2015 Update: Looking back more than a decade at my review of this highly controversial, fiercely political documentary, I find myself reluctant to leave it on the blog. First of all, I was caught up in a time and a culture that was fraught with anger and bias, and I was struggling to remain unbiased in order to write thoughtfully about a complex and flawed work of art. I wrote a lot, because there was much to discuss, and I had strong feelings about the subject. I would write a different review now. But I’m going to leave this review on the blog for now as a sort of historical artifact — a snapshot of a challenging time, one in which I was learning a lot by trying — and sometimes failing — to write well about extremely contentious issues. This review also includes a remnant of something that I once included with all reviews: a routine Q&A that helped me summarize and organize my fundamental responses to each film.

NOTE: You would do well to read closely the archive of “facts” in Farenheit 9/11 that have since been disproven, or exposed as severe exaggerations or distortions. The following review was written before this information came to my attention. Thus, I advise that you consider both pieces: the review and the information posted at the above link.

I participated in two large gatherings this week: the sneak preview of Fahrenheit 9/11, and church on Sunday morning. I was impressed by the differences between the two events.

Both crowds gathered together with a sense of camaraderie and unity. We were both united for specific purposes. What we were about to experience seemed important andnecessary. If it’s not too much of a stretch, I might even say the two events were held to address, in one way or another, a need.

At church, I knew why we had gathered. But at the film, I only thought I knew why we had gathered. What unfolded was not at all what I’d anticipated.

The audience at the theater assembled to listen to a man address their discontent by speculating about what was wrong with the world. This man — Michael Moore — made it his goal to use his two hours to lay the blame of all the worlds’ wrongs at the foot of two men: George W. Bush, and George Bush Sr. He revealed information to convince the audience of the Bush family’s guilt. He mocked the current President Bush with “embarrassing moments” video clips. He traced evidence of the man’s wrongdoings. He speculated a great deal. He carefully avoided acknowledging or discussing anything that might cause viewers to question his views. And before it was over, he had worked his magic: people were ranting, booing, and hissing (indeed, they were shouting their anger, rage, and hatred as the film began.)

By the conclusion, our “leader” had offered us no solutions, no demonstrations of how to resolve the problems. He had merely thrown fuel upon our discontent and given us the sense that if we could but remove Bush from power, our wrath would be satisfied.

The audience responded in a sort of euphoria. Throughout the film, they responded just as the film directed them too—coaxed to boo at the sight of the faces of George W. and his colleagues (Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, and Dick Wolfowitz). They gasped in shock and awe whenever Moore revealed another dismaying fact… or theory… or unsubstantiated claim. And on the way out, they congratulated themselves on their mutual rage and disdain for the President. When they were greeted by the local liberal radio station folks, armed with microphones, they were asked, “What did you think of the movie?” They gushed with negative feelings into the microphones. Me, I had little to say, because the film hadn’t given me much chance to think, nor had it acknowledged that there might indeed be other perspectives to consider. All it had made me do was feel… and it had made me feel angry, troubled, and generally rotten. I had anticipated a well-researched, coherent, careful, non-hysterical documentary. Instead, I’d received a blast of propaganda, half-researched, half-conjecture, covered in a gloss of inflammatory language and humiliating video. It was, ultimately, a pep rally for a character assassination.

After the movie, there was little-to-no discussion of who they would put in George W.’s place, or what they as individuals could do in order to better he state of the world. Everything was focused on targeting and destroying one man. One woman remained standing in the middle of the theatre, shouting “PG-13!! PG-13!!” at the screen, as if someone on the other side of the screen would change the rating of the film, as if giving the film PG-13 and thus making it accessible to children would change the world. I remain unconvinced that teaching youngsters how to vent rage at politicians will save the world.

On Sunday, the other congregation assembled in a spirit of humility, and listened to a man talk about how, yes, the world is broken, but that God can bring healing to our broken lives. Together, the churchgoers openly acknowledged that they were guilty of wrongdoing. They acknowledged together that they had been liars, breakers of promises, unfaithful, self-absorbed, selfish, and arrogant. They confessed their own wrongdoing and asked for help from a Higher Power. They lifted up their leaders in prayer, asking that they be granted wisdom. They sang songs of gratitude and awe at the way God had given them some measure of peace and blessing in spite of their failures and lack of faith. They shared stories of ways they had been blessed, in spite of the world’s evils. And they encouraged each other to overcome weakness and go out into the world showing love, generosity, honesty, and integrity in their communities.

