It is some 14 months since Michael Moore’s controversial feature film “Fahrenheit 9/11” arrived in the UK to a mixed reaction from people from all across the political spectrum. While sympathetic commentators lauded Moore’s attempts to awaken a nation sleepwalking into a disastrous war on Iraq, mainstream criticisms were characterised by an appalling crassness, with Moore dismissed as a hypocrite for, among other things, being overweight, being himself an American, making money from his work, and owning a home. Few on either side deigned fit to indulge in a critical appraisal of Moore’s work and its ultimate value to those wishing to oust the Bush/Cheney regime in Washington.
Moore’s reputation as a serious documentary film-maker is not in question – many friends of mine who hated “Fahrenheit 9/11” are quick to add that the critically-acclaimed “Bowling for Columbine” was a superb film. And there are parts of “Fahrenheit” which are lucid, intelligent and informative – the study of military recruiting officers in poor districts draws attention to the sort of conscription-by-economic-duress which gives the US Army such endless human resources. However, the film’s informative benefits are overshadowed by an obtuse style which undermines the credibility of the argument. It is certainly in everyone’s interests that a hitherto insular and under informed US mainstream better understands the nature of its own government, it does not follow that incoherent montages, semi-ironic scary narration and personalised ridicule constitute an appropriate medium for such a dialogue.
There are moments of distinct poor taste in the film, such as when Moore, with the use of a series of short cartoon clips, pours scorn on the other nations in Bush’s coalition, apparently for their lack of international standing (Britain is explicably left out of the list). In this connection there is an issue as to whether the offer of substantial bribes to the heads of some questionable, otherwise uninterested regimes in exchange the lives of their young men as a fig leaf for American credibility constitutes a sort of trade in human flesh, but this was not considered. The use of interviews with recently-bereaved families of American soldiers is arguably morally questionable, and is certainly in these circumstances critically indefensible, as loss of American life is of only limited relevance to the intellectual argument about the merits of this war. And all the while there are the unnecessary close-ups of the President, and a personality-centric style that recalls the worst excesses of the mainstream media themselves.
There are certain mitigating circumstances. Firstly, British viewers critical of the lack of depth in the film’s political content ought to consider that the director will have been aiming to reach particularly that section of American mainstream society that is most politically uninformed, and awaken them to certain fundamental realities. The sketchy summary of the relationship between the Bush family and the House of Saud will have been at the very least an eye-opener of sorts, and may have helped inspire a debate among a certain demographic who may otherwise have been disinclined to research the matter further. Secondly, for many years now Americans have been used to being talked to a certain way. Their political programmes on television and radio are more scripted and deferential than in the UK, and their narrative style in everything from cinema to journalism has as its staple the stylistic leanings of the children’s storyteller, most easily associated with television commercials. And perhaps it is against this context that Moore’s style must be considered – that in attempting to reach a mass audience, he has spoken to them in perhaps the only language they understand, for better or worse.
Moore ultimately put himself firmly in the Democratic camp in the run-up to the election, and it is perhaps its status as an unsolicited propaganda film for the Democrats, the dishonest face of American politics, that confounds “Fahrenheit”’s critical failure, and at any rate explains the tone of the narrative, which stops just short of being expressly partisan. In the 1990s we would read of American Democrats eulogising over their Christ, John F Kennedy, the Democrat who had first started bombing Vietnam; and they would weep over “Schindler’s List” while the Rwandan massacres happened on Clinton’s watch. The inexplicably-adored Clinton has probably overseen more Iraqi civilian deaths, via the brutal sanctions regime, than anything Bush is likely to achieve for some time yet. Nor does the film’s television-commercial style find justification in the cultural context of the United States – to the extent that the people of the US are disposed to look at political issues in a certain, oversimplified way, this is on account of exposure to a mainstream culture that tries to instil deference and lack of critical thought, and not on account of some in-built predisposition. To patronise them further, in the name of promoting higher ideals, will certainly not right the wrong.
That the battle for ideas was so comprehensively lost by the “liberal” camp is evidenced in Bush’s comfortable election victory of 2004. It is perhaps unduly harsh to attack Moore for not having the insight of a Chomsky or a Pilger. But when Moore chooses as his cover artwork for “Fahrenheit 9/11” a tongue-in-cheek doctored photograph of himself shaking hands with the President it makes one wonder why he bothered making the film at all (come to think of it, Moore’s face appears on the cover of every book he has had published). Your author had the pleasure of once working with an apparently very political young man who kept a calendar of “Bush-isms” – one semi-literate Presidential cock-up for each day of the year – on his office desk. It seems as though, with the world falling apart around them, a handful of such asinine individuals will be smirking away in perverse delight at their heroic facetiousness to the very last.