Un-Moored from Reality
From the July 5 / July 12, 2004 issue: Fahrenheit 9/11 connects dots that aren't there.
Jul 5, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 41 • By MATT LABASH
CONSIDERING THAT I'm writing this from inside the bunker of what many regard as the Alliance of Neocon Warmongers, it bears mentioning that Michael Moore and I have one surprising trait in common: We both believe that the war in Iraq was ill-advised, ill-planned, and ill-executed, an apparent failure bordering on unmitigated disaster, that was never in our best national interest. Around our office over the last two years, I've made these arguments to colleagues, open-minded types who, after they put me through my water-boarding/naked pyramid sessions, say they'll take it under advisement. And I make the disclosure now so that readers will not be confused. I do not trash Fahrenheit 9/11 because it's a piece of antiwar propaganda. I trash Fahrenheit 9/11 because it's an offal-laden piece of junk.
It is proof, as if we need more, that Moore doesn't make art, he makes fudge. Since fact-checking his work has become a near full-time cottage industry, it is worth remembering that in his debut film Roger & Me, his indictment of heartless General Motors, he was caught fudging evictions, showing people getting bounced onto the street who'd never been GM workers. In 2002's antigun screed, Bowling for Columbine, he fudged his tear-jerking closer. While hectoring Alzheimer's-ravaged NRA mascot Charlton Heston, he related the heart-tugging tale of a mother whose 6-year-old son, largely unsupervised because of oppressive welfare-to-work laws, found a gun in her house and killed one of his classmates. Moore failed to mention that the family member Mom entrusted him to was running a crackhouse out of her home, that the gun had been left on a mattress, and that she'd admitted beating another son while sitting on him after duct-taping his hands, feet, and mouth. Not exactly a model of responsible parenting, gun ownership, or filmmaking.
As has become my custom at Moore screenings, I began by scratching hash marks in my notebook, counting his conspiracy theories. Not only does this train the mind, but it distracts me from laughing inappropriately and disturbing fellow filmgoers. But in Fahrenheit 9/11, I quickly abandoned counting for cackling. By the time the opening credits rolled, Moore had already explained how George W. Bush rigged the 2000 election by stealing votes from black people, as well as fallen back on his shopworn class-war claptrap to imply that Bush was out of touch with the common folk, since on September 10, 2001, he "went to sleep that night in a bed made with fine French linens." (The next day's terror victims doubtless slept on burlap.)
The intro credits are accompanied by creepy acoustic guitar runs--third-world atrocity music--which play under a montage of our leaders/war criminals sinisterly readying themselves for television appearances. There's Dick Cheney getting his rake-over fluffed. There's Tom Ridge diabolically laughing. There's Paul Wolfowitz smoothing a cowlick with spittle. They smile. They have make-up applied before going on TV. Bastards!
From there, Moore offers a full hour's worth of Bush-centric conspiracies so seemingly random, disjointed, and pointless that one's ticket stub should come with a flow-chart and a decoder ring. In my line of work, when you hear this strain of rhetoric, it's usually from a man in a sandwich board touting the apocalypse or Mumia's innocence, pushing stacks of literature at you while standing on the wrong side of a police cordon. It doesn't typically come from someone whose premiere is attended by half of respectable Democratic Washington, and whose film won the coveted Palme d'Or prize at Cannes.
Moore never passes up a chance to make Bush look like a lightweight, smirking chimp. In fairness, Bush provides more than enough source material. There's Bush, to the strains of the Go-Go's "Vacation," casting fishing lines and speeding away in golf carts, with Moore informing us that the president spent 42 percent of his first eight months in office on vacation. There's Bush in a grade school classroom photo op, sitting shifty-eyed and paralyzed for a full seven minutes after being told the second plane smacked into the World Trade Center, while a teacher reads My Pet Goat. (As a friend of mine says, "Maybe he just wanted to see how it ended.")
Moore uses Bush's momentary inaction as a device to ask what he was thinking, which, to paraphrase Moore's answer, was how to cover his tracks. This allows us passage into the paranoid labyrinth of Moore's mind, which is illustrated by news footage and a string of experts (Moore spends less time physically on screen than in any of his other films, a fact which recommends it, comparatively speaking). He never fabricates out of whole cloth. Rather, Moore the filmmaker takes a perfectly reasonable proposition (our government generally, and the Bush family specifically, have been too solicitous of the Saudis), while Moore the fudgemaker throws entire trays at the wall, never overtly making allegations that amount to anything, but crossing his fingers that some of it sticks.
The insinuation is that Bush had to keep us scared, with color-coded alerts and a citizen-terrorizing Patriot Act, to distract the country from his tangle of conflicts of interests and to build sentiment for invading Iraq. Moore mentions that the Taliban visited Texas while Bush was governor, over a possible pipeline deal with Unocal. But Moore doesn't say that they never actually met with Bush or that the deal went bust in 1998 and had been supported by the Clinton administration.