This congregation departed their gathering encouraged, humbled, inspired, lifted up by the music, their burdens lightened through prayer, and ready to change the world through personal relationships and love. They went out tobecome leaders by serving, rather than to tear down a leader through derision and wrath.

Sure, it would be unfair for me to draw two many conclusions from this difference between the gatherings. After all, one was meant as a work of propaganda, intended to persuade viewers to agree with the spokesperson and go out and act accordingly. The other was a gathering of worship, intended to bring us into relationship with the Creator and restore a proper perspective through worship. Of course they were going to be different.

But did they have to be so opposite? Wouldn’t the United States of America be helped by something that brings us together with inspiration and vision rather than humiliation and derision?

If filmmaker Michael Moore really wanted to help America, I think that he could make documentaries that do more to guide his audience toward a vision of what is right, rather than down into a cynical and sarcastic rant about what he thinks is wrong. He could guide us to the humble apprehension of wisdom rather than a fiery rage of negative energy. Instead of taking cheap shots at one man, he might have offered us a vision of good leadership. Rather than working in a tone of mockery and tangents of general outrage, he might have given us more helpful information.

WHAT F9/11 GETS RIGHT

It’s painful to review this film, because I had so hoped it would be a mature and focused expose, and instead it felt like an episode of “George W.’s Most Embarassing Home Videos.”

I was impressed and even moved by portions of the film.

– While I think there was a lot more wrong with the 2000 election than just Republican aggression, I found Moore’s coverage of the event interesting because of the footage he had on hand. The coverage of Al Gore presiding over the very ceremony that sealed the election for good is a bizarre spectacle. It is also interesting to see the footage of protests at the White House when Bush first arrives, protests we did not see on the evening news.

– For me, the most arresting section of the film concerns Bush’s National Guard record. Moore shows us a copy of W.’s military record released from the White House. On the page that informs us of his suspension from duty due to bad attendance, a name has been blacked out. Fortunately, Moore had obtained a copy once before, one that had been printed before the censoring of the name, which reveals the identity of an officer who was suspended alongside George W. That man—James R. Bath—would go on to become a financial advisor to… can you believe it?… the Bin Laden family.This is just one of several pieces of evidence that suggest a serious conflict of interest within the Bush administration. (But Moore does not let any government officials comment on this strange detail. Why? Because there’s a good explanation?)

– There’s footage of Bush making funny faces for those off-camera on March 20, 2003, right before he goes on-camera to announce that the Iraq invasion is underway. It’s so close to a Saturday Night Live parody that it’s deeply troubling. It’s hard to believe anyone in Bush’s position would be able to clown around in a moment of such gravity. (And yet, if we lived with the burden of the reality of this conflict day-in/day-out, would we not need a sense of humor in order to deal with those high-stress moments? It may have been in poor taste, but I can’t say I can relate to what someone goes through in hours of such intensity.)

– I was also aggravated to learn that Bush has cut back on benefits for soldiers and veterans even as he glorifies them before the cameras for their service. A soldier in Iraq make $3,000 or less per month, while a bus driver for the oil company makes around $10,000.

– A great deal of the film traces the connections between major corporations like Haliburton, the Carlyle Group, and the White House, while also showing how Saudi Arabia and the wealthy Bin Laden family have a troubling history of close relationships with the White House. None of this is a revelation; it’s been in the news for years. Still, it’s a reality that needs more attention.

– Moore’s interview with Lila Lipscomb, the mother of a U.S. serviceman killed in action, is a moving documentary of the cost of war. But in the end, Moore does the family a dishonor by placing their story in a context that heightens the burden of their loss by arguing that the loss was meaningless, the war a hoax, when in fact there was a people that needed liberation, and the person being brought down was indeed one of the world’s most notorious tyrants…whatever Bush’s personal history with that country might be. The truth is that men, women, and children in Iraq were being brutally murdered by Hussein all the time–a detail Moore completely ignores–and that U.S. soldiers were putting their lives on the line in an act of sacrifice to deliver that nation. Moore publicly stated that he wants people to see this film so those soldiers “will not have died in vain.” What an arrogant statement. Even if the Bush administration does have some dishonorable motives, those soldiers were fighting to liberate a people. They did not die in vain.

