Let's start by getting the name-calling out of the way: Michael Moore is a political gadfly, a provocateur, a firebrand, a rabble-rouser, a muckraker, a satirist, a populist, an entertainer and a Big Fat Stupid White Man, that last epithet courtesy of a book about Moore that's just been published. As for Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore's headline-grabbing documentary about the Bush administration's foreign policy, it's a screed, a diatribe, a polemic, a comedic hatchet job that, according to London's Guardian newspaper, got a thumb's-up from Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militant group. Except for the fact that he never quite gets around to asking George Bush whether it's true that he beats his wife, Moore doesn't even pretend to play fair. On the contrary, he's out to behead a king with every sharp tool at his disposal. And if you have a problem with that...well, then get in line, because lots of people, from both sides of the political aisle, have a problem with it. Right-leaning leftie Christopher Hitchens, in a recent Slate article, all but challenged Moore to a duel. Live by the word, die by the word.
As a filmmaker, Moore lives by the word and, increasingly, by the image. Culling footage from various nooks and crannies of the mediasphere, he's fashioned a montage barrage that, often as not, uses Bush's own words and images against him. There's a shot of Bush addressing a banquet of wealthy types, which he refers to as the haves and the have-mores. "Some call you the elite," he tells the crowd. "I call you my base." There's a shot of Bush making an urgent appeal for the fight against terrorism, then turning around and driving a golf ball into the wild blue yonder. But perhaps the most memorable shot is of Bush, having just been told that a second plane has hit the World Trade Center, sitting there for nearly seven minutes while an elementary-school class completes its reading of "My Pet Goat." Moore slows the videotape down so that the expression on Bush's face morphs from anxious to afraid to confused to vacant, then back to anxious. Some might call this a cheap shot, and maybe it is, but the effect is of a little boy waiting to be told what to do.
"Was it all just a dream?" Moore asks about the last four years, and maybe the best way to view Fahrenheit 9/11 is as an alternative history of the United States during one of its darkly comic nightmares. The movie opens with CBS and CNN declaring Al Gore the winner in Florida, only to have Fox News, spear-carrier for the red states, hand the whole country over to Bush. The Supreme Court seconds that emotion, and Bush proceeds to spend 42% of his first eight months in office on vacation, a cinematic longeur that's enlivened by the sight of Paul Wolfowitz prepping for a TV appearance by running a comb first through his mouth, then through his hair. (Another cheap shot: What does his personal grooming have to do with Wolfowitz's politics?) Then the screen goes black for Moore's dramatic sound-only reenactment of 9/11, and what had been a comedy has suddenly turned into a tragedy, the Hillbilly banjo music giving way to the wailing violins of Arvo PÃrt's "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten." Manipulative? Damn straight, but effective, too.
Now that he has us in the palm of his hand, Moore lays out his next argument -- that Bush's connections with Saudi Arabia's royal family, which go back 30 years, clouded his judgment and influenced his policies as he scrambled to come up with a response to 9/11. Craig Unger covers the same territory in his recent book, House of Bush, House of Saud, and Moore doesn't add to what Unger wrote so much as supply pictures. Then he moves on to his final argument -- that the upper class always gets the lower class to fight its wars for it. Meet Lila Lipscomb, a self-proclaimed "conservative Democrat" from Moore's hometown of Flint, Mich., who lost both her son and her faith in our country's ideals to the war in Iraq. Distraught, Lipscomb pours out her emotions, and our heart goes out to her, but I couldn't help wondering about the mothers who've lost sons or daughters but still believe in the war. Do they not grieve? What makes Fahrenheit 9/11 so effective is that it combines emotional appeals with both comic relief and -- last but not always least -- debate-society argumentation.
Some find Moore's approach engaging. Some find it enraging. And how you find it doesn't necessarily depend on whether you voted for Bush or Gore the last time around. Imagine a movie much like this one, only about Bill Clinton and directed by Rush Limbaugh. Engaging or enraging? Personally, I think Moore's funnier than Limbaugh, and I think he's at his best when he plays the court jester who entertains us paupers by jabbing the king and his court in the ribs. But if he's determined to dethrone the king, send him packing to the great state of Texas...well, there's nothing in the U.S. Constitution to prevent it -- not yet, anyway.