Not since "The Passion of the Christ" has a movie from outside the Hollywood mainstream made a review so superfluous. By orchestrating a hype campaign every bit as finely tuned as Mel Gibson's, filmmaker Michael Moore has made "Fahrenheit 9/11" required viewing, not just for the thousands of like-minded activists who have vowed to make the documentary a box office hit this weekend, but for anyone who wants to be culturally literate.
In other words, most people reading this already know whether they're going or not. The question is whether "Fahrenheit 9/11" will be worth the trip. In many ways this is Moore's best film; he exercises restraint that has been notably lacking in such documentaries as "Roger & Me," "The Big One" and the Oscar-winning "Bowling for Columbine." In those movies, Moore affected the persona of a rumpled Everyman bravely confronting malign corporate and cultural forces; he also never missed a chance to be seen on camera, usually in a self-serving pose of righteous indignation. (Who can forget how courageously he placed the photograph of a gun violence victim in Charlton Heston's driveway?)
In "Fahrenheit 9/11," Moore largely stays out of the picture, and the film is the better for it. But otherwise his style hasn't changed. In a freewheeling, breathtakingly dense critique of the Bush administration and its reasons for taking the United States into war with Iraq, Moore levels the barbed, often disarmingly funny attacks that have made him so beloved among his fans. As a documentarian, he is less an investigative journalist (not much in "Fahrenheit 9/11" is new) than an essayist seeking to master the satirical brand of overstatement of Jonathan Swift. Moore's immodest proposal -- the Bush family's ties to Saudi Arabia have resulted in a number of unsavory deals, culminating in the war itself -- may strike viewers as scurrilous or perfectly logical, depending on their ideological bent. But couched within the conspiracy theories and bursts of antic, absurdist humor are some points about class, politics and media that are well worth pondering once the chatter has subsided.
Moore swiftly builds his case that not only was the 2000 presidential election stolen, but it was only the beginning of efforts by the Bush camp and the right wing in general to consolidate permanent party rule in all three branches of government. When terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the filmmaker argues, Bush seized the chance to pursue international and domestic policies he had wanted to institute anyway, from invading Iraq to reining in civil liberties.
Connecting a number of often obscure dots (from Bush's National Guard buddy James Bath to the international investment firm the Carlyle Group), Moore creates a by-turns amusing and damning montage illustrating how, in his view, oil, arms sales, greed and will to power have converged in a war whose justifications seem increasingly murky.
On a whirlwind tour through Florida, Texas, the District, Fresno, Calif., Oregon and his working-class home town of Flint, Mich., Moore pauses just long enough to raise troubling questions, then moves on. Often those questions are raised in one of Moore's signature stunts, such as when he hires an ice cream truck to drive around in front of the U.S. Capitol while he reads the Patriot Act over the loudspeaker. (He interviews members of Congress who insist that few, if any, of their colleagues read it before it passed.) Later, he and a U.S. Marine buttonhole pro-war members of Congress and suggest that they urge their children to enlist. "If you're for the war, get behind it," Moore says. "Send your own."
Moore often resorts to speculative exaggeration that is either unfair or on point, again depending on your point of view. Early in the film he informs the audience that the president spent 42 percent of his tenure before 9/11 on vacation. This sets up a later image of a blank-looking Bush, just told that a second plane hit the New York towers, and Moore's rhetorical question: "Was he thinking he should have come to work more often?"
Throughout "Fahrenheit 9/11," the filmmaker misses no chance to make the president look either clueless or arrogant, from the unfortunate footage of Bush reading "My Pet Goat" during the Sept. 11 attacks to him smirking into the camera just before announcing the invasion of Iraq.
Such gleefully cheap shots aside, Moore exercises admirable forbearance -- and creates one of the most moving sequences in recent cinema -- when he documents 9/11. Eschewing those indelible visual images of the planes hitting the towers (something he didn't see fit to do in "Bowling for Columbine"), Moore leaves the screen black, offering only the sounds of the planes hitting, the screams, the chaos and the collapse. The screen then slowly clears into dusty, mournful images of the disaster's aftermath. It may be Moore's finest artistic moment.
There are many valuable passages in "Fahrenheit 9/11." Moore travels to Iraq -- or has gotten hold of material shot by someone who did -- to interview soldiers about their experience there (not surprisingly, they question the war they're fighting); the film even goes along on a Christmas Eve raid on an Iraqi home. From his use of gruesome images of dead and suffering Iraqis to his stateside visits with some of the thousands of U.S. soldiers who have been injured in the conflict, it's clear that one of Moore's goals is to show costs of war that the Bush administration has kept from view. Going undercover to a conference of military contractors barely able to contain their excitement at cashing in on the Iraq war effort, then tagging along as military recruiters cruise a working-class Michigan mall for likely (and usually African American) enlistees, Moore makes the contradictions of the war economy graphically real.
But he's Michael Moore, after all, and sometimes he goes too far. His prewar portrait of Iraq as a garden spot of happy families and kids flying kites would no doubt strike thousands of former Iraqi prisoners and their families as risible, if not insulting. Most egregious is his treatment of Lila Lipscomb, a Flint mother of a dead soldier who tearfully reads his last letter home. Not content with that display, Moore follows her to the White House, where she breaks down in a fit of tears in a scene that is exploitative and gratuitous. Still, such overkill shouldn't obscure her central question: "For what?"
The best thing about "Fahrenheit 9/11" is that viewers can disagree with the filmmaker's own assessment that the war was fought for money and power but still emerge with some healthy questions of their own. And questioning authority would seem to be the entire point, even when that authority is as vigorous and entertaining a polemicist as Moore himself.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (112 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violent and disturbing images and explicit language.