Friday, May 17, 2013

Nation Building

Film: Fahrenheit 9/11
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

If I’d had my druthers, I’d have never watched Fahrenheit 9/11 I’m not the biggest fan of Michael Moore mostly because his films eventually aren’t about the planned topic, but about Michael Moore. Every documentarian places his or her spin on whatever topic he or she is making a film on, but few are as blatant as Moore. But I’m a slave to the list. It appears, I watch. I should say in the interest of full disclosure that I swing politically to the left, particularly on social issues. I’m more an economic centrist. But a lot of Moore’s films should be right in my left-leaning social wheelhouse. They just aren’t.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is about September 11, 2001 and the aftermath as well as (and really, predominantly) the war in Iraq that followed 18 months or so afterward. And, as is typically the case, Moore creates a compelling argument for his point of view. Kind of. Actually, I think this film is in many ways less compelling than the arguments he puts forth in Roger & Me or Bowling for Columbine. The biggest reason for this is simply the scope. Rather than focusing on the aftermath of 9/11 or the war in Iraq, Moore takes on everything from the disputed presidential election that put George W. Bush in the White House through to the war and the non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

It is angering, of course. Only the most ardent Bush supporter can look at the extremely dubious causes for the war in Iraq and not find something to be upset about. And therein lies something of the problem I have with this film. The story is already compelling enough as it is—it already reeks of scandal and the use of improper authority, it already contains hundreds and thousands of broken and destroyed lives. We don’t need Moore to place himself at the center of the conversation, and yet there he is. Because Moore can’t get away from putting himself front and center whenever possible, the film becomes less about its purported topic and more about Michael Moore, angry filmmaker.

And this leads me to my second, larger problem with this film and with Moore as a filmmaker in general. There is a large section of the film devoted to a family who lost a son in combat oversees. It is, of course, tragic, as is any loss like this. But I couldn’t help but wonder as I watched this poor woman, grieving for the loss of her son and experiencing a pain unlike anything I’ve had to endure, is this simply Moore manipulating me? I have not a single doubt that this woman’s pain was real and was of an intensity that I can only scarcely imagine. But do we need to see it? Is publicizing her grief beneficial, or is it merely something that works into the stated agenda of the film in a compelling way?

In short, Fahrenheit 9/11 made me not only more cynical about the wars that we started in two countries overseas within the lifetimes of my children, but cynical about what Michael Moore as a filmmaker is trying to do. This can’t be a good thing from the standpoint of the audience. A slanted argument is still a slanted argument no matter how much I want to agree with the stance it takes.

I can’t help but compare this film with one like Jesus Camp, which portrays a similar group of people in many ways. As with the people front and center in Fahrenheit 9/11, Jesus Camp depicts a group of people who are completely sure of their moral correctness and of their position on all things. They are equally self-convinced of what they believe and what this should allow them to do. The difference is that the makers of Jesus Camp present the film without comment, allowing the people themselves to tell their own story and allowing the audience to make up its own mind. Moore wants to make up our minds for us, which makes him less of a documentarian and more of a polemicist. Ultimately, that’s not very interesting to me.

And so, Fahrenheit 9/11 is an undeniably well-made film that presents a strong, if unfocused and too-broad case. It’s biggest weakness is its inability to let the viewer have anything other than the opinion its highly controversial central personality demands. Moore is a better filmmaker than this; hell, this film is in many ways a better film than this, but it was too easy to let ego get in the way.

Why to watch Fahrenheit 9/11: It’ll piss you off.
Why not to watch: It’ll piss you off.


  1. Agreed on all points. A documentary looses its power to compel when the documentarist drives his point too hard and (maybe) exagerate his points. It is just counterproductive. Allmost as saying that the audience is too stupid to understand the situation described if it is not lined up black and white. That is (to a less extent) the problem with An Inconvenient Truth and certainly with Las Hurdes. Even Flaherty was prone to those tricks.
    When the documentarist then insist on making a film as self-promovation with the topic merely as a tool it triggers my gagging reflexes.

  2. You are absolutely correct about Moore. Ultimately, all of his films are about one thing...Michael Moore. The worst examples are "The Big One," which should've just been called "Michael Moore goes on a book tour," and "Slacker Uprisinng" which was such an awful film he couldn't even get the Weinstein's to release it.

    Full disclosure, I'm not someone who falls in line with Moore's side of many issues, yet he does intrigue me to some degree. I still find "Roger & Me" to be a very interesting movie, but as a filmmaker I think he has struggled to match that film's artistic merrits.

  3. Moore's problem is that with the success of his early films, he became a personality. One of the reasons Roger & Me is so good is that Moore was an unknown voice with an unknown vision at the time. He's too much a part of what he does now--he's too focused on himself in front of the camera to have that sort of impact again.

  4. Steve, this movie is interesting because of how it's drifted in the background for me. The best documentaries stay with you and remain compelling long after they've ended. When Fahrenheit 9/11 was released, I went the first night with a group of friends and had a great time. However, I'm not sure it holds up so well as an intriguing film. There are much better documentaries made about a lot of these subjects. No End in Sight is a great example about the awful situation in Iraq. Moore is skillful in hitting big points and making an entertaining movie, but they tend to feel a bit hollow. This is especially true of his more recent films like you mention.

    Even so, I'm still on board with Moore's politics and believe he does make strong points when he steps out of the way. I do find his appearances on show's like Real Time with Bill Maher to be worth seeing. He's definitely pretty full of himself, but few can draw such a big audience in the documentary world.

    1. I do tend to agree with Moore's politics as well, at least in the main. I guess what it comes down to is that I really object to him putting himself front and center in everything he does. He can make a good point without essentially pointing to himself and shouting "Look! It's me, Michael Moore, making this point!"