Fahrenheit 9/11 (15)

Turning up the heat
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The Independent Culture

Michael Moore, the gadfly on the rump of American capitalism, has made his most incendiary and entertaining film in Fahrenheit 9/11, an attack on the Bush administration, and with the American election four months away, it might also be his most timely. There is an emotional impact to the material that one imagines could sway undecided voters, should they still exist.

Michael Moore, the gadfly on the rump of American capitalism, has made his most incendiary and entertaining film in Fahrenheit 9/11, an attack on the Bush administration, and with the American election four months away, it might also be his most timely. There is an emotional impact to the material that one imagines could sway undecided voters, should they still exist.

"Impact", indeed, is what this film is all about; it times its jabs with the speed of a great prizefighter. Only when you stand back from the onslaught of smears and implications do you begin to wonder at its substance. How much of this stuff can bear close scrutiny?

What Moore has mastered as never before in his work is the art, or perhaps the artfulness, of editing. When he portrays the events of September 11, for instance, he uses a dark screen as backdrop to the sound of the planes exploding, and instead of showing the burning towers he trains his camera on the onlookers' faces, horror-stricken in their upward gaze. We don't see the terrible spectacle of those who jumped, but we are made to feel it. The rest of the film is an inquest, partly into the failures of the Bush government to anticipate the attacks, and partly into the fall-out of their eventual response, namely, the war in Iraq.

At its centre is an unreservedly ad hominem assault on George W Bush, a deadbeat who only became President by virtue of a rigged election.

That he is a hesitant, inarticulate, unreflective character is already well documented; what comes as a surprise (though maybe it shouldn't have done) is just how little the job interests him. Moore reminds us that for nearly half of his first eight months in office Bush was on holiday, hunting, farming, doing anything, it seems, other than address the imminent danger of a terrorist attack.

There is one priceless moment when he announces to camera, "We must stop the terror", then, turning away, says, "Now watch this" and drives a golfball up the fairway. It could be a scene from a screwball comedy, only this really is the President of the USA, at work and play. His paucity of initiative is starkly illustrated when, at a photo-op in a Florida schoolroom, he receives a whispered report of the second plane hitting the World Trade Centre: the camera simply watches him, distracted, blank-faced and evidently clueless as to what he ought to be doing.

But it's not merely that Bush was unprepared. The film's more serious indictment concerns the Bush family's personal and financial connections with Saudi Arabian plutocrats and oil barons, the men who once bailed out the young Dubya from his collapsed business ventures in order to gain access to Bush Sr, the then president.

Moore investigates Bush's time in the Texas Air National Guard, and finds that a certain name has been deleted from military records so as not to be associated with the President. This name turns out to be a Bush crony, James R Bath, who later became money manager to the Bin Ladens. So deep is the involvement in Saudi big business that, during the aftermath of 9/11 when all flights in the US were grounded, it is reported that more than a hundred Saudis were secretly flown out of the country, no questions asked; their number included 24 members of the Bin Laden family.

Hypocrisy and corruption seem to lurk in every quarter: the invasion of Afghanistan was underwritten by a secret deal with the Taliban to lay a natural gas pipeline through the country. Iraq is invaded supposedly because of WMD, but this too is a smokescreen for American business interests. Archive footage of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein highlights the quick turnover of financial opportunism.

Moore is very good at creating a stink, and unlike earlier efforts such as Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine, he doesn't feel the need to insert his own disruptive presence into the frame so much. Yet familiar faults persist: he's way too fond of cheap shots, he manipulates furiously, and his tone can get gratingly sanctimonious. One of the signature bits of fun in Fahrenheit 9/11 is to show Bush and cohorts composing themselves - primping the hair, adjusting a smile - just before the TV camera starts rolling, as if this were proof positive of their vanity. But it's nothing of the sort; it's a reflex anyone would indulge once the make-up has been applied.

Making a point about how the army recruits from the economically under-privileged, Moore goes buttonholing congressmen in Washington to ask if they'd consider enlisting their sons and daughters for military service. Again, this is low-rent provocation - I'd like to have seen a politician agree to this scheme on the understanding that Moore would urge one of his children to join up too.

The question of who is fighting America's war right now offers Moore his most significant rabble-rousing opportunity. Returning to his home town of Flint, Michigan, he interviews a patriotic matron named Lila Lipscomb whose son, Michael, is a sergeant serving overseas. Lila is proud of her family's military connection, and flies the stars and stripes outside her door. Then the awful news comes: Michael has been killed in Iraq, and Lila understandably succumbs to paroxysms of grief. Less predictably, she conceives a rage against the Bush administration for letting her son die, and makes a tearful, half-mad journey to the White House to lodge a personal protest.

Moore is on hand to catch this, yet one doesn't feel righteous indignation against the war so much as his ghoulish intrusion on a mother's agony; he wants us to think, "Look where Bush has got us to", but all that came to my mind was "Get the camera out of her face, you creep".

While it would be unwise to expect even-handedness from Michael Moore, a sense of tact shouldn't be beyond him. Fahrenheit 9/11 is compulsive entertainment, and its exposé of American self-interest is bracing. But George Bush isn't the only man here you're inclined to distrust.

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