July 13, 2004 – Normally movie reviewers assess a motion picture's storyline, the actors' delivery, the impact of the sets and such things as the degree of gratuitous violence and sex.
You can't do that with "Fahrenheit 9/11" there's no plot, there are no actors, there are no sets and, despite the R rating, the few seconds of violence are scenes shown ad nauseam on newscasts earlier (including a distant and out-of-focus decapitation), and there's not so much as a suggestion of sex.
It's a documentary. Some critics, brazenly borrowing from one another, have pronounced it a "docu-tragicomedy," which doesn't tell you anything that "documentary" doesn't do as well.
But it just happens to have become in its first week in distribution at the end of June the highest grossing documentary of all time (well, excluding IMAX spectacles). In so doing it eclipsed "Bowling for Columbine."
If you've been living in a cave with no electronic or print media access for the last month, you may not be aware that both "Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11" are the work of filmmaker Michael Moore. And that the media have gone bananas over Moore, an overweight, undergroomed guy who apparently shops at Goodwill and lives the sort of spartan life that endeared Ralph Nader to an earlier generation. But a guy with attitude, and a well-honed appreciation of the power of cinema to communicate.
The July 12 Time Magazine had Moore on the cover and an assemblage of four articles and an essay on the man (a "populist agitator"), the movie, his modus operandi ("polemics with punch lines") and what they mean in the greater political scheme of things. Because the greater political scheme of things is what the ado is all about.
Moore first made his movie mark in 1989 with "Roger and Me," a documentary which detailed his attempt to confront General Motors boss Roger Smith about the social effects of closing a GM plant in Moore's hometown of Flint, Mich.
In 2002, "Bowling for Columbine," his audacious examination of America's obsession with guns, was the first documentary ever accepted at the Cannes Film Festival, which awarded it the special 55th Anniversary Prize. It went on to receive the 2003 Oscar for best documentary feature and became America's highest-grossing non-music documentary of all time and also set box office records for a documentary in Britain, Australia and Austria.
But back to "Fahrenheit 9/11." Again, if you've been incommunicado: The film documents Moore's in-your-face viewpoint regarding the Bush administrations' vested interests in the Middle East in Iran and Saudi Arabia. And note that it's "administrations," plural; Moore targets father and son with equal abandon.
A Documentary by Definition
Subtlety is all but absent from the Moore persona. He has never claimed the movie was anything but subjective. Pre-eminent film critic Roger Ebert was moved in the face of reader flak to defend his own positive review by pointing that "most documentaries, especially the best ones, have an opinion and argue for it."
Ebert added: "I agree with Moore that the presidency of George W. Bush has been a disaster for America. In writing that, I expect to get the usual complaints that movie critics should keep their political opinions to themselves. But opinions are my stock in trade, and is it not more honest to declare my politics than to conceal them? I agree with Moore, and because I do, I hope 'Fahrenheit 9/11' proves to be as accurate as it seems."
Moore relied extensively on Craig Unger's meticulously researched book "House of Bush, House of Saud," which in turn relied heavily on public record. The response of critics has been across the board and the filmgoer, alas, has little idea who's on target and who's cutting the criticism out of whole cloth.
Still, everybody laughs at the scene at a press conference where Moore identifies himself to ask a question and Dubya responds genially: "Behave yourself, will you? Go find real work!"
Moore has gotten criticism as well as kudos for his cheap shots. Imposing the heads of George W. and his aides and abettors on the "Bonanza" cowboys against a backdrop of Afghanistan and the theme song from "The Magnificent Seven" is overkill that detracts from a point already eloquently made. But his sense of the absurd serves him well in other regards, as in a segment when he approaches members of Congress to solicit their commitment to send their own children to fight in Iraq.
His relentless potshots at Bush-the-buffoon take on a certain tedium long before the film is finished. No so his attention to some of the "little people" captured by his camera, though: a Marine officer who says he would refuse to go if sent back to Iran; a patriotic mother bitterly disillusioned by the death of her soldier son.
Politics and the Picture Show
Four months before the presidential election, "Fahrenheit 9/11" is entertainment at its more political or politics at its most entertaining. The anti-war, anti-Bush, anti-military-industrial-complex citizenry is cheering in theaters near you. The conservative half of the nation, naturally, does not see it that way, and as is the right wing's wont, has bitterly denounced the film and its maker on patriotic and moral grounds.
Given the infinite capacity of the Internet and the tendency of the media to report on the other media, "Fahrenheit 9/11" may have generated (and is continuing to generate) more commentary than any other movie in American history. If you're of a mind to read any of it right, left or purportedly in between, just type "Michael Moore Fahrenheit" into your favorite search engine and make your selections at will. (From the horse's mouth, there's the surprisingly low key michaelmoore.com.)
What makes "Fahrenheit 9/11" so fascinating is that so many people have come out clamoring to see it. In cities where the art film houses nailed it down first, the big-chain megaplexes had apoplexy. Content be damned, this was a movie millions have been willing to spend multi-millions of dollars to see. Many of them bona fide members of the choir to which Moore is preaching, but certainly some out to confirm their negative biases as well. And some, perhaps, even coming away newly convinced, one way or another.
As reviewer David Loftus put it: "to have the country buzzing about truth or satire, accuracy or lies, war or regime change (overseas or at home) instead of the latest special effects extravaganza, leather-clad fantasy figure, wizard-in-training or J. Lo and Marc Anthony is a welcome change from summers past."
The indie coalition that opted in May to distribute the movie after Walt Disney Co. ordered its subsidiary Miramax Films to drop the political hot potato is laughing all the way to the bank. Oh, yeah and "Fahrenheit 9/11" walked away at this year's Cannes Film Festival with the Palme d'Or, the grand prize.
One thing a lot of reviewers seem to have missed probably because it was before their time is Moore's tribute in his choice of title to a 1966 film based on a 1960 book by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. "Fahrenheit 451," the title of both the film (directed by François Truffaut and starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie) and the book, is about a society in which reading is a criminal offense because authorities consider that people who read and think for themselves are a threat to the state.
In that society, newspapers contain only pictures; people get both information and entertainment from large video screens that broadcast continually to "the family." Firefighters are charged with burning any printed matter they find. The si
gnificance of the title is that 451 degrees F. is said to be the temperature at which book paper ignites.
The book came out while the Cold War was still hot and before Vietnam was much more than a blip on America's political screen. Maybe it's time for a reprint and a re-release.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" runs 1:55 and is rated R for violence and language.
It is playing at Diamond Cinemas.
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