Burn, Bubba, Burn

Michael Moore stokes the anti-Bush bonfires

Pre-sold, unsold and resold amid a tsunami of mostly self-generated publicity, Fahrenheit 9/11 comes encrusted with so much advance bluster, one goes to the movie expecting it to drop a 10,000-pound bomb on George Bush's head. In fact the film, which has little in the way of fresh dirt on Bush or his government's lousy record at home and abroad, is Michael Moore's most sober film yet. That's not saying much: Fahrenheit 9/11 is still a roaring, and for the most part richly deserved, hatchet job on the Bush presidency. It's also a bid to recapture patriotism from the conservatives and enshrine it as a left virtue, largely by paying its respects to the dispossessed Americans who are staffing a war they don't understand and, increasingly, don't want to wage. Whether these same Americans will go to see Fahrenheit 9/11 remains an open question. Juiced by the success of Bowling for Columbine, the hungry distributors of Moore's new film (Lion's Gate Films, IFC Films, and something called the Fellowship Adventure Group, which sounds like a Quaker scouting organization) plan to open the movie on hundreds of screens across the country, surely a first for any documentary.

If that's what you want to call Fahrenheit 9/11. Whether you see the movie as a persuasive alterna-history of recent Republican government or a crude demolition job on Bush—it's both, in spades—will depend as much on what you think nonfiction film is supposed to do as it will on your political affiliations. The reporting is hardly new. You'd have to be hopelessly out of the loop not to have heard about the unholy business ties between the Bushes and those "lovely human beings" (as a Saudi friend of the Bushes calls them in the movie) the bin Ladens. (It's right there in Moore's most recent book, Dude, Where's My Country?, though it wasn't he who broke the story, but the Boston Globe.) Or about the government's pre-Sept. 11 failure to attend to evidence of a coming attack on the United States by al-Qaeda. Or about its milking of post-Sept. 11 public fears to create a bogus, not to say incompetent, war on terror, which, according to Moore, was designed to soften up the public for a coming war with Iraq

Moore is too savvy a media wrangler not to realize that most news dates in five minutes these days. But he's a master cutter and paster of other people's images to suit his own ends. (Perhaps that's what Quentin Tarantino was referring to when, handing Moore the Palme d'Or at Cannes, he found it necessary to stress that Fahrenheit 9/11 won for good filmmaking, not for its politics.) And he's a very funny guy, which is why he gets $6 million to make his movies, while the growing numbers of other lefty political documentarians labor on with their video cameras and their $2,000 budgets. But even as you're laughing, you get the uncomfortable sense you're being recruited, and not always honestly, to Moore's us-and-them point of view. So while it is enormously entertaining to watch footage of the idiotic gizmos (among them, a man-size safe, and a miniparachute that lets you leap 10 stories and more in the attempt to save yourself from dark-skinned predators) invented by entrepreneurial wannabes to capitalize on the war on terror, or the lone state trooper assigned to protect several hundred miles of vulnerable Oregon coastline from terrorists, you also remember just how anxious you really felt after Sept. 11. Likewise, it is fun to see Paul Wolfowitz spit on his comb before raking it though his hair, or Bush fidgeting irritably under a television makeup person's fussing, though in mid-yuk you almost forget to ask what that tells you about the way either man does his job.

Moore does some useful, if hardly new, skewering of the gap between Bush's words and his policies, among them his fulsome praise for "our boys in Iraq" even as he recommends cuts in the pay of combat soldiers and assistance to their families. But Moore has never been good at drawing the line between political critique and personal attack—or worse, he recognizes it and presses on regardless. Those of us who are driven up the wall by Bush's frat-boy humor, by the disingenuous folksiness with which he dispenses meaningless bromides in his speeches, or who were nauseated by the cowboy swagger of his landing on that aircraft carrier, may get a big kick out of seeing him ridiculed, but we may end up feeling bought. It's in his lampooning of Bush the man that Moore is at his most effective—and also at his cheapest. More than once Moore shows us Bush's face in close-up on Sept. 11 as, preparing to read My Pet Goat to a group of inner-city elementary schoolers, he tries to absorb the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Beady eyes swiveling in agitation, he gazes vacantly around the room for several minutes, then starts reading to the kids. In his softly insinuating voice-over, Moore reads the scene for us as a classic case of Bush being unable to function without a script. It is just as likely that, like the rest of us on hearing those first reports, the man was in total shock. And what Moore fails to tell us is that even some on the left admired the way Bush handled himself in the days after the disaster. The president may have shifty eyes and an unhelpful way with syntax, but that in itself doesn't make him an idiot. In the current issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows argues that Bush began his political career with substantial debating skills, and that although they seem to have gone AWOL while he's been in office, he may yet give John Kerry a run for his money in the presidential debates. Certainly he gives Moore a run in Fahrenheit 9/11. When the filmmaker shouts out a question across a crowded room, Bush yells back affably, "Behave yourself. And get a real job."

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