I saw Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 on Sunday the 27th and this is my review. First, the theaters were more packed than I can ever remember in the 17 years that I have lived in San Francisco. All attempts by Moore's opponents to scuttle this film have failed. The box office gross reported so far indicates that this movie is doing well in all the theaters showing it.
I have had my problems with Moore's documentaries and television work in the past. This time he hired fact checkers from The New Yorker to vet the content and save him from the errors in fact that detract from some of his earlier works. He also quite wisely does not linger for long on camera, instead allowing those he interviews, people with relevant experience or expertise, do the talking instead. And he shows footage of the President and his inner circle speaking as well, often to very good effect. On the whole, Fahrenheit 9/11 succeeds despite Moore as much as because of him.
First the bad news
Michael Moore has a love of cheap shots and juvenile humor that makes him insufferable. He blew several great opportunities here. At one point instead of showing President Bush speaking a complete sentence, he robs the segment of context and information by "looping" a few frames to have Bush look and sound like a cartoon character. Not only did this not prove humorous but more clips of Bush making statements that have subsequently proven untrue would have done much more to educate the audience. Anyone can make almost anyone look ridiculous on camera with enough looping and editing. What does Moore prove?
The sequence on the invasion of Afghanistan in which "satire" takes the form of the opening credits of the old Western TV show "Bonanza" just wasted everyone's time. This bit of juvenile humor has already circulated on right-wing web sites as the principle example of Moore as the champion of the cheap shot. Jokes like these only give his detractors something to attack and focus on. And focus on his adolescent jokes they must, because the rest of the movie systematically deconstructs lie after lie, and hypocrisy after hypocrisy, and more.
The Good News
As much as I fume over Moore's poor taste and worse humor, he does an excellent job of nailing down the factual evidence that the viewer can use to judge whether or not Moore succeeds in proving that the President has plunged us into an unnecessary war without regard to consequences or loss of life. The President's attempts to characterize opposition to the war as a slap in the face of the soldiers smacks into the hard wall of reality: Bush has lowered combat pay, cut Veterans benefits, fought expansion of veterans' benefits and even mandatory minimum funding for veterans. At the same time that enlisted soldiers have seen pay cuts a truck driver for Halliburton in Iraq makes $10,000 a month. While the administration elevates the "threat level" now and then with only the most vague justifications, the entire coast of Oregon is patrolled by one State Trooper -- part time.
And my personal favorite: after the "shoe bomber" attempted to light an old-fashioned fuse for his device the Administration imposed restrictions on airline passengers from bringing matches or cigarette lighters on aircraft. But the rules only restrict how many, not forbidding them entirely. You can have two lighter and 4 books of matches, but no more. But would not restricting them entirely make more sense? Does anyone think that a bomber with 2 lighters is less dangerous than a one with 3 lighters?! Moore suggests that the tobacco industry may have had a word with the administration about how people who have just escaped from a long non-smoking flight will want to light up ASAP. I can think of no other explanation.
And there are a few "classic" Moore moments. For example, near the end of the documentary Moore approaches representatives and Senators on the steps of the capital and asks them to enlist their grown children in the army. Only one member of Congress has a son in Iraq. This contrasts with an earlier segment in which Marine recruiters approach young people at the mall in a poor neighborhood. The sight of a Congressman literally running away from Moore is one of the very last images you see.
The Gory Bits
Unfortunately, The R rating is well deserved. The movie does not flinch from showing the real effects of war. Images similar to what we saw during the Vietnam War and worse make this a difficult film to watch at times. I most dreaded the beheading -- a public execution in Saudi Arabia-- which I had read about before having seen the movie. But the execution is not as bad as I feared: it's in black & white, perhaps clandestinely filmed on grainy video, seen from a distance, and over quickly. Worse sights await you in other scenes: children killed or horribly wounded, a child's arm burned and/or ripped open to the bone and assorted other dead bodies. Do not plan to eat dinner afterwards.
Summary and recommendation
Fahrenheit 9/11 contains a large amount of verifiable factual information which Moore does an admirable job of weaving into a clear and focussed narrative. In spite of its flaws this is his best work ever.