In Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore created a haunting centerpiece, an eye in the storm over gun violence, out of silent, grainy surveillance footage from that ill-fated Colorado high school. There's a similar moment in Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore's gleeful evisceration of the Bush Administration, but it's not the one you might guess.
Moore recalls the September 2001 hijackings imaginatively, with an audio-only black screen followed by a measured montage of reaction shots, the faces of horrified onlookers, so that we never see the overly familiar crash images themselves. Already in the midst of sardonically recapping George W. Bush's first wet-noodle months in office, Moore cuts to videotape capturing Bush where he was at the time the towers were struck: a photo op at a Florida grade school. The video shows an aide whispering to Bush what's happened, and shows Bush ... doing nothing.
Minutes tick by. Bush looks uncomfortable, looks around the room as the teacher chatters on. Moore has just shown how Bush spent most of August on vacation; he speculates in voiceover whether Bush was now wondering, "Should I have gone to work more often?"
For all its raucous ridicule and provocative muckraking, for all its righteous indignation, this is among Fahrenheit 9/11's most memorable sequences, the fulcrum on which the combative documentary balances: the moment just before a dubiously installed president, derided as dumb, was transformed into an Olympian hero.
Fahrenheit is Moore's fast-paced, deliciously entertaining bid to cut Bush back to size, and then some. Its question: What really motivated White House behavior after 9/11?
If you've seen any of the lefty populist filmmaker's movie and TV work, or read any of his books (Stupid White Men), you'll know his answer isn't "sowing freedom everywhere."
Armed with sarcasm, campy music and clips from old TV shows, along with experts such as investigative journalist Craig Unger, Moore begins by probing the bungled Florida vote that let the Supreme Court put Bush in office. But he's especially interested in documenting the web of relationships between the Bush family, Saudi Arabia's ruling class, and massive oil- and weapons-related companies including Harken Energy and the Carlyle Group.
The implication: Maybe the $1.4 billion the Saudis have pumped into Bush-related ventures over three decades -- not to mention $800 billion-plus they've invested in the U.S. economy -- has something to do with why about 140 Saudi nationals, including family members of suspected 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, were allowed to leave the country no questions asked -- the only people permitted to fly in the days after the attacks. Or why Bush invaded Afghanistan, when most of the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. It's also interesting to know that the Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar, is so close to the Bush family that they've nicknamed him "Bandar Bush."
Moore's just getting started. A Bonanza-inspired parody of the Afghan invasion is followed by a pointed question: Why did American forces take two months to reach the area where bin Laden was reportedly hiding? And what might an oil-pipeline deal about which Afghanistan's Taliban rulers once visited Texas have to do with it all? Not to mention Bush's greatest misses, his lies about WMDs and the premature "mission accomplished" in Iraq among them.
Expanding on Bowling for Columbine's analysis of America's culture of fear, Moore also digs into the war on terror. Why the eagerness to sow never-ending, color-coded fear by Attorney General (and, as we see, amateur crooner) John Ashcroft, who had previously demanded that the FBI stop annoying him with all this terrorism talk? And how serious can the White House be about Securing the Homeland when, thanks to budget cuts, a lone, part-time state trooper is responsible for protecting a long stretch of the Oregon coastline?
Fahrenheit will be criticized for a lack of balance, and Moore probably should have let Halliburton or Carlyle tell its side of the story. Still, not having to hear some contractor tell us why it was the only one who could have done the job saves Moore from having to inform us that many American contractors got jobs for which they personally wrote the specs. And if anything, he's too easy on Dick Cheney's ties to Halliburton, pointing out that the veep is ex-CEO but not that he still holds voluminous stock options and receives a deferred salary from the megacorp.
Besides, Moore's attacks have more historical context than does any propaganda from the White House (or Fox, or NBC for that matter). Moreover, Fahrenheit 9/11 isn't some look at the finer points of federal tax code: We needn't be reminded that Saddam is a bad man, or that some U.S. soldiers might get on just swell with the citizens of the country they're occupying.
Instead, Moore shows us things we rarely get to see: White-haired senior-center habitués scowling over Halliburton's no-bid contracts; grieving parents of dead U.S. soldiers; mutilated G.I.'s; a wounded G.I. vowing to turn Democratic activist. Theirs are voices it's important to hear. Then there's the aspiring private security contractor who says of Iraq, "It's gonna be a good situation ... a dangerous situation. Good for business."