Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" is everything you've heard. It is a searing indictment of the Bush administration's war on terror. It is an eye-opening expose of a president whose inexperience and limited intelligence make him tragically unsuited for the job. It is a masterful job of connecting the dots between Saudi money and the business interests of the president and his friends. And it is an overwrought piece of propaganda -- a 110-minute hatchet job that doesn't even bother to pretend to be fair.
That last may be a part of its appeal: There is no hidden agenda, no subliminal message. Moore thinks George W. Bush is dumb, devious and dangerous, and needs to be voted out of office. He doesn't have that much good to say about the Democrats or John Kerry, their presumptive candidate. But it's mostly about how bad Bush is.
It's easy enough to see why Republicans hated the movie before they ever saw it, why they used their influence to try to stop its production and distribution, and why, having failed at that, they are calling on theater owners not to show it.
But why did the mostly liberal crowd at last week's Washington premiere -- people who like to think of themselves as thoughtful and fair-minded -- applaud so unrestrainedly?
They applauded, I suspect, for much the same reason so many members of the black Christian middle-class applaud the harangues of Black Muslim minister Louis Farrakhan. Some of his facts may be wrong and some of his connections strained, but his attitude is right. What's more, he'll say in plain language what nice, educated people cannot bring themselves to say: The man is a devil.
I thought from the beginning that the Bush administration was wrong to launch its unprovoked war on Iraq. "Fahrenheit" makes it easier to believe that the war was not simply a horrible mistake based on over-extrapolation from slim evidence. I've long had my doubts about the president's intellectual gifts. Moore tempts me to doubt his basic competency.
There is that Sept. 11 scene at a Florida elementary school where the president is reading to a group of children when an aide whispers in his ear that an airliner has crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. He blanches at the horrible news but then returns to his reading: "My Pet Goat." What should he have done? Was he well-advised not to show panic? I don't know, and Moore doesn't tell us. He is content to give us the impression of a man who has no idea what to do unless there is someone there to give him instructions.
Or of a man who only pretends to care about terrorism. There is the vacationing President Bush making a grim-faced denunciation of some terrorist action, then turning back to his golf game with: "Now watch this drive."
You can tell how bad that looks -- but should he have bagged his clubs after delivering that TV message? To what purpose?
The movie is full of such slyness -- and if Moore is afraid it's too subtle for you, he'll spell it out in one of his numerous voice-overs.
But it's not all slyness. The most powerful story in the film is that of Lila Lipscomb, from Moore's hometown of Flint, Mich., who, when we meet her, is boasting of her family's military service. A daughter served in the Gulf War and a son is serving in Iraq. Later, after the son is killed, she reads, on camera, his last letter home; in it he tells her how pointless and wrong and destructive the war seems to him.
And now this woman, who "used to hate those [Vietnam War] protesters," is a peculiarly effective war protester herself.
Will the film (along with the recent spate of books questioning the administration's approach to fighting terrorism) produce a similar about-face on the part of the American public?
I wish Moore had been more scrupulously honest, more interested in examining other points of view, less inclined to make the facts line up to serve his purposes. But I can't say he reached the wrong conclusion.