Tuesday, July 13, 2004

A Review

I got around to watching Fahrenheit 9/11 last night. As I mentioned here here, I went into it with a hearty dose of cynicism / skepticism. (Par for the course, that double dose.) Most of you have undoubtedly heard all the positive and negative reviews. One of the interesting things about the movie is that, at least in the 'liberal' press, its negative aspects are often redeemed for positive ends. There's some real value in this approach (e.g., Paul Krugman's op/ed), but I'm more struck by the fact by the weaknesses that undermine (what I regard as) its positive aim.

Most people are falling over themselves either in outrage or in defense of Moore's reliance on Craig Unger's book House of Saud, House of Bush: The Secret Relationship Between the World's Two Most Powerful Dynasties, whereby Moore insinuates many of the possible, conspiratorial ramifications of the connections between American corporate interest, esp. those of Bush's family, and those of Saudi Arabia. Yes ... this is one of the problems with Fahrenheit 9/11, but not because it lends itself to the self-indulgent promulgation of conspiracy theories. The downside is a bit more simple, I think: it just gets in the way of the more general, and in my opinion more interesting, analysis of America's corporate relationship with Saudi Arabia. In insinuating a conspiracy, Moore too quickly makes a conclusion that he ought not make; that is to say, I think this part of the movie would have been much more powerful had he presented the connections, in all their ambiguity and generality, and allowed moviegoers to make their own conclusions. The best way to spread a secret, after all, is not to spread it as such (i.e., as a secret); but rather, to talk around it, allowing people to create the content of the secret on their own and then spread it as truth.

Far more damaging, though, as was also the case in Bowling for Columbine is Moore's tendency toward haphazard collage, rather than meaningful pastiche. Now, I know he has a purpose, one I share, and I'm more than willing to give him leeway with playing with facts to make a rhetorical maneuver, but I'm still a sucker for a strongly argued point. The closest Moore has ever come to this is in Roger and Me. Since then, possibly due to his foray into television, his movies have become far too episodic and anecdotal, at the expense of their poignancy. What you have in Fahrenheit 9/11 is a series of reasons not to vote for Bush. Yes ... I understand that. On that level, I suppose it works. I do not think that only lefties are seeing the movie; in fact, I'm fairly convinced that it could be very convincing for non-committed middle-ground voters. HOWEVER ... I think its appeal could very well prove to be its worst point. Clearly, the end of the film, which profiles a Flint, Michigan mother, whose son was killed in Iraq, is designed for an emotional effect. I think it works. I'm not a very emotional person, but, unlike most of the Brits I've talked to about this scene, I was not embarassed by it, but genuinely moved. Seeing the mother nearly fall over in grief when standing in front of the White House lawn, not unlike the Iraqi woman screaming 'Why?' to God after yet another errant American bomb, is one of the most 'real' moments of the film. My problem with it, however, is that it functions as a climax to the anti-Bush theme, rather than its heart. As such, the weight of its reality is not as heavily felt -- i.e., it becomes all too easy to see through the rhetorical function of it ('Ah ... he's appealing to our emotions here'). In other words, it is not unreasonable to feel a little manipulated or jerked around. Surely, Bush & co. used the threat of terrorism to this same rhetorical effect, and one could perhaps say this justifies Moore's use of it, too -- but when one uncritiqued ideology replaces another uncritiqued ideology, you're simply left with what you started with. Mimicking the enemy is effective (and, as it were, true) only insofar as it disrupts its own reflection, breaking it into an untold number of possible reflections, all distorted, all inadequate.

Anyway ... in a nutshell: Fahrenheit 9/11 is surely worth seeing. It's chock full of unseen footage (of Bush, of the war, etc.), and is worth the ticket price (or length of a download) for that alone. I think it also has a lot of potential to sway middle-ground voters. Nevertheless, inasmuch as the rhetorical turns are often too apparent, and the content so broad as to be emotionally shallow, it carries the same potential to dissuade these same voters when/if their heads catch up with their hearts. On a cynical level, I guess I can but hope, apropos of the comparison of Moore's rhetoric with that of pre-war Bush, that it remains convincing long enough to accomplish its end.