Moore’s speculation is not a step in the right direction. Listening to him project his ideas in voice-over while these films run is a bit like watching a child connecting dots willy-nilly and coming up with the wrong picture. It’s far more complicated a subject than Moore admits.

There are ultimately too many sections that feel like Moore is overreaching in hopes of finding more tools to use in his attack. His perspective feels too intent on seeking out andexposing George W.’s “crimes of mass destruction” to convince me that he’s got a good grasp of the picture. His way of arguing may do more harm than good.

THINGS THAT DESERVE A CLOSER LOOK

Moore focuses intently on the way the Bush administration uses media to keep the American people in a state of fear and trembling. He claims that warnings of terrorist threats keep the American people afraid, so that there will be plenty of support for the war in the Middle East.

Does Moore really want us to believe that there is no terrorist threat? That we shouldn’t have a warning system? That we’re not in any danger? Moore has become so preoccupied with destroying Bush that he has become blind to the fact that there are criminal elements out there in the world that are openly seeking our destruction. And they hate George W. Bush. Moore too is, thus, a fear-monger, an abuser of media, and he knows how to push the emotional buttons of his liberal audience just as Bush knows how to push the buttons of the conservative audience.

That leaves folks like me in a difficult situation. I’m no fan of Bush, and I agree with many of those who criticize the President. In fact, I agree with Michael Moore insofar as he has observed some of the abuses of power in the current administration, and insofar as he has identified a conflict of interest in the Bush family. It is deeply troubling to me that our President would have such an ongoing for-profitrelationship with nations that demonstrate such disinterest in conquering terrorism. This does give me pause and make me question if our leaders have their priorities in the right place.

But Fahrenheit 9/11 asks us to believe in much more than that conflict of interest. And in presuming that we will just nod and follow along without fact-checking or seeing the bigger picture, Moore blunders from one presumptuous claim to another.

  • Mistake #1: He presents the much-debated claim that George W. Bush stole the 2000 election as if it was an indisputable fact that we all accept. Thus, he immediately discredits himself with many of the viewers he might hope to persuade to listen to him. The 2000 election was a travesty for so many reasons, on both sides of the party dividing line. To sum up that fiasco in this way is so blatantly biased that the film starts out off-balance and never recovers. If he wants the audience to believe him, he needs to back up his argument.
  • Mistake #2: He focuses on humiliating George Bush with clips of misstatements and funny facial expressions. Thus, the “argument” sections of the film are shaky, favoring cheap shots over valuable information. We’re so busy laughing at W.’s Most Embarrassing Moments that we run out of time to think about Moore’s claims about history and motive.
  • Mistake #3: Flip-flopping. Part of the problem with his film is the way he keeps changing his claims in order to suit whatever attack on Bush he wants to make.
  1. He wants us to believe that George W. Bush is a complete idiot. But then he wants us to believe that George W. Bush is a conspiratorial mastermind and moneymaking genius.
  2. He wants us to believe that Bush is entirely unjustified in attacking Iraq, because Iraq is so peaceful and innocent. But then, he wants us to see just how violently the Iraqis treated the Americans upon their arrival, so we’ll want to bring our boys home. It would be foolish to think that the violence against Americans is merely a response to the occupation. This is just the latest evidence of the very hatred that led even Bill Clinton to say that, yes, something would have to be done about Afghanistan and Iraq.
  3. Moore wants us to listen to Richard Clarke’s criticisms of the President’s post-9/11 behavior, setting Clarke up as one of the key witnesses. But then he fails to point out that Richard Clarke signed the documents giving Saudi Arabians permission to leave the U.S. on 9/11, something Moore attacks Bush for allowing. (He also failed to update the movie to reflect that the FBI has since given good explanation as to why they let those flights carry the Saudis and Bin Ladens out.)
  4. Moore wants us to see Saddam Hussein shaking hands with Rumsfeld, so we’ll hate Rumsfeld for working with such tyrants. (He carefully avoids showing any Democrats shaking hands with Hussein or other Arab leaders.) But then, he wants us to forget about that same tyrant, so we won’t think about the fact that the Iraqi people really did need saving.
  1. He wants us to see soldiers as psychotic, rock-n-roll fueled killing machines. Later, he wants us to leave the theatre teary-eyed with pride in the bravery of our soldiers as they are sent to their death by a cold-hearted war criminal.
  1. One of Moore’s most unfortunate choices is to waste time with a sequence in which he follows two mean-spirited Marine recruiters, exposing how they prey on potential recruits at the mall that the wealthy folks avoid. We get in on their sales pitches, in which they they exploit the dreams of low-income youth. But folks… that’s advertising. That’s nothing new. What does this have to do with Bush? Or Iraq?

