The Roof Is on Fire
I’m a war president.
—George W. Bush
“Was it all a dream”? Taking plain aim at the current U.S. administration, Michael Moore’s 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. (See also, Jadakiss’ new video, for “Why,” which takes another run at the same problems.) 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.
Moore makes an aggressive argument against Bush’s crusade (even if the president has long since backed off the term). On winning this year’s Palme d’Or, the filmmaker was grateful: “Merci,” he said, “I have a sneaking suspicion that [with] what you have done here, and the response from everyone at the Festival, you will assure that the American people will see this film.” While Moore surely made promotional hay out of Disney’s disallowing Miramax’s distribution of the movie, his comment at the awards ceremony hints as well at his hopes for Fahrenheit 9/11, that it might make a difference.
Despite film per se’s purported potential influence, politics is a more slippery business, a function of daily indoctrinations—by news, the internet, Friends, detergent ads—as much as by any overt flag-waving. Moreover, documentaries, even purposely entertaining ones, don’t tend to reach huge or very diverse audiences, rarely appealing to viewers not already interested in or persuaded by their subjects. (Reagan, for instance, suffered no ill effects from the pre-election release of Barbara Trent and David Kasper’s Coverup: Behind the Iran Contra Affair in 1988.)
Still, the noise attending Fahrenheit 9/11 is loud, and not only because Moore has hit up numerous talk shows (his interviews have been repetitive: at some point he notes the news media’s rolling over for the WMD and other assertions, suggesting, they should have done their job better). Much like the controversy over The Passion, this noise has to do with staking out sides and asserting some sort of “truth.” And, similar to Gibson’s film, Moore’s will re-convince believers, and will only annoy those who, like Bill O’Reilly, see Moore as a blustery, self-absorbed showman.
Like Gibson’s, Moore’s partisanship is part of his project, and he’s less focused on convincing anyone of his rightness than on enumerating why he’s right. 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 is the film’s 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 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.
As she provides 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, just before the camera cuts to another, who exults, “It’s the ultimate rush” when you have a good song playing in the background during a raid.
For one troop, the Bloodhound Gang’s “Fire Water Burn” is just such a perfect song, and to illustrate, he spews lyrics: “The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire, / We don’t need no water let the motherfucker burn. / Burn motherfucker burn” (reportedly, these lyrics, in addition to the bodies and one Saudi regime beheading, seen from a distance, led to the MPAA’s R rating for the film). As scary as this kid’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.
Most 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. The war against Iraq, observes one, 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. The process can be multi-dimensional, the variety of voices increased. When Spike Lee—no stranger to controversy or the ongoing effort to find and speak truth—emerged from one recent preview screening of Fahrenheit 9/11, a reporter pushed a microphone in his face and asked what he thought. And Spike said the right thing: “The point is that issues are raised and people come out talking about them when they leave the theater.”