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.