The Seasoned Ticket #19

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

So Michael Moore’s got a new film out this week, Fahrenheit 11/9, a Trump-themed broadside in the direction of one Donald J. Trump. I haven’t seen Moore’s latest, but—while Frederick Wiseman has nothing to worry about—he’s sustained a track record as one of the longest-running and most successful documentary filmmakers ever, an impressive run considering how polarizing a figure he is.

I’ve often struggled with Moore’s hectoring style, and tried to explore some of that in my review of Fahrenheit 9/11, his 2004 film (the highest-grossing documentary in film history), and in my review of Capitalism: A Love Story (https://roberthorton.wordpress.com/2009/10/02/the-invention-of-capitalism-issue-weekly-links/).

Whatever my arguments with Moore’s approach, the final paragraph of this Fahrenheit 9/11 piece still holds true. I haven’t since seen a sustained audience reaction like the one I witnessed at the 2004 screening at the (now shuttered) Guild 45th theater—it was like a collective howl of frustration and fury given permission to be heard (history may already have forgotten that to question the Iraq War at the time was an invitation to be branded anti-American and indeed pro-terrorist). I look forward to seeing whether Fahrenheit 11/9 touches the same nerve.

 

Fahrenheit 9/11

(published in the Daily Herald in 2004)

If Michael Moore had any self-restraint, he might be a really great man.

The activist filmmaker and cultural fuse-lighter, the slinger of Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine, is back with his wildest project yet. First Fahrenheit 9/11 lost its distributor (Miramax was told a stern ixnay by parent company Disney), then it won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

What is this hot potato? Let us paraphrase Henry Miller, another joking provocateur. This is not a movie. This is a gob of spit in the face of…well, the Bush administration. And Michael Moore’s aim is dead-on.

Moore begins with the disputed 2000 election and does not break stride for 116 roaring, reeling minutes. Fahrenheit 9/11 is roughly arranged in two halves. The first has Moore on his worst behavior—a scattershot attack on Bush, characterized by a scene imagining the thoughts running through Bush’s mind as he is sitting in that Florida classroom, in the minutes after he has been informed that planes have crashed into the World Trade Center. Moore also plays the war against Afghanistan as an episode of Bonanza, and crosscuts tearful relatives of 9/11 victims with Bush’s particular brand of gravity-free glibness.

Sure, you could argue that right-wing radio hosts and conservative news channels use the same unsavory methods. And you would be correct. But Michael, just because the other kids are doing it doesn’t mean you have to descend to their level.

More troubling is that Moore’s cheap-shot tactics will detract from a discomfiting portrait of the coziness that exists between Saudi Arabia (including the bin Laden family) and the Bush family and other key players in the current administration—a case Moore lays out in detail.

The second section of the film covers Iraq. Moore’s digest on why the war is being waged isn’t exactly news, but it is skillfully and passionately rendered. Especially devastating is our acquaintance with Lila Lipscomb, a middle-aged woman from Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan. She’s a (literally) flag-waving wife and mom, and fervent supporter of the military, whose daughter served in the Gulf War and oldest son was sent to Iraq. When we see things through her eyes, all of Moore’s sarcasm ebbs away, and something real and raw shines through.

As usual, Moore is lucky in what he gets on camera. He gets a congressman (a Democrat) to blithely admit he didn’t read the Patriot Act before voting for it. (Incidentally, one of Moore’s talking heads is Washington’s Jim McDermott, an ardent Bush critic.) Moore also has the good fortune to be standing across the street from the Saudi Embassy—apparently for the sole reason that it’s amusingly located opposite the Watergate—when members of the Secret Service approach him and ask him what he’s up to.

Will this movie change a presidential election? There is a sequence in Fahrenheit 9/11 in which a mother reads a letter from her son, a soldier, who was killed in Iraq. The letter includes the phrases “thank you for the bible” and “that fool in the White House.”

This movie will not change the minds of many conservatives or liberals, but if enough moderates see just this scene before November…yes, a few votes might change.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is the work of an angry polemicist, albeit one who can’t resist a punch line, no matter how irrelevant. See it with a critical eye, and reject it, or cheer it on. (And I must report that the preview audience with which I saw the film applauded and cheered at the film’s rousing ending longer and more lustily than I have heard an audience do in over twenty years of reviewing films.) Decry Michael Moore’s slippery techniques, or absolve him because he’s the only snarling attack dog the left seems to have. But see the movie.

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

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