Moore Didn't Start the Fire

Why Fahrenheit 9/11 fails to ignite


The one time I met Michael Moore, he told me a wildly entertaining story about how, right after all the pointy-heads at Mother Jones fired him because he was portly and from the Midwest, he grabbed a bunch of union cameramen and charged in on Morton Kondracke and asked him to please recite the Patriot Act, seeing as how he'd voted for it and all.

Kondracke, as Moore tells it, sheepishly admitted he didn't remember a thing about the Act, then turned aggressive. He first ordered Moore angrily out of his Cape Cod office, then shot at the documentarian, barely missing him. It seemed like his whole tale didn't hold together in some way I couldn't pin down while he recited it, but he had me laughing hysterically—especially with his very vivid use of Flint, Michigan street colloquialisms to describe how Kondracke's feckless shot parted his hair. (Sorry, I've forgotten the precise colloquialism.)

Don't bother fact-checking his ass, or mine. I never met Michael Moore, and that story is a baroque fantasy formed from my half-memories of all the similar stories of Moore whoppers that always seem to come up when writing about him.

My mind drifted to such fantasies while watching his new hit film because Fahrenheit 9/11 itself is—and this was a genuine surprise to me—so disappointingly dull. It's only the firestorm of discourse surrounding it that has created enough ambient heat to warm this tedious farrago and make it seem palatable. As is blindingly obvious from all the fooferaw surrounding the movie, Fahrenheit 9/11 works as a chemical test whereby your preconceptions can be determined by observing what color you turn upon exposure to it. Those opposed to its thesis of course find it painfully propagandistic and based on some verifiable untruths; those sympathetic manage to smile on it indulgently even while seeing its flaws.

That said, I'll lay out the prejudices I brought into this movie, a movie I sincerely regret having found a failure. Obviously, I was never a big Moore fan. But I was prepared to view this film with charity, and to hope it would succeed in its goals, because I am sympathetic to its thesis. I agree that George Bush is a terrible president and that the war in Iraq should not have been fought. (I shamefully acknowledge that I am the only pundit whose dispassionate viewing was in any way warped by anything as petty as my predispositions, and I hope confessing to it here can in some small way atone for that sin.)

This affected, for one example, my comparative reactions to the bits of Moore's trademark meant-to-be-funny "gotcha" bits in this movie vs. ones in Bowling for Columbine. In Columbine, Moore attacks Dick Clark with cameras for the sin of having financial interests in restaurants that gave people jobs that didn't instantly solve all their family problems. That I found not only unentertaining as dark cinema comedy, but stupid, because I couldn't begin to see Moore's point—to do so requires a general animus toward capitalism that I don't have.

But I was rooting for two similar examples from Moore in Fahrenheit: reciting the Patriot Act from an ice cream truck circling Washington D.C. streets, and encouraging congressmen to get their children to enlist in the armed forces. That's because I both see, and agree, with the points behind them: that congressmen should understand the laws they impose on us, and that they should seriously consider the personal, human costs of the wars they allow presidents to wage. Still, even I found those scenes in Fahrenheit falling flat and barely eliciting a chuckle—mostly because there was nothing particularly comic or unexpected about the reactions of the people at whom Moore tried to toss his pranksterish monkeywrench. (The ice cream bit is funnier to read about than watch—even Moore seems to realize this, letting the scene end abruptly.)

The movie, as everyone in the world has already pointed out, has many journalistic problems. Beyond any actual misstatements of fact, these problems are inherent in the necessary thinness of a two-hour movie, which in verbal terms will be at best the equivalent of a mid-length magazine feature. This film, though, is trying to make a case that demands a book to detail and explain in full.

