I don’t think I have ever reviewed a Michael Moore film before. That makes the standard format for a 10 Years Later review tricky. One can’t really compare one’s initial impressions with one’s current take if the former was never on the record.
I wasn’t even sure that I had ever watched Fahrenheit 9/11 all the way through. Some bits seemed familiar, such as Moore reading the Patriot Act through an ice cream truck’s loudspeaker. Other parts, like the grieving mother of a soldier killed in action visiting the White House gates, did not prompt any recollection at all.
What Was Said Then
The list of those giving positive reviews was impressive and, I will admit, a little surprising. Fahrenheit 9/11 nabbed “fresh” ratings from David Denby, Stanley Kaufmann, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Owen Gleiberman, Kent Jones, Mark Cousins (at Sight & Sound), Andrew Sarris, Anne Hornaday, Michael Wilmington, and Kenneth Turan, among others. Perhaps more surprising, the film nabbed Moore the Palme d’Or at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, making it one of only four American films to receive that honor in the last two decades. (The others were Pulp Fiction, Elephant, and Tree of Life.) Michael Moore may have honed his gadfly-outsider persona to sharp perfection, but the truth is he is respected by both the American film industry and the international film community. He may not hold a political position, but he is, as far as the film industry is concerned, part of the establishment.
What I Say Now
I can’t exactly say that the film hasn’t aged well since I don’t recall being that high on it in the first place, but time, as it is wont to do, has certainly provided a broader canvas on which to situate it. On that broader canvas, Fahrenheit 9/11 looks and sounds like it has more in common with Fox News and comedy infotainment (such as The Colbert Show and The Daily Show) than it does with more serious and successful documentaries (such as Why We Fight, Taxi to The Dark Side, or The Fog of War).
My complaints are two, and they are both the more frustrating for obscuring the occasional relevant and important pieces (such as claims that the Bush administration had decided they wanted to “do something” about Iraq prior to the 9/11 attacks). The first is the lack of a consistent and coherent thesis. The second is the consistent privileging of emotional appeals over reasoned argument.
It’s clear that Moore was not a fan of George W. Bush’s administration. (Neither was I.) But his animosity runs so deep that he cannot limit himself to one argument. At various points in the film Moore chastises Bush for taking too much vacation, for redacting the names of another soldier when releasing his own military records, for having supporters in key positions in Florida, and for eroding civil liberties in The Patriot Act. None of these accusations is without some merit (or without people who have made similar arguments better elsewhere) but what some of them had to do with 9/11 and what any of them had to do with each other was pretty obscure.
Even when Moore is on point, though, the level of discourse is rarely worthy of the seriousness of the topic. The film plays the opening of Gunsmoke with faces of the Bush administration pasted over various characters. The Go-Go’s sing “Vacation” over footage of the former president on the golf course. Moore takes time out to mock Britney Spears for saying that she “trusts” this president and suggesting Americans should pull together in time of war. In perhaps the most egregious (and offensive) moment,a contributor describes Osama bin-Laden as “a simple and quiet guy” and Moore asks who else those adjectives describes while inserting a picture of George W. Bush on screen. Really? I can practically hear Dana Carvey asking, “Could it be Satan?” in the background.
Were Fahrenheit 9/11 less lauded–the Palme d’Or?!?!–or more consistently snarky, it might not be to my taste, but it wouldn’t particularly bother me. As it stands, it’s hard for me to entirely squelch the feeling that the playbook Moore develops here would get co-opted and perfected by Fox News and those who want to take pot shots at anyone they disagree with.
Dissent is important in American culture, and questioning our politicians is an act of bravery and patriotism. But when we blur the line between questioning and scoffing, the broader audience may begin to lose the ability to tell the difference, and our opponents may jump at the opportunity to exploit the deterioration of our rhetorical evaluation skills. Whatever side of a political spectrum we are on, I think we suffer for having a more polarized and less restrained form of political discourse. I think that is what we have now, and I think Michael Moore helped get us there.