Burning down the House: Making Sense of Fahrenheit 9/11

Friday 26 November 2004, by Hein MARAIS

Something odd is afoot when a movie can split families, set grown men baying like panicked beasts and get country/folk singer Linda Ronstadt thrown out of Las Vegas. Fahrenheit 9/11 is such a film.

No matter that it operates with the subtlety of a blunderbuss and the grace of a truck, F 9/11 has moved millions to tears and fury. Deservedly, it’s become one of the biggest media and political events of the year.

This isn’t the only documentary about the US & the Iraq War, nor is it in formal terms the best. Jehane Noujaim’s Control Room, Esteban Uyarra’s War Feels Like War and Robert Greenwald’s Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War no doubt deserve as wide an audience. They’re stuck in the remote loops of film festivals, internet distribution and off-peak broadcasts on public TV. Not so F 9/11.

Pitched as an expose on George W Bush and the fruits-sweet to a few, bitter to most-of his reign, the film has transformed director Michael Moore from gadfly to full-throated media sensation. Within eight weeks of losing its distributor (Disney), F 9/11 became the No. 1 movie in the USA. It beat the opening weekend of Return of the Jedi and broke Rocky III’s record for the biggest box office for a movie opening in fewer than 1 000 theatres. It is now biggest-grossing documentary ever. And its brash, pungent manner has set millions of Americans jabbering, bickering and thinking, like David Byrne once sang, “This ain’t my house/ How did I get here?”.

The White House has affected a stately “no-comment” pose from early on, grumbling that it “didn’t do movie reviews”-even if Bush spokesperson Dan Bartlett had already decided the film was “outrageously false” even before he’d seen it. But the film has stung, provoking a gruff uproar from the Right. Move America Forward has waged a relentless campaign against it, while Citizens United even tried to get the film blocked by claiming it violated the US Federal Election Campaign Act (it failed). Countless media diatribes have been unleashed, one hack even claiming the film was so “unpatriotic” it could be screened in Al Queda training camps.

F 9/11 has attracted a fair share of censure from the Left, too, much of it smug, dull and didactic. It’s an almost cannibalistic streak, this tendency of some on the Left to attack fellow-travelers who manage to gate-crash the mainstream, piss on the plants and stay for drinks, as MM has done. But several of the critiques have posed important questions, not least about some of the film’s core assumptions and the strength of its analysis.

The early sections-focusing on the Bush’s ascent to power, the attacks of September 11 and the Afghanistan war-move at a brisk pace, the air swirling with fact and innuendo. Bits stick in the mind: Bush’s absent days in the National Guard and the friends he made there; the snug Saudi connections (Saudi companies have paid more than $1.4bn to Bush family interests) and the fact that Saudi scions own 6-7% of the US economy; neglected CIA briefings warning of possible attacks; Bush’s indolent work-style (he spent 42% of his first 8 months “in office” on vacation); pipelines snaking through Afghanistan; chartered flights shipping Saudi nationals out of the US when air traffic was grounded. And that’s just a foretaste.

MM crams so much information into the first act that it overloads into a blur. The info scuttling by is bracing, but how it all fits together stays somewhat mysterious. Something Don Delillo wrote in Underworld comes to mind: “He sensed the connections being made around him, all the objects and shapes, silhouettes and levels of knowledge - not knowledge exactly but insidious intent. But not that either - some deeper meaning that existed solely to keep him from knowing what it was.” Now, MM might be a funny guy, but he’s no post-modernist. So he does try to assemble it all into larger, singular truths. This is the film’s biggest conceit: that it all hangs together as an elucidation of reality, that it assumes analytical coherence. But it doesn’t. Joining his myriad of dots, MM ends up doodling us a fuzzy picture.

It’s a picture that packs a punch, though. At the level of sentiment and mood, F 9/11 more than hangs together-it acquires a crushing weight. Which is a bit uncanny, because in formal terms F 9/11 never gets within shouting distance of the sophistication we associate with top-class documentary filmmaking. There’s none of the moral complexity of Marcel Ophuls’s Hotel Terminus, the impassioned flair of Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, or the structural precision of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. MM is not an artist.

It’s been suggested that F 9/11 is a triumph of form over content-but that’s being generous. In MM’s film, mood and emotion trump both form and content. Its flourishes of detail conspire to build fervour and indignation. It’s an indelicate film-brash, wide-hipped and blustering. Like Moore. That’s why people throw shoes at the screen, weep aloud, can’t lift themselves from their seats when the credits roll. Viewed from whatever side of the fence, F 9/11 denies audiences the luxury of indifference.