As one blogger’s review asked:

“Is it shocking that the Bush family knows the Bin Laden family? Not when you consider that it would be hard to find any two families at that level of wealth who don’t know each other.

And are we to be shocked that there is a “Good Old Boy Network” in this country, wherein friends of the President are rewarded? Is Moore trying to say that only our current President has ever done this? Puh-lease!

And lastly, it is revealed that Saudi Arabian investments in America make up 6-7% of the American economy, and that this explains why Bush is so friendly with the Saudis. However, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Japan, and France all have larger investments in the United States than does Saudi Arabia. Using Moore’s logic, this must explain why Bush gets along so well with the French, right?”

I would add further that Moore has an interesting point that Congressmen seem to have no enlisted offspring (save one). But show me a war in which the nation’s politicians gladly ushered their children into the front lines. Show me a nation in which the rich are inclined to enlist. How is this news? How is this Bush’s fault?

CONCLUSION

Moore’s presentations on the American economy, September 11th, the struggle in Afghanistan, and the war in Iraq all insist on one claim: Everything is George W. Bush’s fault.

And it’s a shame, too, that he must use so much sarcasm, mean-spirited mockery, and media manipulation (the very tactics he criticizes in his films) to make his argument, because so much of his information deserves serious consideration. Moore usually has a fistful of truly important facts and revelations. And I do not doubt that there is some compassion in his soul for those who are hurt by poverty and oppression. But the ends do not justify the means, and his means are mean-spirited indeed. And sloppy.

He hurts his own cause by loading his argument with so much conspiracy-theory hokum that he repels those he hopes to win over to his side, and he has even liberal democrat intellects hurrying to divorce themselves from his camp. Fahrenheit 9/11 already has some of the left’s most vocal spokespeople eviscerating it, including the notorious Christopher Hitchens. In commentary after commentary, you’ll read non-Republicans saying, “I’m not voting for George W. Bush, but I’m not a fan of Michael Moore.”

Critics, wherever they stand on the political map, have only to use some common sense to find reason to challenge Moore’s arguments.

And as for that woman who could only respond to the film by shouting over and over again “PG-13!! PG-13!!”, and for anyone else who thinks the film’s R-rating is part of a conspiracy to keep it from larger audiences—they need to have a reality check. The film should be rated R. It shows the public beheading of a Saudi criminal. It gives us a closeup of a child’s arm blown to pieces, and as much bloody gory footage of American soldiers being blown to pieces as possible to convince us that—gasp!—war is bad. And of course there are close-ups of Iraqi children hurt by the bombs meant for the bad guys, to show that the U.S. should … what … combat mass-murdering terrorists with hand-to-hand combat? (There’s no footage of the people blown to bits by September 11th… no footage of anybody who might behead an American contractor. No. There’s just some poetic pieces of paper swirling in the wind a la the plastic bag in American Beauty.)

I’ll close this with another excerpt from another blog, with which I whole-heartedly agree:

Moore’s assumption is venality. He assumes that President Bush and his confreres are venal, that their motives are black, that they are out to do no good, only bad, and that the only choices they make in life are between greed and power.

That’s inevitably a bad analysis. It’s the exact same analysis Bill Clinton’s enemies made of him. If they were wrong about Clinton, well then, Michael Moore is wrong about Bush. Life is never that simple, never that obvious, unless you’re a propagandist or one who believes propaganda. I especially can’t buy that analysis when we are a under attack as a nation, when we need to decide who the “us” and “them” are. The war on us as well as the dialogue among my confreres here online has made me question that assumption of venality in American politics.

Oh, you can argue Bush is incompetent; sometimes I do wonder. You can disagree with his policies; I disagree with many. You can question his intelligence; jury’s out still. I didn’t vote for Bush the last time and don’t plan to this time. But I don’t buy Moore’s Bush. To say that he’s the dark force of the universe only leads to simple-minded over-generalizations and bilious caricatures.

And finally:

It is not creditworthy only to attack and call that discussion and democracy; to insult our intelligence with half, quarter, and untruths; to stifle debate with polemic rather than provoke debate with facts; to mock the people he exploits on film; to gloss over his own outrageous opinions for the sake of convenience; to turn his guns on his own people, letting those who attacked us off as free as birds.

