Fahrenheit 9/11 (documentary)

“Fahrenheit 9/11,” the new anti-Bush documentary by Michael Moore, is the second film this year whose reviews can be generally predicted based on the reviewers’ personal beliefs.

With “The Passion of the Christ,” critics who count themselves as staunch Christians reviewed it positively, while those either less religious or non-Christian went the other way. (We are speaking of general trends here; I realize there are exceptions.) I see the spectrum being similarly laid out for “Fahrenheit 9/11”: Politically conservative viewers ignore its savvy filmmaking techniques and find it unfair and wretched, while liberals disregard its artistic and factual flaws and find it a masterpiece of film journalism.

If you have cheated by glancing at the grade I’ve given the film, you may surmise, accurately, that I am somewhat in the middle. I am no great fan of George W. Bush as a man or as a president, but I agree with many of his political views. (Note that the war in Iraq does not fall into the category of “political views.”) I think “Fahrenheit 9/11” is a good film — a bit meandering and unfocused at times, and probably so intent on discrediting its victim that it occasionally loses its train of thought, but it makes compelling arguments, and — more importantly if we are judging it as a film — it makes them well. He may not know how to dress when he goes out in public, and he’s an infuriating jackass a lot of the time, but Michael Moore certainly knows how to entertain.

Moore’s thesis is that Bush is a bad president and should not be re-elected. He starts his crusade with a recap of the farce that was the 2000 presidential election, complete with hillbilly banjo music for accompaniment, and insists Bush stole the election. He observes that people pelted Bush’s limousine with eggs while he was driven to the inauguration, says his first eight months in office were marked by failures and frequent vacations, and so on.

Then came Sept. 11 and its aftermath, and Bush used it to his advantage, according to Moore. The Bush family’s close financial ties with the Saudis led to several members of the bin Laden family being allowed to leave the country a few days after Sept. 11. The recent 9/11 commission found that there were ultimately no improprieties in this, but that fact doesn’t support Moore’s position, so it is omitted.

You must understand up front that Moore is not even pretending to show all sides here: This documentary (and yes, documentaries can be overtly biased; they are not news programs) is based on Moore’s personal opinions, which presumably come from the facts available to him. With “Bowling for Columbine,” the issue seemed to be that he got some facts wrong. Here, the facts he includes are generally correct; it’s the facts he omits that will cause an uproar. He makes the issue of Bush’s competency sound far more one-sided than it is — but of course Bush supporters are free to make a film of their own if they care to.

Moore says the Bush administration used the random post-9/11 “terror alerts” to keep America afraid, so that we’d be in a “let’s fight terrorism” mood when he invaded Iraq. And why did he invade Iraq? Personal grudge against Saddam Hussein, of course. He’d previously said, in regards to Osama bin Laden and the U.S.’s inability to find him, “Terrorism is bigger than one person…. I don’t know where he is. I don’t spend that much time on it.” But if terrorism is bigger than one person, why go to all this trouble to catch Saddam — a man who had little or no direct connection to 9/11 anyway? That’s what Moore wants to know, and I’m curious, too.

Some of Moore’s tactics are less successful, as when he observes that only one of 535 members of Congress has a son or daughter in active military duty in Iraq, and therefore harasses congressmen on the street, asking if they’ll encourage their children to enlist. This is buffoonish and embarrassing; it’s Moore being a provocateur just for the sake of it.

But he redeems himself with Lila Lipscomb, a resident of Moore’s hometown of Flint, Mich., whose son was killed in Iraq. Her story is moving, and Moore mostly stays out of the way as she expresses her grief. It is emotionally manipulative, of course — all wars, just and unjust, have casualties — but it’s effective and stirring.

One of Moore’s centerpieces is Bush’s reaction upon being told the Twin Towers had been attacked: He stayed in the elementary school classroom he was visiting and continued to read with the children for another seven minutes. Moore shows several clips of the president with the kids, the clock ticking as he does nothing. I don’t find this nearly as appalling as Moore does. Bush is clearly thinking, preoccupied with the message he has just received. What good would it have done to cancel the visit with the kids and rush out of the room? It was seven minutes, not a day, not even an hour. No matter who the president is, and no matter what he does, someone will be there to serve as armchair quarterback, shouting how it OUGHT to be done.

Moore points out the contradictory messages sent about terrorism: Harmless old men are harassed by the FBI for making anti-war statements, while airline passengers are still allowed to carry matches and lighters onboard in the wake of the Richard Reid attempted shoe-bombing. But we all know that if matches and lighters had been banned, Moore would be complaining about the over-reaching, invasive anti-terrorism measures being taken.

So it’s an obnoxious film, to be sure, but it’s also slick and engrossing. Moore says any fence-sitters in the audience will leave having moved to the anti-Bush side, and that might be true; Moore is certainly persuasive. But regardless of how audiences vote in November, they will have this sharp, flawed, powerful film sticking in their memories.

(Note: The film was rated R by the MPAA, a decision Moore protested to no avail. Does it deserve the rating? By the MPAA’s usual twisted logic, yes. Objectively, no. Any teenager politically minded enough to want to see it should probably be encouraged to do so. It has four uses of the F-word, twice as someone quotes a song lyric, and then twice more as the actual song is played. There are also a few glimpses of some rather graphic war-related images: a burned corpse is stomped on, another one is shown close up, from a distance we see a public beheading, and so on. The four F-words make it pretty much an automatic R for the MPAA; two is usually the max for PG-13, though sometimes you’ll get three. The violence shown is not beyond what you might see on the news, though there would probably be a warning before they showed the footage.)

B (2 hrs., 2 min.; R, four F-words, some gruesome war images.)