Smoke 'em Out
The Bush campaign has since said that the president knew [the debates split screen] was coming, but if so, that makes his lack of self-discipline seem all the more self-destructive, or perhaps out of touch. He couldn’t have provided a better out-take promo for the DVD release of Fahrenheit 9/11 had Michael Moore been directing it himself.
—Frank Rich, “Why Did James Baker Turn Bush into Nixon?” (New York Times 10 October 20004)
I felt like I was in a Hollywood movie, like I was from some futuristic society, going back in time and killing poor people in a third world country. That’s how I felt.
—Corporal Abdul Henderson, “More with Abdul Henderson”
[This film] validates cinema. Because let’s face it, the things that Michael Moore is saying in this film cannot be said in tv and media in the United States at the moment.
—Tilda Swinton, Cannes Film Festival May 2004
Michael Moore and Abdul Henderson sit on a park bench, the latter thinking back on the tragedy of what he saw and did in Iraq. As this quiet corporal from L.A. speaks, explaining why he has refused to return to “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” a group of young Marines in military-issue shorts and t-shirts, chanting “Left-right-left,” looking rather like gung-ho. The camera holds steady as Moore and Henderson walk away, down the sidewalk, sighing, “Probably be better to see nobody’s kid over there.”
The moment, part accidental, part contrived, is striking in its seeming simplicity: the contrast between the sober Henderson and the gung-ho troops isn’t made any clearer by Moore’s lamentation on the loss of U.S. life in Iraq. Still, the scene—an extended version of Moore’s interview with the corporal in Fahrenheit 9/11, included on Columbia’s new DVD—does underline one of the film’s central points, that the war remains a distant, abstract event for too many people in the U.S. The fact that Moore’s observation overlooks the many “kids” who live in Iraq and the Middle East, under siege from multiple directions, only underlines the contradictions of the U.S.-led assault, at once so vast and so limited, so aggressive and so frighteningly inept. Most important, the moment makes clear the import of Fahrenheit 9/11, not as a showcase for Moore’s discontent with the Bush Administration, not even as a statement against the war per se, but most crucially, as it reveals the potential power of media imagery, as a means to tell a story, to evoke emotion, even to provoke thought and action.
According to Moore, this last is Fahrenheit 9/11‘s best possible effect, to rouse viewers to action. As most everyone knows, Moore—currently on his “Slacker Uprising” tour—is campaigning for George Bush’s removal from office on election day. The release of Fahrenheit 9/11 on DVD is one step toward that end, as is Moore’s effort to get the film shown on pay-per-view before the election, in the process disqualifying it from “Best Documentary” competition at the 2005 Oscars (this due to an arcane rule concerning documentaries appearing on tv). Moore’s determination can not be doubted. And it is admirable: he puts his money and considerable visibility where his mouth is, and he is beloved by his fans, most of them young and already fed up with the status quo.
Moore asserts a fundamental faith in democratic tenets, insisting that he can be as patriotic as anyone supporting the war as a concept, a policy, a matter of national identity. Re-watching Fahrenheit 9/11, its passion—so to speak—is even more pronounced than the first time, when the barrage of images and arguments verged on overwhelming. This is a movie conceived in outrage, at the many individuals and collective bodies who did not do their jobs as the U.S. government “ran up” to war. The guilty parties include elected officials, journalists, and of course, the administration, all failing to look after those who depend on them to do the right thing always, the troops who commit, for various reasons, ranging from money to patriotism, to “put their lives on the line.”
Fahrenheit 9/11 starts by recalling the Time Before Bush. Television footage from November 2000 shows Al Gore, surrounded by Ben Affleck, Stevie Wonder, and Babyface, the projected winner by network and cable anchors alike. And then, Moore intones, “Something called the Fox News Channel” bucks the tide and calls Bush victorious in Florida, and so, winner of the whole shebang. Dan Rather and Peter Jennings recant their predictions, and Fahrenheit 9/11 zips through the recount, remaking the case Spike Lee made in his segment of Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet, “We Wuz Robbed,” namely, black voters were disenfranchised, House Representatives of color protested, the Senate went “missing,” and the Supreme Court voted Bush in.
But if the point isn’t precisely new, it has newly alarming resonance after 9/11 and during the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Following some cute footage of Bush’s extensive vacationing (42% of his pre-9/11 months in office was spent golfing, boating, or ranching: “I love the nature,” he explains, “I love getting in the pickup truck with my dogs”), the film cuts abruptly to a black screen, over which you hear screams and sounds of the Towers falling, invokes that day’s horror all over again for those feel they’ve seen it too many times.
