Thursday, June 26, 2014

Telling the Tale of a Terrorist Attack

"Michael Moore's 'Fahrenheit 9/11' is less an expose of George W. Bush than a dramatization of what Moore sees as a failed and dangerous presidency."

Roger Ebert

To use a political term, filmmaker Michael Moore has known his base for awhile so it is no surprise when he plays to it — as he clearly did in "Fahrenheit 9/11," which premiered 10 years ago today.

That, I suppose, is the advantage of making a documentary. You aren't necessarily trying to win an election although you would like to persuade some folks who are sitting on the fence or are sympathetic to the other side that you are correct. In the end, though, I guess documentaries primarily succeed at reinforcing conclusions the viewers have already reached.

Most documentaries don't make a lot of money — few outside their niche audience will pay to see them. And many documentary makers' agendas are so slanted in one direction or the other that they aren't as meticulous about the facts as they should be — except for the ones that support their position.

Sometimes you have to wonder just how dedicated to the facts they really are. Indeed, there have been times when it was clear to me that the documentary maker was more interested in scoring points than being right — and, at times, that is certainly true of "Fahrenheit 9/11," just as it is true of most of Moore's documentaries.

Actually, in 2004 — as in all even–numbered years — there were the usual congressional elections, and a presidential election was scheduled, too, so the timing of the movie's release — slightly more than four months before Election Day — clearly was intended to influence voter behavior.

And part of that mission was to remind voters of what happened the last time — when George W. Bush and Al Gore were locked in a stalemate, and the Supreme Court voted to let vote counts in Florida stand, giving Bush the election.

While he didn't endorse Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, Moore told USA Today, at the time of the film's release, that "I would like to see Mr. Bush removed from the White House."

Moore's narration was, alternately, indignant and sardonic, occasionally both. Actually, as verbose as he was, I was surprised when I read that Ebert wrote: "If the film is not quite as electrifying as Moore's 'Bowling for Columbine,' that may be because Moore has toned down his usual exuberance and was sobered by attacks on the factual accuracy of elements of 'Columbine'; playing with larger stakes, he is more cautious here, and we get an op–ed piece, not a stand–up routine."

I never got the impression that he was "more cautious." He was more toned down, not quite as in–your–face as he had been in other projects, but I thought that was a good thing. Maybe he was a little more meticulous about the facts, but that is something I never discourage.

There was a considerable controversy surrounding the documentary's release, and Moore countered complaints rather nimbly, but if his objective was to remove Bush, he failed. Some voters may have seriously reconsidered whether to vote for him, but in the end Bush, of course, was re–elected.

There probably wasn't much Moore could tell viewers about the central event in the movie, either — the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

(Ebert, however, did observe that "Moore brings a fresh impact to familiar material by the way he marshals his images," and there certainly is truth in that. It is a big part of why "Fahrenheit 9/11" is the highest–grossing documentary of all time — and won the Palme d'Or, the most prestigious award given at the Cannes Film Festival.)

Most Americans saw part or all of the attacks on TV. There were many details that Americans did not know, details that trickled out over time although many were revealed only through the release of the findings of the 9/11 Commission later that summer.

But, because they had seen the horrific things that happened on the morning of September 11, many Americans formed opinions that had hardened 2¾ years later — and had become more difficult, if not impossible, to dislodge.

In my experience, few minds were changed by "Fahrenheit 9/11" — and that really is the movie's story. Given his history in his documentaries about General Motors and the gun culture, Moore's influence via "Fahrenheit 9/11" was minimal. While it was entertaining, as Moore's movies usually are, my guess at the time was that it would reaffirm the viewer's opinion, whatever it happened to be.

Taken out of the context of its time, "Fahrenheit 9/11" is robbed of much of its impact. When it was released, though, it was fresh and — in spite of Ebert's comments to the contrary — electrifying in its own way.