'Fahrenheit 9/11' Turns Up the Heat
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2004; Page WE33
"FAHRENHEIT 9/11," is a guided missile aimed directly at the presidency of George W. Bush, just four months ahead of the national election.
Its political purpose is unequivocal. But here's the part that matters: Its trajectory is guided with pinpoint accuracy. With an ironic narrative that takes us from the Florida debacle that decided the 2000 presidential election to the political nettling aftermath of war in Iraq, "Fahrenheit 9/11" sagely uses the public record, the facts and the president's goofiest statements and on-camera performances to score its points.
Documentaries aren't news articles; they're subjective points of view, which is why Moore has almost endless fun at the president's expense. (Attorney General John Ashcroft gets his share of ridicule, too.) "Fahrenheit 9/11" obviously skews facts to its own advantage, but that's what the game is all about. What counts is the emotional power of Moore's persuasion. With a combination of events and facts that we have already learned, and some that we haven't, Moore puts it all together. You can understand the thread of his argument, even if you disagree.
What's remarkable, too, is Moore's departure from his usual obnoxious bluster. This is the first film from Moore where you don't think about the shrillness of his sanctimony so much as the urgency of his outrage. He lets the documentary speak for itself: a radical strategy for a man best known for megaphone-toting rantings and candid-camera-style stunts.
What are the movie's points? It accuses the president and his inner circle (including James Baker and financial adviser James R. Bath) of being so financially and personally connected to friends in high Saudi Arabian places, they were too compromised to take decisive action against Osama bin Laden. The film also claims that, after planes struck the World Trade Center in 2001, and there was a moratorium on all commercial flights around the country, the Bush administration helped many members of the wealthy bin Laden family evacuate the country -- by plane.
The strong implication is that these evacuations were performed during the flight ban. This may be the film's iffiest moment, in terms of accuracy, but there's no easy way to verify or discredit this. If it is indeed true, it's an explosive revelation.
The director makes many more of his points in dramatic, emotional ways. He documents, for instance, how the president was busier practicing his golf swing and clearing brush than paying attention to terrorist threats before Sept. 11, 2001. He opines that the color codes that we have learned to live by -- the red and orange alerts that indicate the severity of a terrorism risk -- were part of a strategy to petrify the nation into support for an Iraq invasion.
In one of the most stunning scenes, we watch the president attending an elementary school class on that ill-fated morning. An aide whispers to him news of the plane crash into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The look on Bush's face is stunned, as any person's would be. A clock ticks away. The president looks as though he'll never get up from that seat. The minutes tick by.
"Was he wondering if he should have shown up to work more often?" Moore says in voice-over. The president stares at the children's book he's holding. It's called "My Pet Goat."
This would seem to be mere partisan tomato-hurling, if we hadn't just observed the previous scene: the attack on Manhattan. For that devastating event, Moore shows only a black screen. We hear the buzzing of the aircraft. We know what's coming. We hear the impact and, a second later, the agonized cries and gasps of the witnesses.
Then comes the second crash. Only then does Moore cut to the faces of those watching. A tearful woman cries out to God to save the souls of those leaping from the windows. Another, devastated, sits down on the sidewalk. We don't see the jumpers. But we feel we do. And it makes watching the "My Pet Goat" scene more disturbing than funny.
If there was any movie to affect the political middle -- those rare Americans who come to each presidential election without a pre-existing opinion -- this may be it. There are startling scenes during the American invasion of Iraq that include the visceral terror of a household in Baghdad, as young American soldiers break in to arrest someone; and the candid testimony of U.S. troops who express their disgust at the situation there. Perhaps most persuasive of all is the dramatic turnaround experienced by Lila Lipscomb, a Michigan mother. She changes from patriotic support for the Bush administration to heartbroken despair after she loses a son to the war. In one of the film's most affecting moments, Lipscomb finds herself facing an Iraqi woman who sits before cardboard placards protesting the war on Lafayette Square, right in front of the White House. Two people on opposing sides, suddenly find themselves experiencing common ground. Moments like this mark "Fahrenheit 9/11" as a potential cultural juggernaut -- a film for these troubling times.
FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (R, 112 minutes) -- Contains footage of war dead and wounded, including children. Area theaters.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company