The film is riddled with mesmerizing moments, like the sequences showing African-American congress-people trying, and failing, to coax even a single senator to agree to a debate on the anointment of Bush as US president; Paul Wolfowitz trying (and also failing) to subdue his wayward cowlick; the raid on an Iraqi house on Christmas eve; Lila Lipscomb, perched on the family couch, summoning the courage to read her dead son’s last letter, first word to last, into the camera. Watching Bush cock his head, bird-like, and tic through his facial expressions, trying to separate gravitas from befuddlement, that thousand-yard stare of his never leaving his eyes, is priceless. Seeing him motionless, bamboozled, like a deer trapped in the headlights of history, for 7 long minutes after being informed that the World Trade Towers had been hit, is terrifying. In such moments, MM interrupts the dramaturgies of power, and ridicules its indispensable pretences of serene, assured and far-sighted authority.

Some of this is also deeply discomfiting, because throughout MM plucks at his audiences like a puppeteer. The manipulation is as brazen as the effects are astounding. At points, the audience seems to fuse into one communal body and lurch into emotional overdrive, gasping, chuckling in horror, choking back tears.
The tools, of course, are Hollywood’s and Madison Avenue’s-the unrivalled masters in the dark art of pulling our strings. MM has become one of the very few Americans capable of using the circuit boards of US infotainment to progressive ends. He’s managed to pierce the din of info-overload, figured out that it’s not about poise and precision, but about striking poses and tapping passions, about dressing facts in attitude and emotion. He understands-and respects-the resonance of the “every-man” in American culture and the populism that streams through it. And he can see that humility and anonymity count for little in the arena he’s in-so he’s branded himself.

That’s why F 9/11 in is malls across America, defiling just about every fable that buoys the Bush regime. MM gets away with it because his dissent never turns profane. Instead, it rests on foundational Americans myths and sensibilities. The society’s overwrought patriotism, its folklore of fairness and decency and justice, the notion that somehow the very concept of freedom is American-these are practically metaphysical features, planted deep in the very idea of the US, and MM doesn’t mess with them. His last 3 films have shared such conceits; all have argued that the decrepit realities of today are aberrations, detours of history, dark shadows cast on the pure of heart. This makes watching F 9/11 odd and unsettling for those of us who contest such mythology. Much as the film provides the rest of us with vicarious thrills, it is intended for Americans, for a culture caught in a warp where fear=security, war=peace, ignorance=freedom.

Very little in this film will surprise or enlighten someone in SA or Brazil or Sweden who follows the news. But it stuns US audiences. If the American fan mail is anything to go by, MM has thrown a light switch in a very dim room. What he illuminates are not so much dirty, buried secrets as the ignorance that envelops the most media-drenched society on earth. And it reminds just how securely imbedded US journalism and intelligentsia are with Power, and how tight the noose of permissible thought has been drawn. So it’s no surprise that US viewers’ letters gush in revelatory tones, like a persecuted sect venturing from hiding, summoned by a prophet’s song (you can read some of the letters at http://www.michaelmoore.com/words/latestnews/breakingnews/index.php?id=55 ). They praise MM for revealing the “truth”, speak of family members becoming converted to vote against Bush, confess in wonderment that they never knew there were others in their town who shared their revulsion. F 9/11 is therefore also a barometer of how sidelined and demoralized progressives have become in the US, of their thirst for validation and cameraderie after more than 2 decades of retreat and mire. Somehow, a film that fills screens with the ogres of the Bush regime in stomach-churning close-ups, and that dwells on their venality, fanaticism and casual malice seems to be lifting the gloom.

MM has been attacked for conflating current horrors with the Bush regime and for implying that, post-Bush, the world will be hoisted back onto its tracks. There’s no doubt he-like the vast majority of the world’s people-wants Bush out, and F 9/11 is his contribution to that bid. But whether MM appreciates the bloody continuities that have marked the past century of American power is unclear. Certainly, F 9/11 displays no such enveloping grasp of history; it directs a beam of American idealism onto a sepulchral era, but it doesn’t reveal the rhythms and patterns of history. Instead it settles on details and intricacies, and gathers them into sentiments that clash with dominant wisdoms while still underwriting some of the basic myths of American nationhood. “Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious,” George Orwell once proposed. MM agrees.

So the central themes in F 9/11 are populist, almost biblical in their jolting simplicity. They argue that the poor pay - with their dreams, their lives, their rights - to keep the wealthy stinking rich. To American audiences, the film says nothing less than this: Hypocrites, liars and thieves, your leaders are. They deceive and betray you, they bathe in your blood and the blood of others. They thrive because you fear. The war on terror cannot be separated from the war on working people like you.

This isn’t Marx, but for audiences breathing in the gaseous ideology of the US it’s damn-near seditious.

MM has made a film about ideals and passions, their corruption and their possible reclamation, a film that works like a great pop song by finding and flailing at chords that fill your head with a tune-an angry tune that makes your eyes water, your palms sweat, that makes you want to holler and go change the world.

When was the last time you could say that about a movie?

By Hein Marais ©

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