Steaming Over Fahrenheit 9/11

Ah, the fate of the at-home dad: to forever be missing out on the movie everyone’s talking about, until finally, when he gets the chance to see it, the conversation has moved on. That’s me with Fahrenheit 9/11, anyway, which I got to see at a Reel Moms showing earlier today. (There are exceptions to this, of course, like the fact that I saw Spider-Man 2 on opening day. Priorities.) The Georgetown theater had twice the number of moms, babies, and ginormous stroller contraptions than on either of the previous two times I had been there. Strangely, there didn’t seem to be as much crying. Must be something about Democratically-raised infants.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is a proper and even important documentary; I wish someone other than Michael Moore had made it. The fact that he has so many damning facts on his side, and so much incredible footage, made me wince all the more each time he descended to innuendo, sloppy argumentation, and cheap visual shots. There were moments of brilliance and even poignancy, especially in the story of a patriotic social worker from Flint whose son died in Iraq. A more thoughtful and careful use of such material might have resulted in a movie that actually deserved the Palme d’Or. Instead, the kernel of truth—that our nation is currently governed by an incompetent wretch whose Administration has repeatedly misled the American people—gets wrapped around in so much other material that it becomes too easy to discount.

Despite all that, this film is a step up for Moore. He has done away with inaccuracies and falsehoods and remained safe behind the wall of misleading suggestions. (As always, Spinsanity is an excellent resource for a nonpartisan look at the specifics.) Plenty of people have noted that by not outright lying but by placing certain statements and images in juxtaposition in order to create a false impression, Moore isn’t doing anything the current Administration hasn’t already done. But that doesn’t mean it’s all right to do! I want a strong American Left, but even more I want a political discourse that is open and forthwright, that seeks to inform and persuade Americans, not mesmerize them with sophistry and innuendo. Because of that, I don’t want Michael Moore on my side.

I’d be better inclined toward the guy, and his movie, if he could learn how to keep his mouth shut. So many of the moments he presents, like Bush in the elementary school after hearing the news of 9/11, are devastating and completely sufficient unto themselves. Moore’s voiceovers aren’t just repetitive, they’re often the vehicle for an inapt comparison or gonzo conspiracy theory that actually weakens his case. But a quieter Moore is too much to hope for—it’s evident that easy entertainment and self-aggrandizement rank right up there with him alongside speaking the truth to power. I take the fact that there’s no left-leaning equivalent to Rush Limbaugh as a point of pride, not a gap that needs to be filled.

The interview material with Congressman Jim McDermott was some of the stronger material in the film. McDermott discussed the ways in which the Administration was cultivating a culture of fear, which reminded me of another Jim’s comments on the same topic a few months ago:

. . . this is the overriding issue facing the country right now: will we live bravely again or will we forever shiver in post-traumatic stress from our Very Bad Day two and a half years ago? And as I’ve said over and over, what’s despicable about the Bush Administration is that it wants us to wallow in perpetual, low-grade panic. That is what I can’t forgive.

Sitting there in the theater, it hit me: that’s what the whole kerfluffle over election day contingency plans is all about. Of course it isn’t going to happen (Kevin Drum puts that notion in the ground), but raising the possibility creates fear, and the Administration has been playing on our fear and unease for years now.

Fortunately, I’m less afraid now than ever before at the possibility of Bush getting re-elected. My money’s on it going the other way. But out there in the tangled threads of possible futures, there’s the one where Bush wins by a hair, not cleanly, but only because of fear-mongering, propaganda, and a touch of voting machine fraud. Michael Moore won’t be surprised by that future, so if it comes to pass I may have to concede a point or two to him. In the meantime, though, I’m holding out for a better gadfly.