The great, necessary Bush hunt

| June 30, 2004
His face said it all: George W. Bush at a classroom visit, after hearing about the 9/11 attacks.
His face said it all: George W. Bush at a classroom visit, after hearing about the 9/11 attacks.
- Fellowship Adventure Group, Lions Gate Films, IFC Films

Despite all the pompous commentary and the predictable outrage of the conservative crybabies, Michael Moore's controversial new documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, suggests much more beyond its avowed intention to rid the nation of George W. Bush. The writer-director certainly succeeds in showing the incompetence, corruption, and mendacity of the Bush administration.

            More important, though, he fully reveals the abject failure of the American news media to report accurately and objectively the truth of the Bush presidency. The picture, whatever its detractors may say, in fact demonstrates the absolute necessity of a Michael Moore, who essentially recounts the events that the so-called liberal press either ran away from or simply ignored.

            Moore begins the picture with a retrospective glance at the infamous 2000 Florida electoral scandal, providing a somewhat humorous voiceover commentary, but mostly allowing his pictures to speak for themselves. He shows the blatant manipulation of both the vote count and the press and the utter disregard for legality and justice in the filmed and recorded comments of both the various network news anchors and the Republican spokesmen. Both the footage and the commentary serve to remind the audience of a barely credible history as well as the national disgrace of the capitulation of the Supreme Court and the Congress in the theft of the Presidency.

            The beginning also underlines the fact that, like it or not, Fahrenheit 9/11 participates wholly in the great tradition of the documentary, not only in its political commitment but also in its use of history itself. Despite Moore's familiar ambush journalism, most of the film consists of archival footage, film and videotape taken from official sources or the television networks themselves.

            Perhaps only a news junkie remembers the passion and eloquence of the Congressional Black Caucus pleading for a single Senator to sign their objection to the election results, which would legally open an investigation of the Florida recount. Yet Moore shows the speeches as they took place, naturally carried only on C-SPAN, and by implication the utter cowardice of the entire contingent of Democratic senators.

            That archival footage, much of it apparently censored by the networks, also includes one of the most horribly ironic sequences in the film. While a sycophantic Tom Brokaw intones a mawkish description of the Inaugural motorcade proceeding up Pennsylvania Avenue on that terrible January day, the television videotape shows what his network did not: a raucous, booing crowd of thousands of protestors, holding up appropriate signs and pelting the presidential limousine with eggs and vegetables (not intended as food), a situation that in fact prevented Bush from taking the traditional walk to the Capitol.

            That sequence suggests some of the greatest value of Moore's work, the simple revelation of events that never flickered in the twilight of the American living room.

            Aside from providing a glimpse of contemporary history, Moore spends a good deal of time on the familiar theme of the connections between the Bush family and the ruling family of Saudi Arabia. He also examines the well-known involvement of Halliburton and its former CEO, the late Dick Cheney, in the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

            Those scenes and sequences do not simply explode from the director's own prejudices, but again, are documented in numerous contemporary photographs, videotaped news stories, company boasting, even TV commercials.

            The most relevant footage, naturally, deals with the invasion of Iraq, showing the endless prevarications of the whole Bush team --- Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell --- about those invisible weapons of mass destruction and the necessity of the subsequent blitzkrieg. The film also shows, for the first time, actual dead bodies of both American soldiers and Iraqi civilians, with some images of corpses, including a baby, being loaded on a truck.

            Interviews with military personnel range from the usual deluded assertions about defending America's freedom, to some honest statements about the excitement of combat and the joy of killing, to one soldier's sad recognition of the loss of self entailed the taking of a human life.

            Some of the saddest moments derive from the rare glimpses of the specific human cost of the war for individual Americans --- the maimed and mutilated soldiers in the military hospitals, the devastating grief and rage that almost paralyzes a woman whose son died in Baghdad.

            The most ironic passages seem almost too easy --- the nauseating pictures of George Bush strutting around the aircraft carrier, smirking and preening himself over the famous "Mission Accomplished," the various celebrity newsmen, dressed in battle gear, looking grimly at the camera and speaking in ringing tones about the wonders and triumphs of the invasion. Ted Koppel seems particularly odious.

            Fahrenheit 9/11 displays the traditional methods of documentary --- montage, archival footage, still photographs, newspaper headlines, voiceover narrative, talking heads, all the paraphernalia inherited from generations of committed filmmakers --- to tell a long, eventful, and passionate story.

            His critics complain about Michael Moore's biased view, forgetting the social relevance and political persuasion that marks the work of such important practitioners of the form as Robert Flaherty, Joris Ivens, Pare Lorentz, and yes, Leni Riefenstahl. Certainly his most artful, vigorous, and utterly necessary film, Fahrenheit 9/11 places Moore among those great documentarians.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (R), starring George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice; produced, written and directed by Michael Moore. Canandaigua Theatres, Cinemark Tinseltown, Culver Ridge Cinemas, Geneseo Theatres, Henrietta Cinema 18, Little Theatre, Pittsford Cinema.

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