No, this is no more good democracy than it is good filmmaking.

Every class has its debate team champion and its class clown. It is a very rare individual who can be both. Moore’s tries, but he’s so preoccupied with clowning that his speech is sorely compromised. He’d never have made it on the debate team with such fragile, narrow, misguided arguments. In so many things, he’s right, but the way in which he goes about presenting his case makes him “damned right.”

SUMMARY REVIEW

Fahrenheit 9/11 is a compellingly entertaining documentary that seeks to persuade viewers of the depravity of George W. Bush and his administration. Many of the film’s claims are intriguing and seem carefully documented. When Moore stops projecting his own worst fears onto the people in his humiliating video footage, some of his subjects emerge as sympathetic and compelling storytellers.

But Moore’s argument is ultimately difficult to swallow because he overloads it with mean-spirited mockery and a relentless barrage of George W.’s “most embarrassing moments.” On the subject of the Iraq war, he dwells too long on what he perceives as Bush’s cruelty, and never mentions the cruelty of Saddam Hussein and the sufferings of the Iraqi people under the regime that the U.S. overthrew. Moore asks us to believe that there was no connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq, when even liberal Democrats and the reporting at CNN and The New York Times has affirmed the evidence that there was a dangerous relationship there.

Moore assumes that in any grey area, in any situation that seems suspicious, the Bush family are guilty of the worst possible crimes, and at times he seems to be sewing together facts and wild speculation in hopes of branding Bush as one of history’s worst war criminals, without admitting the possibility of any other interpretation. While he accuses Bush of media manipulation, hard-heartedness, narrow-mindedness, favoring those who share his priorities, and fear-mongering, Moore himself is guilty of all of the same things. Thus, this is not a documentary so much as it is sloppy, heavy-handed, rage-fueled propaganda. It’s worth seeing for the discusion viewers can have about good and bad tactics of persuasion and debate afterward.

PARENTAL NOTE:

CAUTION. The film deserves its R-rating for footage of a public beheading in Saudi Arabia, for harsh language, for scenes in which children’s arms are shown blown to pieces by bombs, and scenes of other graphic war injuries and fatalities. This film should definitely be off-limits for younger viewers.

LOOKING CLOSER’S SIX KEY QUESTIONS

Is the film honorable?

No. Moore believes he holds the truth, and he pieces together stories and facts to support his own theory. But his theory is off-putting in that it asks us to blame a long list of nightmares on one family, when many of those situations have developed over decades, through several presidential administrations. Further, in Moore’s vision, the world’s evils seem to be entirely the fault of Americans. He never stops to consider the evils of other cultures, except in his acknowledgment of September 11th… but even then he packages that chapter in poetic cinematography of papers swirling in the air, where he thrusts bloody graphic war footage in our faces to emphasize the kind of chaos that Americans cause. His tactics of argument are sensationalistic, often grossly ignorant, narrowly argued, and packed with bullying tactics of humiliation and sophomoric mockery.

What difference might the film make in our lives?

I think Moore can be an inspiration in that he arms himself with a video camera and goes out to document world events and cause us to think about them. He distrusts the mainstream media, which is a healthy distrust. He reaffirms that each of us need to think for ourselves and not trust the media. Unfortunately, he further strengthens his point by showing that he himself is a victim of prejudice and anger, by weakening his own film with emotional tirades instead of carefully researched and balanced argument.

Is the film artfully made?

It is entertaining and features some brilliantly edited montage sequences. But the film is overbearingly preachy and delivered in a spirit that does more to enflame our tempers with carefully manipulated and slanted information instead of equipping us with the information we need to make up our own minds.

How effective is the film at what it sets out to do?

It seeks to turn viewers against the Bush administration. And for viewers who believe everything they see and refuse to think for themselves, it will probably work.

Is the film worth our time, money, and effort to see it?

If you are willing to weigh Moore’s opinions carefully against the news and then consider your own opinion, it can be helpful in motivating you to seek out the truth and gain a perspective that is more independent of the influence of biased media reports. If you are easily persuaded by emotional arguments rather than intellectual ones, you are walking into a dangerous and manipulative film.

Did I enjoy it?

Not as much as Bowling for Columbine, which seemed to be a better balance of information, comedy, and entertainment. This film is much more mean-spirited, manipulative, and narrow in it vision and argument.

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