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Fahrenheit 9/11 is unfocused. Having just seen Control Room, the a documentary about Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the war in Iraq, Fahrenheit 9/11 looks scattershot. To the extent that the war in Iraq is wrong, Control Room is a more objective, informative, and subjective condemnation than Fahrenheit 9/11.

Where Control Room shakes its head at the global tragedy, Fahrenheit 9/11 gets angry at the American politics that led to war.

Broad and Shallow

At its best when it stays on a human scale
At its best when it stays on a human scale

With only two hours to work with, Director Michael Moore, chooses a broad, shallow picture instead of a narrow, deep one. Fahrenheit 9/11 follows the Bush administration from election night 2000 through the “end of major combat” last spring. Moore spends time on Bush’s reaction to the September 11 attacks, the Bush family’s ties to prominent Saudis including the bin Laden family, the USA PATRIOT Act, homeland security, Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, and the effect of the war on American soldiers and families.

Some of what Moore presents is informative and new. His footage of the ugly presidential inauguration is the first I’d seen; apparently the television media in this country was more interested in painting a sunny picture. His cameras embedded in Iraq capture soldiers casually humiliating prisoners of war. He shows us dead American soldiers, wounded Iraqi civilians, and disfigured survivors in army hospitals. Some of the images in Fahrenheit 9/11 reveal just how patriotic a lapdog mainstream American TV journalism is (Abu Ghraib aside).

Moore also seeks out stories of American civilians. Peace Fresno, a group of aging hippies, looking about as threatening as my in-laws’ church group, was infiltrated by an anti-terrorism officer. Moore also returns to his home town of Flint, Michigan, where he watches Marine recruiters take the names of those who don’t want to join up so they can cross them off their “list.” He also looks up Lila Lipscomb, whose family has sent many of its members off to war.

Cons

Some of what Moore includes has already been covered in better detail elsewhere. Books have been written about election 2000, and the immediate response of the administration to the attacks on September 11. If you’ve read anything about these stories, Fahrenheit 9/11 will feel like it’s wasting time repeating old news.

Moore also attacks President Bush too personally at times. Why does Moore find it worth mentioning that on September 10, Bush slept on “fine French linen”? And the segment on Bush’s reaction to the second plane hitting the twin towers is tangential to any serious criticism of Bush’s policies. Moore implies that Bush should have done something other than what he did (he sat in the classroom with the children for ten minutes), although he doesn’t say what that something is, or how it could have saved lives. Worse, instead of just running the tape, Moore’s voiceover speculates about what Bush might have been thinking, which seems very unfair.

At its worst, Fahrenheit 9/11 is glib. Christopher Hitches writes at length in Slate in response to an assertion of Moore’s. What Moore actually says is a carefully-phrased, hedged, claim that Iraq, as a nation, hadn’t killed any American civilians. (My own skeptic’s ears perked up at hearing Moore’s claim.) Hitchens blurs Moore’s carefully chosen words with what it sounds like he’s saying, pointing to threats and attacks by individual Iraqis on American allies. So even though Moore may have made a true statement, he won’t win points with political opponents like Hitchens (or with skeptics like me) by making statements that require such careful phrasing.

Pros

But Fahrenheit 9/11 does several things well. Sometimes it raises serious moral questions about the Bush administration’s justification for war. Moore shows us footage of Bush warning America about Iraqi weapons. Then he shows us Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice in summer 2001 saying Iraq poses no threat whatsoever.

Moore borrows a trick from Hearts and Minds, a great documentary about the Vietnam War. After five minutes on a Vietnamese funeral at which the deceased’s mother tries to throw herself into her son’s grave, the movie cuts to General William Westmoreland saying, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as the Westerner.” Moore’s riff cuts from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saying how careful and precise our targeting is, going so far as to call it “humane,” to the image of a four-year-old child, half of whose head has been stitched back together. Critics may call it a cheap shot, and yet here are two documentary, factual images. The only manipulation was to put them next to each other for the purposes of comparison. That’s the power and magic of filmmaking.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is very good on a human level, too. Lispcomb’s son is killed in Fallujah, and when her grief turns to outrage at the futility of it all, it’s hard to disagree. A callous woman on the Washington, D.C. mall tells her that a peace tent she visits is “staged,” and later tells her to blame al Qaeda for her son’s death. Lipscomb says that al Qaeda didn’t send him to Iraq to die.

On the ground in Iraq, too, Moore’s cameras pick up the human story well. Eager young testosterone-pumped soldiers talk about the thrill of charging into battle while listening to heavy metal (“burn, motherfucker!”) in their helmets. But other soldiers talk about being shocked by the reality of war. Maimed civilians and dead comrades are not like video games. Some of these soldiers humiliate captured Iraqi POWs. Once hooded, the captives probably seem less human, and the soldiers find it easy to joke about Arab genitals.

Sum of the Parts

While Fahrenheit 9/11 illustrates the case against the Bush administration, it’s not really a successful movie. It is too often emotional and glib, and too often short on convincing and damning evidence. Compared to movies like Capturing the Friedmans or The Thin Blue Line, Fahrenheit 9/11 is unfocused and somewhat unconvincing. I would disagree with critics who call it Moore’s best movie, and I’m surprised it won the Palme D’Or in Cannes.

What earns it a recommendation are the bright moments within the film that had not yet been allowed to shine. And even if they don’t make up a superb whole, unlike the group that wants to stop theaters from showing Fahrenheit 9/11, I think Americans are smart enough to see where Moore’s case is weak and put those moments in context.