dizzyingly broad indictment of George W. Bush’s handling of terrorism and the war in Iraq, should be considered primarily as entertainment. It’s a strange kind of entertainment indeed, one dedicated to exposing a national emergency that is — if you buy even one-fifth of the film’s arguments — profoundly alarming. It’s a dark, metafictional entertainment, one in which the duly elected (or, well, at least duly sworn) president of the United States delivers a dire warning on terrorism for the cameras and then turns around to address his tee shot; one in which the filmmaker himself comes under Secret Service investigation for photographing on the streets of Washington. (No, that isn’t actually illegal, at least not yet.)
How can one apply that term to a film that features, among many other things, nightmarish images of mutilated Iraqi children and mortally wounded American soldiers? I’m not suggesting that Moore deploys such images for laughs, or exploits them (although some viewers may have that reaction). But he is most certainly trying to shock you, to galvanize you, to make your jaw hit the floor. These are the goals of old-style muckraking journalism, and Moore belongs, in part, to that tradition. But they are also the goals of the crusading artist, from Dickens to Solzhenitsyn to Springsteen, and it’s time to recognize that Moore has one foot in those waters as well.
“Fahrenheit 9/11″ is an enormous film, an angry film, a flawed film and often a very, very funny film. There is anguish in it and death, and not as much coherence as there might be. It’s a political screed that makes our commander in chief look like a simpering dolt (and also like the instrument of a massive machine he cannot control), but — as in the horrifying scenes where Bush sits in that Florida classroom reading “The Pet Goat,” clearly nonplussed, while people dive from the twin towers — it is not entirely devoid of a certain curious compassion for him. It contains multitudes. In its bigness and rage, its low humor and its sentimentality, it has something of Whitman, something of Twain, something of Tom Paine. Love him or hate him, Michael Moore is becoming one of the signal artists of our age.
Everybody who meets Michael Moore gets a story out of it; here’s mine. Fifteen years ago, when Moore was touring the country to promote “Roger and Me,” the film that first made him famous, I interviewed him for the San Francisco weekly newspaper where I then worked. As you can tell from his movies, he’s a big, friendly guy who works his shambling Everyman persona to perfection. I liked him a lot, and he spun me a hilarious yarn about his brief and disastrous tenure as the editor of Mother Jones, the political magazine based in San Francisco. This was a dishy topic of local interest, so I ate it up. The Mother Jones staff, Moore said, had been outraged that this working-class nobody from Michigan had been hired to run their august publication. In a final fit of pique, the outgoing editor had actually unscrewed the telephone mouthpieces in her office, so that on Moore’s first day he couldn’t even make phone calls.
I had no idea whether this story was true, but it appealed to my prejudices about the middle-aged, middle-class Bay Area liberals who ran Mother Jones. So I ran with it. You can guess what happened next: On the day our paper came out, that former Mother Jones editor was on the phone, spitting nails. She hadn’t sabotaged the damn telephones, she said, and by spreading Moore’s false account I had damaged her reputation and played into his petty vendetta.
Maybe she was right about all of that; I still don’t know, and don’t much care. I learned a valuable lesson about my own gullibility and the importance of fact-checking. But I never blamed Moore for snowing me, or embellishing for effect, or crafting an instructive fable, or whatever it was he did. I came to him for an entertaining anecdote — one that flattered my intelligence and political astuteness — and he supplied one. And frankly, I wondered whether the ex-Mother Jones editor would have gotten so pissed if something about the story hadn’t struck home with her.
My point is not to damn Moore as a fabricator, but rather to suggest that from early in his career there were signs that his true calling lay not in journalism but in storytelling, or, more specifically, in the dangerous and difficult territory that lies between them. In the years since “Roger and Me,” he has become an increasingly skillful entertainer and propagandist, probably the closest American parallel to Dario Fo, the Italian radical clown, satirist and Nobel laureate. Moore might be understood as a court jester in the vein of King Lear’s Fool, whose burlesques and exaggerations and farcical asides are meant to cast light into shadowy regions where the sober, scrupulously neutral Ivy League guys and gals of mainstream journalism dare not venture.
I’ve never been impressed by the various “gotcha” moments identified by my journalistic colleagues in Moore’s movies. Again, I don’t have any idea whether that bank in “Bowling for Columbine,” for example, actually hands you a real gun when you open an account. (Various critics have said that isn’t true, although Moore insists it is.) The larger point is that Moore’s work can be slippery at times — in “Fahrenheit 9/11″ you may get the impression he traveled to Iraq to interview troops there, even though he didn’t — but he has never claimed to be making cinima-viriti.
In the extraordinarily polarized climate of the moment, many people will have made up their minds about “Fahrenheit 9/11″ before they see it. (And many more will make up their minds without seeing it at all.) The film has become a sort of proxy vote in the 2004 election; its question is binary, a matter of on or off, red or blue, Democrat or Republican. Relatively few people will notice what a deft blend of the comic, the tragic and the grotesque it is, or how much Moore and his team of collaborators have mastered their own peculiar medium. (Sometimes I feel he’s at his purest and sweetest in his goofy found-footage collages, like the priceless salute here to Romania, Costa Rica, Palau and other members of the “coalition of the willing.”)
Of course the narrative Moore constructs in “Fahrenheit 9/11″ does have political consequences, and for better or worse the vast majority of those who see the film will be predisposed to agree with his interpretation of events. (We do not live in a time when pop culture is likely to change anybody’s mind.) Drawing on hardball journalism, painstaking searches of archival footage, Python-style absurdism and his own sad-sack Chaplin persona (although there’s less of that here than in other films), Moore slowly, sometimes agonizingly, builds his story about this administration, the corporate elite that supports it and the war that has served both their causes.
Moore’s case against the Bushies and their Saudi allies — much of it drawn from the work of journalist Craig Unger — is largely circumstantial. Some of its particulars may not be true or fair, and very little of it approaches a legal standard of evidence. On the other hand, Moore never suggests anything patently outrageous (there’s no “Bush planned 9/11,” no blogosphere theories that the Pentagon crash was staged), yet the picture that emerges here, at minimum, is of a government engaged in a systematic campaign to bewilder and mislead its own public, and dedicated to a messy military adventure whose costs and aims have never been made clear.
Moore’s individual factoid nuggets can be gasp-inducing (was George W. Bush’s early career really funded by the bin Laden family?) and his side trip to his Michigan hometown to examine the Iraq war’s effects there is genuinely heartbreaking. But “Fahrenheit 9/11″ is more like a drug experience than a political documentary. It’s a mind-bending, half-digested mass of video clips, interviews, statistics, rampant speculation and the cheap gags Moore has never been able to resist, from a random shot of Katherine Harris simpering like an ogre to a largely pointless scene in which Moore drives around Capitol Hill in a Mr. Frostie truck reading the USA PATRIOT Act through the loudspeaker.
Maybe that’s appropriate, because Moore is trying to convince us that the Bush administration has been able to cloud our minds with hoodoo, and almost literally alter the nature of reality. As you watch the stunning events of the last four years unfold, from the snafu of Florida 2000 to the demonstrations that nearly shut down Washington on Inauguration Day (now all but forgotten) to the horrors of 9/11, the Afghan war and haunting encounters with terrified soldiers in Iraq, it seems that he must be right. How else could all this have really happened?