He didn't call it "J'Accuse!" but he might as well have.
Like Emile Zola, whose celebrated 19th century open letter assailed the French government for being a party to intolerable injustice, Michael Moore in "Fahrenheit 9/11" has launched an unapologetic attack, both savage and savvy, on an administration he feels has betrayed the best of America and done extensive damage in the world.
Unabashedly partisan, wearing its determination to bring about political change on its sleeve, "Fahrenheit" can be nitpicked and second-guessed, but it can't be ignored. Set to open today in New York and Friday in Los Angeles and across the country, this landmark in American political filmmaking demands to be seen.
Both in form and effect, "Fahrenheit" goes a step beyond Moore's Oscar-winning "Bowling for Columbine." He's never made a documentary that so literally embodies the cliché of being ripped from today's headlines, that arrives in theaters precisely as the issues he's concerned with are getting maximum attention within the context of a heated presidential campaign. In fact, neither has anybody else. "Fahrenheit 9/11's" determination to rewrite the rules of what Americans go to see in theaters has more kinship with Mel Gibson's equally convention-shattering "The Passion of the Christ" — but the audience it seeks to galvanize is at the other end of the political spectrum.
It's a tribute to how seriously Moore takes his secular crusade that he's largely abandoned his usual haphazard style in favor of a more focused, more concentrated mode of attack. With expertly deployed footage and a take-no-prisoners attitude that echoes that of his conservative betes noir, Moore has made an overwhelming film. It is propaganda, no doubt about it, but propaganda is most effective when it has elements of truth, and too much here is taken from the record not to have a devastating effect on viewers.
Moore has always been a master provocateur, adept at raising temperatures and arousing passions. Under his shambling, willfully unglamorous persona lies a shrewd intelligence, someone with the keenest of eyes for the preposterous and the absurd, a filmmaker who knows both what he can make fun of and what makes fun of itself.
Now, seething with a controlled fury, Moore is angrier than ever; like Peter Finch's anchorman in "Network," he's fed up and not about to take it anymore. As outraged about Sept. 11 as any neo-con, he's livid about what's been done in its name. And he gives no one, least of all President Bush, the slightest benefit of the doubt.
What Moore has constructed in "Fahrenheit" is more ambitious and more complex than anyone had reason to expect.
This film isn't about the Bush family relationship to Saudi Arabia, the excesses of the Patriot Act or the pitfalls of the invasion of Iraq, though it touches on those topics. Instead we get a full-blown alternate history of the last three-plus years. Moore makes a persuasive and unrelenting case that there is another way to look at things beyond the version we've been given.
What anger Moore has left over after savaging the administration is directed at the mainstream media for being too in thrall with the official line ("Navy SEALs rock!" exults "Today's" Katie Couric in one clip.)
The core of "Fahrenheit's" appeal comes in Moore's alternating familiar images with footage many Americans may not have seen. The resulting mosaic, the cumulative effect of experiencing everything together in one place, is easily the most powerful piece of work of Moore's career. Though it's more likely to energize a liberal base than cause massive switching of parties, anyone who is the least bit open to Moore's thesis will come away impressed.
The new material includes clips that were not broadcast widely or at all, some of which Moore says were sent to him unsolicited by people who heard about his project and wanted to help, a kind of unofficial coalition of the willing. Many of the most damning involve the president saying and doing things his handlers probably wish he hadn't.
Here is George W. Bush in 1992, candidly explaining why he was a hot business-world commodity: "When you're the president's son, in Washington people tend to respect that. I can reach my father at any time. Access is power." More current is the post-9/11 president calling sternly on the world's nations to "stop terrorist killers." Assuming that only that much would be broadcast, he steps back to reveal that he's on a golf course, not in a war room. Switching roles like a practiced performer, he smiles and says, "Now watch this drive."
Perhaps the most disturbing of all is footage showing the president on the morning of Sept. 11, continuing with a photo op involving a Florida elementary school class reading "My Pet Goat" for nearly seven minutes after having been told that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center.
It's an unflattering picture of irresolution and even paralysis, one that informs Moore's thesis — of a president in over his head — and pervades the entire film.
Another category of clips comes from Iraq, where Moore managed to get camera operators embedded with U.S. troops under non-Michael Moore pretenses. These include soldiers taking snapshots of each other exulting with hooded captives, and laughing as they grab a drunken prisoner's genitals through a blanket.