Moore mentions that Bush's old National Guard buddy and personal friend James Bath had become the money manager for the bin Laden family, saying, "James Bath himself in turn invested in George W. Bush." The implication is that Bath invested the bin Laden family's money in Bush's failed energy company, Arbusto. He doesn't mention that Bath has said that he had invested his own money, not the bin Ladens', in Bush's company.
The family members who had disowned Osama were mainstays of American business, to the point that they were members of the nefarious Carlyle Group, a fact Moore naturally mentions, along with the fact that George's daddy was a member, too. One of the Carlyle Group's investments was United Defense, maker of Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Moore says September 11 "guaranteed that United Defense was going to have a very good year." See it all coming together? Moore tells us that when Carlyle took United Defense public, they made a one-day profit of $237 million, but under all the public scrutiny, the bin Laden family eventually had to withdraw (Moore doesn't tell us that they withdrew before the public offering, not after it).
At their own request, the bin Laden family was quickly shuttled away after 9/11, back to Saudi Arabia. Moore finds it suspicious, as well he should. Who would be stupid enough to let that happen, without working them over for a good couple of weeks? Actually, according to a May interview he gave to The Hill, it was Richard Clarke, Bush's former counterterrorism adviser and the new patron saint of Bush-bashers. Moore makes use of him in the film, though he manages not to mention Clarke's role in the departure of the bin Ladens.
Here, if we're going to play connect-the-dots, a few questions are in order. For starters, are we really supposed to believe that 9/11 and the ensuing wars were a collaborative profiteering scheme between the bin Ladens, the Bushes, and defense contractors? Furthermore, will Moore's DVD director's cut elucidate Bush ties to the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, and the Freemasons? Who knows? Who cares? Moore doesn't seem to, as he speedily moves on, making another tray of fudge.
When Moore takes us to Iraq, on the eve of war, he shows placid scenes of an untroubled land on the brink of imperial annihilation. With all the leisurely strolling and kite-flying, it is unclear if Iraqis are living under a murderous dictatorship or in a Valtrex commercial. In Moore's telling of the invasion, the shock-and-awe is less high-value-target/smart-bombing, more Dresden/Hiroshima. According to the footage that ensues, our pilots seem to have hit nothing but women and children. If Moore's documentarian gig were to fall through, he could easily seek employment as an Al Jazeera cameraman.
This is, it nearly goes without saying, his downfall as a storyteller. In his unctuous morality tales, everyone is assigned black and white hats. The white hats mainly belong to the oppressed people of Iraq, subject to our soldiers' midnight raids under the jackboot of occupation, and to other victims of the administration, such as the poor, underemployed people of Flint, Michigan (Moore's obsessively referenced hometown), who serve as helpless recruiting chum for Bush's killing machine.
The black hats (administration types) seem to be motivated solely by world domination and the desire to steer no-bid contracts to Halliburton. There is no allowance for moral ambiguity, or what would've been even more interesting, misguided moral clarity--the possibility that Bush made a bad judgment call, but did so for the right reasons (security concerns, the elimination of a brutal despot, and the liberation of his people).
One of this film's only pure moments occurs when Moore spends time with the mother of an American soldier who died in Karbala. The mother is a conservative Democrat from a family with a long military history. She used to rage at war protestors, but since losing her son, she seethes at the administration who sent him to his death, crying almost animally, "I want him to be alive . . . and I can't make him alive." (But even this is sullied by Moore's smarmy, gratuitous insistence to her that "yeah, it's a great country," an obvious inoculation against charges that he hates America.)
Critics have accused Moore of milking her grief until it moos. But on this, he deserves a pass. Anyone wishing to discuss war, either for or against, should also be prepared to seriously consider its tolls, especially the human ones. Moore being Moore, however, steps on his most effective material by following it with yet another cheap stunt: ambushing congressmen to ask if they will enlist their children to go to Iraq, as if anyone can. He finds no takers, then says he can't blame them, since who would want to give up their child? Nobody, of course. Not the parents of soldiers in Iraq, nor the parents of those who died at Normandy. But few would argue that World War II wasn't a war worth fighting.
Which is not to say Iraq is in the same class. And it is why real questions should be continuously asked, and skepticism applied. The kind of skepticism that forces leaders to account for whether they've taken the right course of action. Not the crank, grab bag of stitched-together conspiracies that encourages Moore's political opponents to be reflexively dismissive--and causes the leftish reviewer sitting next to me to say, "He infuriates me because he makes my arguments badly."
There is plenty of grist for skeptics of the war to argue that the chances of a shiny, happy democracy's flowering in Iraq reside somewhere between slim and nil. But those are still better odds than the ones on Moore's someday making an intellectually honest film.
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.