"Fahrenheit 9/11," Michael Moore's most powerful film since "Roger & Me," slices and dices President Bush's presidency into a thousand satirical pieces. It's a wonder the chief executive -- at least, the one portrayed in this movie -- doesn't scatter to the four winds like Texas dust.
Judging by the spirited pandemonium that has greeted this documentary at the Cannes Film Festival, "Fahrenheit 9/11" not only is the film to beat in the competition for the Golden Palm, it also has the makings of a cultural juggernaut -- a film for these troubling times.
With an ironic narrative that takes us from the Florida debacle that decided the 2000 presidential election to the current conflict in Iraq, Moore has almost endless fun at the president's expense. And he frequently uses the president as his own tragicomic scourge -- in other words, hanging him with his own words and facial expressions.
In one of the film's most dramatic moments, we watch the president attending an elementary school class on that ill-fated morning of Sept. 11. 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, this comment connecting with glimpses earlier in the movie of Bush's frequent stays in Texas to clear brush and play golf. The president stares at the children's book he's holding. It's called "My Pet Goat."
But there's more to "Fahrenheit 9/11" than partisan ridicule. Just before that scene, we have confronted the unspeakable: When those two planes hit the twin towers in Manhattan. 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.
What's remarkable here isn't Moore's political animosity or ticklish wit. It's the well-argued, heartfelt power of his persuasion. Even though there are many things here that we have already learned, Moore puts it all together. It's a look back that feels like a new gaze forward. The movie points to social and financial connections between the Bush family and wealthy Saudis, including the royal family, Prince Bandar (the Saudi ambassador to Washington) and the bin Laden family.
It shows startling footage taken by camera crews who were embedded with the American forces in Iraq. And it spends time with such people as Lila Lipscomb, a Michigan mother who changes from patriotic support for the Bush administration to heartbroken despair after she loses a son to the war.
There are so many powerful moments to point to, all for different reasons: the visceral terror of a household in Baghdad, as young American soldiers break in to arrest someone; the candid testimony of American soldiers who express their disgust at the situation there; interviews in Michigan with impoverished African Americans, a social group that has been a breadbasket for U.S. Army recruitment.
To watch this movie yourself is to realize with dawning appreciation that the director of "Bowling for Columbine" has finally learned to put his movie where his mouth is.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (110 minutes) is not rated.
As reported in yesterday's Style section, the movie's current distributor, Walt Disney, has blocked the film's release, citing its controversial nature. In the wake of the movie's uncertain distribution status, the release date -- originally slated for July 4 -- remains unknown. But Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who head Disney-owned Miramax Pictures, are currently in negotiations with Disney to buy the film and release it as individual producers or through a third party. At a news conference Monday, Moore asserted, "This film will be seen before the election."