Retro Film Review: Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)


Few films can be branded with the words "product of its time" like Michael Moore's 2004 documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, can. In was one of the past year's most successful films, beloved by critics and seen by the millions of the people all over the world. And, just like many successful films of the past, the true measure of the film could be seen only with a passage of time. In case of Fahrenheit 9/11 this time was much shorter than usual.

Basically, judging Fahrenheit 9/11 is simply impossible without putting it into the context of 2004 US presidential election. This film owes much of its commercial and critical success to the global dislike of US president George W. Bush and the fact that his ouster from the White House was one of the film's explicit purposes. It wasn't the only documentary with such intentions, but it was the only to have an author able to combine his reputation, charisma and passion with the perfect timing and skilfully orchestrated hype. Just like in many previous instances, many critics allowed themselves to be swept by tide and Fahrenheit 9/11 was lauded as one of the greatest films of all times and Michael Moore as one of the greatest film-makers in history.

The history, however, proved to be most unkind to his film. George W. Bush was re-elected to US presidency and, therefore, this film is a failure.

Those who hailed Fahrenheit 9/11 as masterpiece can, however, claim that they made their judgement independent of its political purpose and that this film can stand on its own as a genuine and timeless work of art. The author of this review, who was initially very sceptical towards "Palme d'Or", rave reviews, millions at the US box offices and all other manifestations of enthusiasm for Fahrenheit 9/11, disagrees. For me this film lost most of its relevance on November 3rd 2004.

This doesn't mean that the film is completely worthless and insignificant in these times. It still can be valuable tool for the historians in the future because it documents the way world saw USA and its administration in the first decade of 21st Century. Fahrenheit 9/11 was and still is immensely popular in the world because it perfectly corresponds with the mindset that dominates the world. Moore not only compresses the criticism of Bush and his administration in two hours; he also uses themes that could be applied to the administrations that preceded it and that can succeed it. Fahrenheit 9/11 paints a dark picture of USA as a country where the democracy is a sham and where real power lies in military-industrial complex; where the incompetent government is unable to deal with small bands of terrorists but it is skilful enough to manipulate entire nation with fear and turn one of the oldest world democracies into police state; where military is used to wage wars of aggression for the sake of corporate profit and at the expense of impoverished blue-collar masses who pay the butcher's bill. This picture isn't exactly new - similar thoughts have been expressed in the past times and applied to different administrations.

However, there is one important difference which is hinted in the film's opening. The word "dream" is used for the events that describe the world before 2000 election which, according to Michael Moore, has brought all the misery documented in this film. In this world big US corporations were the engine of global prosperity, US military was the humanitarian tool used in painless and bloodless PG-13 wars, US democracy was the most perfect of all world's systems of government and Hollywood and US President, whom the world as the most beloved, the most progressive and the most benevolent of all leaders, were playing for the same team. In that world, which so many people in USA begin to see as some kind of Arthurian Golden Age, people like Michael Moore belonged to the fringe. This image, which had been, of course, maintained by Hollywood, was first shaken by Florida electoral fiasco in November 2000 only to be forever shattered by the events of September 11th 2001. With USA revealed to be vulnerable and imperfect, all those who had built their own world views on those false assumptions turned their disappointment into anger which Moore and many like him exploited. Some facts and figures, which had been ignored or swept under carpet, were suddenly delivered into world's and American cinema theatres as some kind of religious revelation.

And this points to the main problem of Fahrenheit 9/11. Not only that many of film's "revelations" aren't that new to those who followed US and world politics more closely, butmany of those "revelations" actually can't withstand much scrutiny. Moore subjected his film to a single purpose - showing George W. Bush and his policies in the worst way possible in the hope that the American viewers will endorse Moore's view and vote him out of office. For that very purpose Moore does exactly what he accused Bush of doing. Bush decided to invade Iraq and used phantom Weapons of Mass Destruction as a pretext, not allowing any facts to collide with his decision. Moore also doesn't allow any facts to collide with his desire to vote Bush out of office. And, just like with Bowling for Columbine, Moore contradicts himself. When it comes to preventing 9/11 disaster Bush's administration is portrayed as bunch of pathetic incompetents; when it comes to manipulating public with Patriot Act and Iraq War, they are evil geniuses. Manipulative editing, taking statements out of context and use of questionable facts and figures may lead to some passionate cinema and look excellent to politically partisan critics, but it decreases the value of this film as a documentary.

On the other hand, with all those questionable techniques Moore succeeded in something that most contemporary film-makers - at least those belonging to Hollywood mainstream - fail to do. Those who watch Fahrenheit 9/11, regardless of what their political views might be, can sense genuine passion that guided its author. That and the boost its success gave to the once neglected and ignored documentary genre, are reasons enough for Fahrenheit 9/11 to deserve at least some praise.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on February 14th 2005)

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