With no small amount of internal liberal chagrin, I begin my review of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 with the same tired expression with which I began my review of The Passion of the Christ: don't believe the hype. Despite what newscasts and box office record-keepers may proclaim, Moore's film is no more a "documentary" than Mel Gibson is a nonsectarian representative of "Christianity." Both directors employ a brutal tableau of desperate Middle Eastern faces to convince film goers of their claim, but by the films' ends I felt that a similar nasty, small-minded agenda had lurked all along beneath affectations of benevolence.
This is not to say that Fahrenheit 9/11 is a spectacle worthy of avoidance, as The Passion definitely was. Although I loathe the "You're either one of us or one of them" attitude that has sprouted among many of Moore's devotees in my age bracket, this is a film that should be witnessed, and its engendered dialogue is one that should be engaged in-even if, as is often charged, it only serves to cement preexisting opinions.
Too much attention has been paid thus far on Moore's continuation of his trademark public stunts, which in Fahrenheit 9/11's case include a half-hearted attempt to coerce congressmen to enlist their children into military service and Moore commandeering an ice cream truck to read the Patriot Act on the streets of Washington, D.C. Moore may feel, as he says in the film, such exploits to be "the only patriotic thing to do," but given the gravity of his current subject matter the forays now seem more decorative than dashing. That said, when Moore tries to act like a real documentarian in Fahrenheit 9/11, he brilliantly infuses facts, suspicions and interviews with his infectious paranoia. The strongest parts of the film all adhere to a deceptively simple line used early in the film by Moore: "If the public knew this, it wouldn't be very good."
In one remarkable vignette, Moore unearths footage of President Bush being informed about the World Trade Center attacks while reading My Pet Goat to a classroom of Florida children. He then follows Bush's facial expression, captured on a teacher's video recording of the event, for several minutes as Bush sits silently and uselessly in a low-quality public school chair. Bush's vacant, impenetrable eyes are alone worth the price of admission-although Moore's unending banter about what might be running through the chief executive's head treads on what could, here and elsewhere, be some truly powerful footage.
Moore also deftly cleaves through Bush's shady military career, exposing an unpublicized attempt by the White House to hide a blatant past connection to the bin Laden family. Serious research rather than sound bite potshots drive these sequences, and through them Moore creates a compelling portrait of Bush as an overwhelmed simpleton for whom almost every possible action is a financial, political and moral conflict of interest. By virtue of his ability to dig up shocking financial connections alone Moore could steer many voters in the upcoming election.
If Moore only portrayed himself as the messenger of knowledge, rather than oppressed commentator, clown and cartoonist (during a juvenile skit casting Bush in Bonanza) then Fahrenheit 9/11 would have been a masterpiece. Instead, it is a mess of revelatory heights and shallow-minded lows that leave me offering no defense to Fahrenheit 451 author Ray Bradbury's recent charge that Moore is an "asshole." Moore bookends shots of shrieking Iraqi civilians with sound bites of thickheaded American celebrities supporting the president and footage of veterans with Moore's own sentimental pontifications about the sociology of war. However, even the most relevant images aren't arranged to portray any wisdom or new answers. Instead, Moore limits the scope of his project to ad hominem humiliation of those in power, and more often than not comes off like a scavenger of human misery in the same mold as his targets.
It may sound like I am simply deriding Moore for being himself, or crying that a film that could only have been made by Moore should have been made by someone else. However, the big guy has reached a point where his style must mature to match his cultural clout. If American audiences still need his cheap self-congratulatory tricks and inappropriate multimedia pastiche in order to digest what would otherwise be a crucial political message, then shame on us. It is time for everyone, including Michael Moore, to outgrow Michael Moore.