For example, it is certainly interesting that James Bath, who was in the Texas Air National Guard with Bush in the early '70s, later became a financial advisor to the Bin Laden family and donated money to some of Bush's early business ventures. Interesting, but what of it? We really need to dig a little deeper to learn anything useful from that factoid—or to learn if there's anything useful to be learned from it. The mere accumulation of "links" without any deeper understanding of what those links mean is not only unilluminating, it's not even very good propaganda: There are dozens of reasons to be appalled that the Bush family, or the U.S. government, is cozy and kind and friendly with the Saudis. But except for the fact that Osama and 15 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals, this movie doesn't even hint at any of them. (Indeed, Moore evinces a particularly old-fashioned, Flint, Michigan style hard-hat leftism here, daring the doyens of diversity to attack. Some key bits in Fahrenheit ride on representations of foreigners, whether Saudi or Palauan, as sinister and/or risible merely because they look and dress funny to Middle American eyes.)

Like so many human conflicts—especially ones over group identity and tribal values, which is what the liberal v. conservative divide within the two-party context mostly is—arguments both within this movie and between it and its detractors swirl not so much around verifiable specific facts but around overarching narratives and assumptions about motives. What was Bush thinking as he was told about the Twin Tower attacks while entertaining a room full of kids? What were the real motives behind attacking Iraq? (Little noted regarding this fiercely anti-Bush foreign policy film is the fact that the words "neocon" and "Israel" are not, in my memory, uttered once, and Moore is nowhere gonzo enough to engage in any specific conspiracy theorizing, as opposed to weirdly suggestive "links.") Are the financial links between the Bush family and Saudi interests, between the Carlyle Group and weapons manufacturers, between oil companies, pipeline schemes, and the war in Afghanistan, actually dispositive about the decisions the U.S. government has made, before and after 9/11?

Well, I guess it's possible, but this movie comes nowhere close to proving it, or even shedding light down the paths one would have to walk to begin trying to prove it. I'd like to be able to pay the movie the compliment of saying that even by bringing such issues to the table, Moore has done a public service—a little public choice analysis when applied to government actions, whether domestic or foreign, is always welcome and should never be dismissed out of hand as "conspiracy mongering."

But Moore's style and tone are never those that invite further investigation; they are those of the cop at a tough collar. He has caught Bush here, and there, and everywhere, Moore says; and the only question to be asked is, do we just vote him out or string him up? But if you asked the hard question: What have we caught him doing, this movie never provides a very clear answer. Being indecisive, and being rash; helping impose a police state, but not giving a lonely Oregon cop the homeland security resources he needs; starting a war in Afghanistan, and not doing it fast enough and hard enough; being in thrall to the Saudis, while simultaneously waging a war in Iraq that the Saudis decidedly did not want. (To be fair, or maybe unfair, Moore doesn't tell us that last part.)

By the time the chronological walk through Bush's presidency gets us to Iraq, this becomes a movie not so much about Bush and why he is a bad president as about war and what it can do. Cavils about "balance" and "fairness" from war supporters regarding this movie are almost all bitter jokes—I'll take seriously complaints that this movie has too many bloody corpses, smiling pre-invasion Iraqis, and weeping mothers only from those whose pro-war discourse grapples seriously with the fact that there were/are any of those.

Works of art or journalism that are dedicatedly and fairly representative of the dizzyingly broad and complicated skein of reality are to be applauded and treasured. But they aren't the only kind that deserve to exist in discourse over public policy. Boldly staking out ground is also useful. Moore's movie sells itself as two-fisted goal-oriented agitprop, so it is only fair to judge it as such. (And even as such, it fails.) But it does deliver some truths about war that too much standard discourse elides: That it makes young men enthusiastic murderers—and then can make them disillusioned, cold, empty, and haunted. That what we did in Iraq—whatever else it did—destroyed the lives, hopes, homes, and loves of many, many ordinary people who used to walk down the streets of Baghdad smiling, laughing, and playing; that it left and continues to leave many mothers of both Iraqis and American soldiers bent over in grief and crying out to God for understanding that will never come.

Whatever Moore's other failures of journalism and art, that is both a specific factual truth and a deep spiritual truth about war that it is always appropriate to bring to the table, and one that any defender of this war, or any, should neither fear addressing, nor scoff at or belittle when it is brought to the fore.