Review: Farenheit 9/11

Those desperate to see George Bush defeated in the November elections must have hoped that Farenheit 9/11 would put a dent in his seemingly impervious polling numbers. In this polarized political environment, where Democrats and Republicans turn their backs on each other to whoop up their respective choirs, it would take a documentary nearly free of bias and charged rhetoric to kick-start any true dialogue.
Michael Moore is not that type of documentarian, nor does he profess to be. Moore can't resist any opportunity to ridicule his prey, to get in the cheap shot or the easy jab, or to project himself into the picture to push buttons when he should be behind the camera. And God bless him, all democracies need their populist rabblerousers, though in this year of all years I wish he could have resisted the urge. It would have strengthened the persuasiveness of his message, though how could Moore resist a target like Bush? Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine was senile and evoked a reflexive pity; Bush is dangerously smug in his convictions for someone who most believe to have the intellect of your typical fraternity president.
The first two-thirds of the movie are edited for maximum humor: Bush on vacation, Bush golfing, Bush clowning around. Moore shows Republican leaders being primped for television interviews and speeches, including Paul Wolfowitz licking a comb before running it through his hair. Is that to imply Republicans are vain? It's a weak jab, especially as Democratic politicians must go through the same process.
Other bits are hilarious. I've seen the last clip of Bush several times ("There's an old saying in Tennessee - I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee - that says, fool me once, shame on - shame on you. Fool me - you can't get fooled again." ), yet it never fails to delight. Moore edits clips together in sequences that put Bush and his staff in as foolish a light as possible, and the accompanying music is a hammer onto itself. Moore has never used music to better effect.
Many in the packed opening-night crowd I saw the movie with were whooping and hollering at various Bush gaffes and verbal slips. I admit to feeling a cathartic glee at jeering Bush with a partisan audience, as if Moore were providing a channel to release nearly four years of pent-up frustration and indignation. It's the same feeling as when I'm derisively cheering the error of a Cardinal with 40,000 fellow Cubs fans at Wrigley.
Which is to say it's just more of the same, and that may not be enough. Bush has been the object of scorn and the butt of jokes for years now, and yet he still polls either neck and neck or ahead of Kerry. It's a challenge. We love our gadflies to sting hard, and with defiance, and nobody does that like Moore. It feels so liberating to skewer the White House. But in these times, Moore may only further polarize the country.
Moore also can't stay behind the lines and leave good enough alone. He narrates most of the first half of the movie, and he appears in many of the clips. He also pulls several more of his patented first person stunts, like renting an ice cream truck to drive around the hill reading the Patriot Act over a loudspeaker because many of the Congressmen had failed to read it. He accosts other Senators and House Representatives on the street to ask if they'll enlist their own children to serve in the military in Iraq. Not only are these stunts childish, they border on unseemly self-promotion. At times, Moore is like the boor who expresses your own opinion in such a vulgar manner that you're somewhat embarrassed to have him on your side.
It's a shame, because when Moore lets his material speak for itself, he's very effective. The footage of George Bush reading to schoolchildren for a good seven minutes after the two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center are shockingly bizarre. A montage of House Representatives, mostly minorities, refusing to concur with the Supreme Court's decision to hand the 2000 election to Bush, standing to protest only to be silenced by none other than Al Gore, the head of the Senate at the time as the exiting Vice President. It's a passage that both maddens and saddens. Footage from Iraq shows innocent Iraqis killed and maimed by the war, very little of which was broadcast by the U.S. press, another group Moore turns a spotlight on for giving Bush and his cronies a free pass on too many issues. Not much of the material will be new to those who have listened to the liberal chorus these past three years, but stitched together one after the other, it's an eye-opening refresher as to how not just liberals but much of the world views our current government.
And about two-thirds of the way through the movie, a hero emerges. Lila Lipscomb gives the movie a moral gravity and heart that anyone, Republican or Democrat, can feel. Her grief over losing her son in the war in Iraq and her subsequent reversal in sentiment towards the war convey, in just a few short scenes, what those on the fence about Bush need to know. Her outrage emanates off the screen with an energy that silenced the audience in the theater.
There's meat in this movie, if you are willing to search for it beneath the excess of sauces and garnishes and sides. It's a movie that I hope has long legs and that I wish had more poise.
[Footnote: Farenheit 9/11 sold out all over Seattle, and I've never seen that for a documentary. It will clearly surpass Bowling for Columbine as top-grossing documentary of all-time, and it's per-theater averages this weekend will be through the roof. It's the type of energy I usually only feel with opening night crowds for action blockbusters like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. It's one movie whose coffers I have no problem contributing to.]