Fahrenheit 9/11 (15)

Truth and lies (and sticky innuendo)
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'Thank you Florida!" cries the elected President of the United States in the opening shots of Fahrenheit 9/11. Al Gore is being lapped by waves of joy and cheer and relief. "Oh, thank you Florida!" he yells again as he punches the air. Michael Moore asks, "Was it all a dream? Did the last four years really happen?" In just 30 seconds, he has captured perfectly the mood of many Americans and most of the world.

Then we are back in reality. Moore shows those years as they happen in the memory of any liberal: the events of Bush Time seem to blur into one another as in a stress dream, a full-bladder nightmare. One moment Bush's first cousin at Fox News is declaring that Dubya has won Florida after all. Then, suddenly, we're at the Bush inauguration, an event so enraging that the Presidential motorcade has to screech down Pennsylvania Avenue to avoid treefuls of rotten fruit. Eight months of the President-Select sliding down the opinion polls and failing to pass his set-piece legislation flicker by in a moment - and then two planes shark out of the New York sky.

It is in these opening minutes that Moore is at his best: clear, fact-based, and understated. He does not show us the footage of 11 September. Against a black screen, we hear only smashing and burning and weeping. We are forced to reimagine those images; he rescues that terrible footage from encroaching banality.

For seven minutes after being told "America is under attack," Bush sits in a Florida classroom and reads "My Pet Goat" to infants. As this footage of the President stumbles on, the Bushie propaganda about a heroic Commander-in-Chief collapses into dust as surely as the Twin Towers half a continent away.

Moore tries to imagine what Bush was thinking in those minutes, shorn of a smooth corporate script. The film-maker's attention turns to the Bush family's links with the Saudi royal family who have controlled Saudi Arabia, with US support, for more than 50 years.

Many of Moore's critics think the film breaks down at this point. I do not. The sweltering relationship between the House of Bush and the House of Saud is a topic that has been ignored by the mainstream US press for too long; American citizens should know about it.

The Bush family and its related businesses has raked in $1.4bn from the Saudis over the past three decades, as documented by US journalist Craig Unger. It is legitimate to ask - as Moore does - whose interest the Bushes put first: the countrymen who elect them (or not, as in 2000) or the billionaire torturers who pick up the family tab.

Fahrenheit 9/11 gives one example where the Bushes clearly appear to have put Saudi business interests first. In the immediate aftermath of the attack on New York, all domestic flights were grounded. Yet 22 members of the Bin Laden family and other senior Saudis were explicitly authorised by the White House to flee the country while Ground Zero burned. A former FBI investigator explains to Moore that any decent detectives would have wanted to talk with the Bin Ladens, if only to establish that they were no longer in contact with Osama. "Can you imagine," Moore asks, "if Bill Clinton had arranged flights out of the country for the McVeigh family immediately after the Oklahoma bombing?"

All important stuff; but then the film melts into a strange political gloop, where significant facts are stickily mixed with half-arguments, innuendos and outright dishonesties. Moore says that the Carlyle Group - with Poppy Bush and leading Saudis on its board - "benefited directly from 9/11". What is he hinting? Then he whizzes on to claim that the US only bombed Afghanistan because it wants to build an oil-gas pipeline through the country. Is that old canard still in circulation? The pipeline plans were dropped in 1998 and have not been revived; don't you think al-Qa'ida camps across Afghanistan are a more likely explanation? Then, just as fast, we're onto Bush's record of dodging military service and gripes about airport security - and I suddenly wanted to give the movie a heavy dose of Ritalin. After a careful opening Moore seems to be hurling as many allegations at the audience as he can, in the hope that a few will stick and the rest will add up to a general atmosphere of suspicion.

I was already disorientated and trying to figure out what Moore was trying to say when, with no attempt at coherence, Moore abruptly dedicates the last two thirds of the film to the invasion of Iraq. He does not try to draw any connections for the viewer with what went before. He does not seem to have noticed that the House of Saud vehemently opposed the Second Gulf War (and, indeed, loathes the Sharon-loving Bush approach to Israel). Doesn't he at least have to address that point? Wouldn't his (valuable) points about the Saudi-Bush nexus have more credibility if he did? But this would require a hint of subtlety. Instead Moore careers on. In a shameful moment, he depicts Iraq prior to the US invasion as a blissful idyll where small children fly kites and old women chuckle. If we are attacking the myriad lies of the Bush administration - as all decent people should - then we must be scrupulously honest ourselves.

And yet, and yet... There are scenes of the invasion of Iraq that will napalm the conscience of anybody (like me) who supports the invasion. US soldiers sing "Burn motherfucker, burn!" as they bomb Baghdad; soldiers jab at a dead Iraqi and laugh, "Ali Baba still has a hard-on!"; Moore cuts to Britney Spears, who declares - in the manner of a lackey in a totalitarian society - that "we should just support the President in everything he does... We should just trust him." Yet these scenes lose much of their potential impact because Moore presents them without moral candour. The images of burned or slain Iraqi children would be more honest if Moore also told us how many children were being murdered by Saddam too. But this isn't an intelligent movie with an intelligent analysis. It's fast-food politics, filled with the sugar and carb of cheap sensation and low on nutrition.

It's a shame. American liberals needed this film to energise them in the most important election year for decades, and most of the facts are on their side. They needed a movie that offered its huge audience more vitamins and less lard.