I watched Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 last night. Even before going I was sure that most of the criticism about it can be dismissed easily. People who rely on such people as Bill O’Reilly or, even worse, Ann Coulter shouldn’t really complain about “partisan propaganda”.
But there has been quite a lot of valid criticism and, unfortunately, the movie makes it relatively easy for almost anybody to do that - including intellectual embarrassments such as Iraq war cheerleader Christopher Hitchens who feels he can finally show off what he thinks is his stunning intellect again, after having been silenced by the utter failure of the adventure he was supporting.
The main problem with the movie is that Michael Moore couldn’t decide which documentary to make. Did he want to make a documentary about the Saudi connection of the Bush family? Or did he want to show what an intellectually challenged, callous, and lazy president Bush jr. is? Or does Michael Moore want to show how Republicans exploited 911 for their purposes while almost critically neglecting actual measures to increase the security of the country? Or is it about how the country, in a nationalistic binge, went to war with Iraq, a war based on deception at best and lies at wost? Or is the intent to show how today’s army consists mainly of poor, uneducated people who had no other choice but to enlist?
The movie contains all of this - and Moore (pardon the lame pun), and that is the main problem. Some aspects are discussed in depth. The Saudi-Bush connection is covered in a quite a bit of detail. That would have been a good documentary on its own. Isn’t it a big problem to have a president who has such a large vested interest in another country?
The last half of the movie shows how poor people are lured into the army. If Michael Moore had decided to focus the movie on that alone that would have been “great”. I’m using the quotes here because inherently, there’s nothing good and satisfying about seeing poor kids being drafted to fight wars. And I mean kids. Many of those soldiers shown could be my own children - if I had kids and if I had started early enough. Given I am only 36 I find that quite shocking. When you see those young kids talking about how they hook up their CDs to their tanks’ PA systems (Apocalypse Now anyone?) and when you then see Britney Spears talking about how she supports the president no matter what you realize something is very wrong.
But getting it all in one big chunk just doesn’t work even if you fit it into two hours. To make matters worse, Michael Moore fails to connect all the pieces properly. Things get incoherent and, even worse, contradictory. An example: He spends a lot of time showing the ties of the Bush family to Saudi Arabia, that happens to be a major oil exporter and one of the worst Islamic dictatorships in the Middle East. But then the movie indicates the Iraq war was about oil. How does that compute? How would the Saudis benefit from having their neighbour’s oil reserves opened up and prices - including Saudi profits - driven down? And how would the leadership of Saudi Arabia benefit from suddenly having a democracy next door (provided you’re willing to believe what Bush jr said, namely that he wants to bring democracy to the Middle East)? That just doesn’t compute.
And the movie’s omissions are also quite hard to stomach for me. I am fully aware of the fact that any documentary has to omit something. But when you talk about the Iraq war and how Bush jr “duped” people wouldn’t it be worth more than one second to show how Democrats were only too happy to vote for the war? That one second I’m referring to is a clip that shows Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt (the same Dick Gephardt who now supposedly is such a good running mate for Democratic hopeful John Kerry who, despite having been so happy about voting for the war, isn’t even mentioned!) supporting basically anything their president wants to do. Wouldn’t it be a good opportunity to show how Democrats bear responsibility, too? It simply doesn’t work to blame it all on the media.
And wouldn’t it be time to wonder whether there is a problem when, it seems, the only reason most Democrats think there’s something wrong with the Iraq war it’s just that too many US soldiers die? Is that it? As bad as dead soldiers are - the movie shows the suffering of one mother - the damage done by this invasion is much bigger than that. The standing of the US in the world and the US economy itself have suffered to an extent unimaginable only a few years back. Do the people, who after the movie hand out flyers for John Kerry, seriously believe you just have to replace Bush jr with that rich horse-faced Senator and all will be well again? Please!
Given the political climate, probably only the already converted will go to see it. One needn’t expect any Republicans to do that - which is quite a shame. Lots of those people who support the war in Iraq no matter what and who shout “Support the troops” almost mechanically would be quite shocked to see what their war really looks like. But they won’t watch the movie. Instead, the country will be more polarized than ever. People will shout at each other and then, on November 2, the candidate with the better hair will win.
A couple of final things that needs to mentioned, I think: These days, people are obsessed by facts - provided they agree with their view of the world - and some people will try to show how Michael Moore gets some facts wrong. I doubt they will be successful - again with the caveat that facts these days are what you believe in. And, lastly, some people will claim that Michael Moore’s movie is too propagandistic because of its editing and the way some of the footage is used. Does that matter? I don’t think it does. First, viewers of Faux News get that kind of stuff every single night as “the news” - along with ultra-right-wing commentators posing as “fair and balanced”. And second, there is enough reason to think that the kind of uncommitting, fuzzy, fluffy and eventually inconsequential reporting that you get on NPR sometimes has to be replaced with something a bit harsher.