Fahrenheit 9/11: Bruce Harding Reviews Michael Moore's Controversial Documentary on the Bush Administration's Foreign Policy

By Harding, Bruce | New Zealand International Review, November-December 2004 | Go to article overview

Fahrenheit 9/11: Bruce Harding Reviews Michael Moore's Controversial Documentary on the Bush Administration's Foreign Policy


Harding, Bruce, New Zealand International Review


In this incendiary political polemic, Michael Moore provides a stunning, if idiosyncratic, sequel to the investigation into modern runaway American culture given in his Oscar-winning 'mock-umentary' Bowling for Columbine (2002), which grossed US$58 million worldwide. Moore's latest work has already become the highest-grossing documentary in history (over US$100 million) and at Cannes Quentin Tarantino called it 'the first movie ever made to justify an acceptance speech' (a reference to Moore's Oscars statement about living in 'fictitious times' with a fictitious election and President). Bowling was a precursor movie (or 'prequel'), inasmuch as in it Moore, the populist documentarian and guerrilla entertainer, was trying to explain why Americans are seemingly addicted to a violent foreign policy in a cinematic variant of the stinging essays of Gore Vidal on the same subject. (1)

In Bowling Moore explores the possible connections between the 19 April 1995 truck-bomb attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City by Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh and the Columbine High School atrocity in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999. Suggestive links between defence contractors and a gun-amok polity are proposed, and Moore took his camera crew out into Middle America to track down this national obsession with guns and weaponry and with disciplining others (as individuals or whole nations). His montage of images of US military and political interventions abroad (for example Chile, Nicaragua, Iran, Iraq, etc), set to the tune of Louis Armstrong singing 'What a Wonderful World', ends with an implied cause-effect nexus when Moore briefly shows one hijacked airliner speeding into the North Tower on Black Tuesday, 11 September 2001.

Thus Fahrenheit 9/11 segues on from that suggestive visual 'argument' that state-sanctioned violence upholds the affluent American way of life (a dream turning into nightmare by a clutch of what Walter Laqueur has dubbed 'Postmodern' Islamic jihadist terrorists). (2) As Randy Bob Lewis argued, 'Moore gives us artful storytelling about an empire undone, presenting a devastating picture of our president and his minders' (3) as men more focused on their Saudi business contacts than the national interest.

Catchy title

Echoing the Ray Bradbury sci-fi novel Fahrenheit 451 (about a dystopian, closed society and named for the temperature at which hooks burn), Moore's catchy title neatly embroiders this film's energised concern about the state of civil and constitutional rights in America under the attorney-generalship of John Ashcroft--who is shown in an unflattering segment of patriotic karaoke singing the virtues of the 'mighty Eagle soaring' with a voice barely superior to those of Paul Holmes and Leighton Smith!--and under the sway of the controversial US Patriot Act 200l. Moore deftly focuses this concern towards the end of his powerfully unsettling film by citing relevant maxims from the great George Orwell. This communicates that things are not well in Guantanamo Bay (US lease territory in Cuba), Abu Ghraib Prison (Iraqi or mainland United States. Moore strongly implies that the Geneva Conventions of 1864 and 1949 and the supplemental Hague ones (1899; 1907), which are binding on the international community, have been abrogated by the US military in the shock and awe of 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' (in its violation of the prohibition of inflicting terror on civilians in armed conflict and its use of illegal weapons of depleted uranium).

Certainly Moore's mockery of the 'Coalition of the Willing', while criticised as racist by Bob Jensen,' problematically excludes Australian participation but does reinforce the point that the coalition included less than 25 per cent of UN member states and indicates, worryingly, that the sole super-power does not currently respect the customary international humanitarian legal order. In this spirit, Jensen criticises the film for simplistically concentrating on 'the Bushies' when, in his anti-imperial argument. …

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