From here, Fahrenheit 9/11 argues aggressively against Bush’s “crusade.” As he reminds us early in the film, Moore started his own minor scrap with the president when he called him a Vietnam war “deserter.” This by way of introducing the documents the White House released in order to allay concerns about Bush’s Air National Guard service. These papers redacted the name of one James R. Bath, later the Texas money manager for the bin Laden family, and, the film indicates, another example of the Bushes’ enduring links with the Saudi royals generally and the bin Ladens specifically, including Prince Bandar, Saudi ambassador at the time of 9/11. Fahrenheit 9/11 cites numbers and meetings between the Bushes and the Saudis, interviewing Craig Ungar, whose book, House of Bush, House of Saud, tracks the same connections, including Halliburton and the Carlyle Group.
The movie backs up this assertion of a financial relationship (to the tune of some $1.4 billion in the pockets of the Bushes and associates) with multiple images of the Bushes and friends shaking hands with various Saudis, under REM’s “Shiny Happy People” (holding hands). Equally reductive and frankly funny are the film’s use of Dragnet footage to call up old-school, self-righteous, and non-nonsense cop-work, and the introduction of the war in Afghanistan with a frontispiece and soundtrack from Bonanza, featuring Bush, Cheney, and Blair in cowboy hats, or its minimal listing of nations making up the “Coalition of the Willing” (comprised of some 30 nations, of which Fahrenheit 9/11 notes the army-less Iceland and Palau and Afghanistan, which “has our army”).
Bush’s own behavior and speech are, of course, easy targets, as Moore repeatedly shows him fidgeting (as during the now famous seven minutes in the Florida elementary school classroom on the morning of September 11) and misspeaking or speaking incoherently (“They’re not happy,” he says of the Iraqis, “They’re occupied. I wouldn’t be happy if I were occupied either”). Perhaps most damning of all is Bush’s endorsement by no less a political scene luminary than Britney Spears, whose nonsensical interview snippet (“I just think we should trust in our president, and be faithful in everything we do”) reminds you that Moore, now as in the past, enjoys the occasional cheap shot.
More effectively, the film includes interviews with U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq, bloodied and angry civilians, and, interspersed throughout the second half, the story of Lila Lipscomb, a self-claimed “conservative Democrat” in Moore’s hometown, Flint, Michigan, whose son’s death in Iraq raises questions for her, about her patriotic loyalties and her faith in the administration. Scenes with Lila are respectful and moving, if only because she tries to hard to maintain her composure as she also gives voice to what she sees as the persistent dishonesty that took the U.S. to war. “War happens,” says troop, “And the fighting starts, it’s kind of like you’re pumped up and ready to go.” Another gushes, “It’s the ultimate rush, because you know you’re going into the fight to begin with, and then if you have a good song playing in the background, that gets you real fired up, ready to do the job.”
One such ideal song is the Bloodhound Gang’s “Fire Water Burn” (“The roof is on fire”) because, says the kid who likes it, it “basically symbolized Baghdad on fire.” Cut to shots of house on fire and victims in tears and wounded. “Burn motherfucker burn.” As alarming as this young man’s enthusiasm seems, it’s hardly unusual, as the Abu Ghraib photos have demonstrated: even hints of orders find fertile cultural ground in which to sprout. The troops do not come to war out of a vacuum. Another young man cautions that the war can also be hard: “This is a lot more real and true than a video game,” he says. “A lot of this is face to face, especially riding by after some of the bombs have went off, and seeing the people on the side of the road bloated up, all the smells around you, I mean, from the people lying dead, rotted. It’s a lot more gruesome than you think.”
As she serves as the film’s cogent heart, Lila’s tragedy is buttressed by footage showing Iraqis’ upset at U.S. aggressions and U.S. troops’ bewilderment and exasperation over their mission (“If Rumsfeld were here,” says one, “I’d ask for his resignation”). The troops shown here range from frustrated to dutiful to sublimely primed for their work. Late night house to house searches leave women in tears; a young man lifts a child’s corpse into a truck and another finds pieces of a girl in a bombed building; troops hood and humiliate prisoners in the field (calling one “Ali Baba,” they poke at his genitals). “There were a lot of innocent civilians that were killed,” admits one soldier.