Though the overall somberness of the subject matter means that this will not go down as Moore's funniest film, the director has added his trademark comedic moments. It's his unmistakably biting voice-over that holds this film together. And though the situation is so grave we want to cry, Moore is adept at making us smile even when we're not expecting to.
Moore also makes extensive use of absurdist juxtapositions of politics and pop culture to get genuine laughs. In a sequence about how the government allowed Bin Laden family members to depart soon after Sept. 11, he plays "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" and inserts a clip of "Dragnet's" Jack Webb doing the kind of fierce questioning he feels the Saudis had coming.
Appropriating some conservatives' tendency to go for the jugular, Moore is not above making people look silly. We see extensive use of "the feed," embarrassing moments culled from TV outtakes — images like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz grotesquely licking his comb to help his hair stay in place.
The Wolfowitz clip, one you won't be able to forget even if you want to, is a clear example of Moore at his most vulnerable and most effective. It leaves him open to charges that he's being unfair, that he's mocking human frailty. But he's willing to take the risk to make his point.
Moore refuses to pass up an opportunity to show us how ridiculous, how awkward, how vain are the people who've successfully sold themselves as all-knowing Great White Fathers who have the gravitas to be trusted absolutely. It's a daring ploy, and, silly though it may seem, it shows us how willing Moore is to use any tool he can to get his job done. Wake up, America, he's saying, these are the people you've trusted your children's lives to.
What there is less of in "Fahrenheit 9/11" than in earlier films such as "Roger and Me" is the director himself, driving the narrative with his on-camera presence. Moore does appear on a Washington street asking congressmen who voted for the war to get their children to enlist. And he commandeers an ice cream truck's speaker system in an attempt to read the Patriot Act to members of Congress he says never bothered to do so.
But the filmmaker, whose presence has always been a lightning rod for criticism, seems to have known that in this case he could be most effective behind the camera, connecting the dots as he sees them and adding previously under-emphasized information to the public debate.
In "Fahrenheit's" opening section, which deals with how Florida put George Bush in the White House, "Fahrenheit" includes almost surreal footage of the joint session of Congress that, with Al Gore presiding, certified the election. One by one, African American members of the House object to the certification and fume when not a single senator agrees to join them in a written protest that could have derailed the certification.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Moore claims, the administration concentrated not on chasing terrorists but on terrorizing the American people so they would support the invasion of Iraq. "Fear does work," Moore is told by Jim McDermott, a Democratic House member who is the chamber's only psychologist. "The administration played us like an organ."
This first part of "Fahrenheit 9/11" turns out to be so closely argued, so dense with information, that the film runs the danger of being too much to take in.
Perhaps realizing this, Moore eventually stops the bombardment. He increasingly personalizes his story by focusing on the people who actually pay the price for all the posturing out of Washington.
He goes back, invariably, to his hometown of Flint, Mich., where a destroyed economy means that the armed forces are perhaps the best career opportunity young people have.
Moore follows two Marine recruiters in full dress uniform, trolling for poverty-level signees at a shopping center as cynically as carnival barkers.
And he spends a considerable amount of time with a wife and mother named Lila Lipscomb, who provides the film with its emotional center.
A self-described "really proud American" who flies the flag every day and strongly encouraged her children to opt for a life in the military as their best career option, Lipscomb undergoes a wrenching change of heart as she searches for a reason to believe in a war that ends up taking the life of her son. "People think they know but they don't know," she says, in tears. "I thought I knew but I didn't know."
"Fahrenheit 9/11" lifted its title from the Ray Bradbury novel "Fahrenheit 451," which is in turn named after the temperature at which books burn. The novel posits a comfortable future world without books where omnipresent television tells people what they should be thinking. It's a world, this always provocative and uncompromising film demonstrates, that is closer than we want to admit.
MPAA rating: R for some violent and disturbing images and for language.
Times guidelines: Explicit footage of dead and badly wounded Iraqis, shots of charred bodies of Americans being beaten and suspended from a bridge.
Lions Gate Films and IFC Films and the Fellowship Adventure Group present a Dog Eat Dog production, released by Lions Gate Films. Director Michael Moore. Producers Michael Moore, Jim Czarnecki, Kathleen Glynn. Executive producers Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Agnes Mentre. Screenplay Michael Moore. Cinematographer Mike Desjarlais. Editors Kurt Engfehr, Christopher Seward, T. Woody Richman. Music Jeff Gibbs. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.In general release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times