(Because what the world really needs most of all right now is another Fahrenheit 9/11 review.)
To Santa Monica last night, for a (sold out) midnight screening of Fahrenheit 9/11, and I came out slightly disappointed. The edge provided by being in a cinema surrounded by a mostly-young, mostly-very-hip, mostly-politically-engaged audience was slightly thrilling, as if we were all doing something transgressive, and the two-hour film shot by, as does pretty much anything Moore produces. There’s a naivety to his film-making (a good naivety, but still), but he knows to his bones something fundamentally important about art: if you don’t entertain the audience, nothing you might want to get across will work. He’s a master of film pacing, juxtaposition, and purposeful editing. It’s polemical, but, well, that’s his point. To criticise him for that would be to criticise Chaplin for being too black-and-white. It’s what he does, buy into it or not.
One of the ways of measuring the quality of art is in how well it achieves what the artist hoped to create. It’s why a child’s stick-figure drawing of a parent, presumably intended to capture some sort of realism, probably isn’t great art, but the same drawing created knowingly and purposefully by an artist choosing from a whole range of representational styles might well be. Moore’s film might well be the very best film of the type he wanted to make that he was able to make. It feels very much like the film he wanted to make. So any problems I have with the film really speak to my own obsessions, which are mostly structural.
Structurally, F9/11 is something of a mess. There’s a rough chronology from which the narrative is hung, but chronology often isn’t enough to provide a pleasing structure, and that’s true here. Indeed, the film cannot end significantly because of its very nature: its purpose is to influence events in the world outside the film, so its ending cannot exist within the film itself. It’s a rallying cry. The film’s structure reaches a climax and stops there, like a Henry V whose last line is ‘We few. We happy few.’
Moore also has way too much material to cover here. Realistically, there’s scope for four or five separate films, each of them focused and complete. There’s a film in the Bush/Bin Laden family histories. There’s a film in the motivations of the Bush administration in promoting war in Iraq. There’s a Full Metal Jacket-ish film in the stories of naive and gung-ho soldiers whose innocence is shattered by a brutal war that they don’t understand, in a county so far from home in so many ways. There’s a film in the tragic narrative of Lila Lipscomb, the death of whose son in Iraq both devastates and oddly redeems her.
Lipscomb’s story, in particular, is both a gift and a frustration to the film. Having already played a small part in the film before her son’s death, her role takes centre stage at that point, but it’s too late for her story to be more than a significant cameo. Her mini-narrative is truncated and leaves the audience wanting a lot more.
There’s perhaps also a story to be found in the character of Bush himself. He pops up from time to time to appal with his glassy-eyed fake macho posturing and disastrous syntax. Interestingly, archive film of a younger Bush suggests to me a greater (relatively-speaking, you understand) poise and facility, giving some credence to an idea that whatever he fell back on when alcohol was taken away (mostly scarily old-testament religion), it left him significantly weakened as a man.
Given so much to say, and so little time, Moore quite rightly knows that he cannot, and, according to his own intentions, must not, focus too much on any one part of the story. There are too many gaps to fill in the mainstream media’s coverage, too many voices unheard, to not give all of them some time: disenfranchised black voters in Florida; wounded, disillusioned and traumatised American soldiers; terrorised and bereaved Iraqi civilians.
Again quite rightly, Moore takes himself out of the picture for the most part, and the only moments in the film which really don’t work are when he wheels out his old shtick: trolling around Washington in a van, reading the Patriot Act through a loudspeaker. That doesn’t work because it’s a purely symbolic act, intended to represent the failure of most in power to read the damn thing before they approved it. This isn’t a film about symbolic acts, so the stunt is irrelevant and cheap. F9/11 is about doing something, as the final message of the credits exhorts. Lila Lipscomb’s moving trip to Washington – the film’s real climax – might seem just as symbolic, but it’s not. It’s heroic, and represents one of the most important parts of any narrative, whether polemical documentary or Farrelly brothers gag-fest: character development. We’re privileged to see her grow as a person, but devastated that it came with such a loss.
F9/11 shows that it was made to the sound of a ticking clock, its centre of gravity changing as events around it developed. And to the sound of the countdown to a very final deadline, which will have expired in a few months’ time. This too worked against the structure that a fixed temporal perspective might have provided.
How good a film is it? I don’t think it’s as good a film as Bowling for Columbine, in which Moore had subject matter well-defined enough to grasp whole, and to mould into a pleasing shape. But that’s just me being a structure wonk. F9/11 is a more important film than Bowling. If one attributes to it any influence in the upcoming presidential election – and the right-wing certainly does, else they wouldn’t be smearing Moore ad hominems around like crazy – then it has the potential to change US foreign policy, and by doing so affect tens of millions of lives. As well as perhaps saving one or two.
Go see it.