Burn, Bubba, Burn

Michael Moore stokes the anti-Bush bonfires

For better and worse, Moore is a simplifier who extracts both heavy irony and heavy tragedy from the juxtaposition of unrelated images. Perhaps in response to critical distaste for his emotionally manipulative style, Moore has scaled back his own presence in Fahrenheit 9/11, and mostly for the better. He's still there, guiding our responses in voice-over. But the stunts aimed at embarrassing the rich and powerful, or educating the poor and dispossessed, are few and far between. We see him being hassled by the Secret Service just for hanging around the Saudi Embassy, then outside the Capitol as he hassles bemused congressmen to sign up their own sons for service in Iraq. When it comes to ordinary people, Moore has always been something of an emotional terrorist, a practitioner of what Saul Bellow calls "potato love"—smothering people you barely know with pseudo-intimacy and flattery until you have them eating out of your hand. In Moore's earlier films, when you saw that big, protective paw settle around the shoulders of an unsuspecting regular Joe, you knew some serious psychological pressure was about to come down. In Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore holds back, and properly so. Back home in chronically unemployed Flint, Michigan, he finds Lila Lipscomb, a self-styled conservative Democrat who sent all her kids to the military and then, after the death of one of her sons in Iraq, became disenchanted with the war. In some of the movie's most genuinely affective moments, Moore tactfully remains off camera and allows this passionate, highly articulate woman to speak for herself.

He's not quite so hands-off with the imagery of war. Moore shows us a pre-war Baghdad of kids playing in the streets and smiling men eating in sidewalk cafťs—I guess it was harder to get footage of the thousands who disappeared into Saddam Hussein's torture chambers—and of Iraq now, with wounded children screaming in pain from the ruins of their bombed houses. He shows us U.S. soldiers conducting humiliating house-to-house searches ("Immoral behavior begets immoral behavior," Moore intones, fingering their superiors in Washington lest we blame the proletarian grunts themselves) and being carried away wounded themselves. "And for what?" someone asks rhetorically.

Well, yes. As I write, evidence is pouring out of the Sept. 11 Commission report that in terms of the official reasons for which it was waged—the famous disappearing WMDs, Hussein's alleged ties to al-Qaeda and his alleged plot to attack the United States—the invasion of Iraq has been an unqualified disaster. Moore, though, wants us to see the mere existence of casualties as proof that the war is illegitimate. Would he take the same approach for casualties of World War II? Or, more pertinently, a war waged on Iraq for the purposes of freeing the country of a despot with the blood of hundreds of thousands of his own citizens on his hands? The awful truth is that every war has its dead and dying, but we are still obliged to distinguish between wars that are morally justified and those that are not. It is not intrinsically right-wing to believe that powerful nations have a duty to help free weaker ones from internal tyranny. Moore is right—though he is hardly the first to say it—that that's not primarily why Bush went into this war. But the director has boxed himself into arguing that the invasion of Iraq was wrong on any grounds, which sounds suspiciously like isolationism, a problematic position for any leftist with a sense of responsibility to the world beyond his own borders.

Moore has made no secret of his ambitions for Fahrenheit 9/11.He wants the movie to shift the public into voting Bush out of the White House. That may be as grandiose as his hiring of a killer consulting firm to counter any attacks on the movie from the right. (Right now, there's little Moore can't take care of on his bellicose lonesome, unless you count Bush Senior, who gets trashed in the movie and has called him a "slimeball" for tarnishing his son's image, or a cranky Ray Bradbury, who cussed out the filmmaker for stealing the title of his novel Fahrenheit 451 and then changing it without permission.) Movies tend not to topple regimes, however unsavory. Still, Fahrenheit 9/11 may yet accomplish a more modest, if no less salutary goal—severing the thin membrane that binds Harvey Weinstein, who initially bought the film, to Disney, who unloaded it and, in the ensuing bother, all but engineered a smash hit.

Fahrenheit 9/11 was written and directed by Michael Moore; produced by Jim Czarnecki and Kathleen Glynn. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.

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