The DVD comes packed with extras, sometimes wrenching and mostly useful, including “The Release of Fahrenheit 9/11,” an 11-minute chronicle of the film’s supposedly rocky road to distribution, from Cannes to Disney to Lions Gate, with testimonies asserting the film’s political significance; “Eyewitness Account from Samara, Iraq,” is an 18-minute, and frankly unnerving report by Swedish journalist Urban Hamid, embedded with Charlie Company during a December 2003 raid, showing the soldiers using hoods on prisoners and being unable to read documents they use for identification: “I want to be sort of a bridge between all the cultures,” he says, “and make us realize we all have the same needs”; and “Lila Lipscomb at Washington, D.C. Premiere,” her four and a half minute speech in June 2004 (“President Bush said that he was a president of war; well, I stand before you tonight as a mother now, that is a mother of war”).
In addition, the DVD includes brief “new scenes” or expansions of material in the theatrical release: “Homelands Security: Miami Style,” showing the lack of inspections of incoming ships and boats; “Arab American Comedians,” featuring interviews with standup comics, concerning racism, profiling, and hate crimes (“Welcome to the Axis of Evil tour”); “More from Corporal Abdul Henderson,” extends the interview with the young L.A. native who refused to return to Iraq, in the film, including descriptions of action in country (“I felt betrayed”). “People of Iraq on The Eve of Invasion” features interviews with citizens declaring their desire for peace, not war; “Outside Abu Ghraib Prison,” showing the guards’ debasement of family members trying to get access to their imprisoned loved ones; and two short bits expose disturbing attitudes of U.S. administration officials: “Condoleezza Rice: ‘I Asked You What the Title Was,’” is her now infamous testimony before the 9/11 Commission (“I believe the title was ‘Bin Laden determined to Attack Inside the United States’”); “Bush after his ‘Visit’ with the 9/11 Commission,” consists of the president’s brief Rose Garden meeting with reporters (“There was a lot of interest about how to better protect America”).
Most of the film’s interviews with military personnel reveal their confusion and exasperation over their perceived lack of mission: “Part of your soul is destroyed in taking another life,” says one, and, “If Rumsfeld were here,” another asserts, “I’d ask for his resignation.” Back in the States, Moore talks to Marine Abdul Henderson, who is going to court in order not to go back to Iraq, insisting that he will not return to “kill more poor people.” As counterpoint, Fahrenheit 9/11 follows a couple of full dress Marine recruiters around a shopping mall, specifically selected, the film argues, because it is not upscale, and the young people in it will be looking for “career” options: one hiphop-looking kid says he wants to make music, and the recruiter suggests the military will give him the training to do so.
In this way, the military works less than mysteriously: it picks on people without options, and it takes advantage of an ever anxious, desirous U.S. population. Fahrenheit 9/11 also makes an argument much like the one Moore made in Bowling for Columbine, namely, the U.S. military-industrial complex profits from a perpetual culture of fear. Interviews with representatives of companies that make executive parachutes, portable safe rooms, and military hardware make clear the cynicism with which they approach their product lines. Dr. Sam Kubba, of the Iraqi Chamber of Commerce, observes ruefully, “War is always good for certain companies that are in the business of war.” This war, observes a money-making executive, is “good for business, bad for the people.”
Indeed, as the film quotes George Orwell, “The war is not meant to be won. It is meant to be continuous.” It is a business, and affects other business, from the U.S. Senate and House (whom Moore indicts for sloppy, partisan voting, for war powers as well as the Patriot Act) to the news media. In his interviews to promote the film, Michael Moore has been especially critical of news organizations’ failures to “do their job,” that is, investigate U.S. allegations regarding WMDs, Iraqi-al-Qaeda connections, even Bush family links with the Saudis.
If Fahrenheit 9/11 is occasionally glib or unfocused, it is always angry and unafraid, and that makes it quite unlike the typically complacent news media and official bodies it targets. Moore scolds and preaches, he makes his case vehemently and at times, confusingly or ineffectively. The movie smartly points out the untruths that make up policy and business practices, even as it engages in similar hedging. It’s less conventional documentary than that scattershot, hyper-opinionated, unnamed hybrid form increasingly familiar in tv news “magazines,” reality tv, and talk shows. It’s an onslaught and its outraged. It doesn’t persuade, it hammers.
Truths and untruths remain impossible to know and crucial to debate. As the roof burns, as the administration’s dishonesty is becoming a subject even for mainstream media coverage, more questions must circulate, and more answers must be sought. So far, the most astounding aspect of the war has been the capacity of the U.S. population to ignore or condone it, to buy a party line despite mounting evidence that it is “the wrong war.” Between Seymour Hersh’s exposures of abuses at Abu Ghraib and Charles Duelfer’s recent report on the lack of WMDs, perhaps the discussion will get serious.