“Was it all just a dream?” Moore asks in voice over at the beginning of Fahrenheit 9/11, as he reminisces about the 2000 presidential elections.

September 11th, 2001. The day that changed the United States.

Moore as the everyman promises he will tell the other story, the one not covered by mainstream media.

Moore shows several sources who claim Gore should have won the election.

Two members from the House of Representatives
take turns at the podium as Gore presides over the election matter.

Moore discovered that no Congressperson read the Patriot Act before it was passed. So he rents an ice cream truck and reads it to Congress.

During the opening credits, Colin Powell prepares for his on-camera role as Secretary of State.

Bush also prepares to play his role. The images of him in this sequence are grainier and more heavily manipulated.

The music changes to a guitar riff from Eric Clapton‘s song “Cocaine,” reminding Moore‘s audience of a younger, more experiemental Bush.

John Ashcroft, the man behind the U.S. Patriot Act, sings, “Let the mighty eagle soar,” from a song of his own composition.

Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11

by Nicole Laskowski

Was it all just a dream? It’s Oscar night 2003, just four days after the United States launched its second war against Iraq. There’s Michael Moore looking dapper, dressed not in his usual jeans and baseball cap, but in a tuxedo. When Bowling for Columbine is announced as the winner for best documentary, the audience gives Moore a standing ovation. And then he sidles up to the microphone and speaks the words that begin Moore’s latest controversy.

“I've invited my fellow documentary nominees on stage with us. They are here in solidarity with me because we like nonfiction. We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times. We live in a time when we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons, whether it is the fiction of duct tape or the fiction of orange alerts. We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush. Shame on you. And any time that you have the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up.” (Michael Moore)[1]

Moore’s speech was cut short, the music began to swell and his microphone receded into the floor.

“Most of the Hollywood audience smiled and applauded, but stagehands, who were close to the microphones booed loudly enough, making it appear to a television listener that Moore’s criticism of President Bush was not well received.”[1]

But Moore didn’t stop there. He followed up this statement with his most sophisticated, most controversial film Fahrenheit 9/11 starring George W. Bush as the bad guy.

Because of this film, Moore has been called “a commonsense man,” “an American Everyman,” “a merry left-winged prankster” by the more liberal media; someone who “validates cinema.” “It gives this country permission to talk about things this administration doesn’t want us to talk about,” a viewer said.[2] “Here comes Fahrenheit 9/11 like a breath of fresh air. Like a release,” a 9/11 survivor said.[2]

But he has also been called “a domestic enemy,” “reckless,” “unpatriotic,” “a bully,” “loudmouthed,” “un-American” by the more conservative press. The New York Times ran a op-ed column written by David Brooks that spliced together some of the comments Moore had been making in other countries: “You're stuck with being connected to this country of mine, which is known for bringing sadness and misery to places around the globe,” Moore said in Cambridge.[3]

Individuals have taken time to comb through the film and find as many “lies” as possible. (Dave Kopel through the Independence Institute—a “nonpartisan research organization”—claims to have found 59.[4]) Weblogs exist watching and commenting on Moore’s every move.

Before the film could be released to an U.S. audience, a release shrouded in controversy itself when at the last minute Disney, the original distributor, backed out of the deal, Moore took it to Cannes where he won the Palme d'Or, the highest prize given to a film and a distinction that has not been bestowed upon a documentary since 1956.

"When I was on stage with Michael Moore,” said Quentin Tarantino, the 2004 Cannes Film Festival Jury President, “I just whispered in his ear, and I just said ‘I just want you to know it was not because of the politics that you won this award. It was because it was the best film that we saw.’”[5]

A polemical editorial essay

Fahrenheit 9/11, largely a polemic about George W. Bush and his administration, is the other story, the one not aggressively followed up by America’s mainstreamed media. Moore uses the documentary to create a filmic version of an editorial essay. He looks over the past four years and questions much of the work President Bush has done. He questions the 2000 election results; Bush’s response to the attacks on September 11th; the relations between the President, Saudi Arabia and the bin Laden family; the bombing of Afghanistan; the war on Iraq; the Patriot Act.

This film is classic Michael Moore. There’s music to fit the mood, there are clips from those old classic films to help fill in the gaps, there are quips and jokes and interviews. And there’s Michael Moore commentating above it all; or there he is driving an ice cream truck around the Capitol Building reading the U.S. Patriot Act through the megaphone, or there he is waiting to bump into members of Congress to enlist their sons or daughters in the war on Iraq, or there he is talking to teenagers from Flint, Michigan (his hometown) who are thinking of enlisting because, finally, this may be a way out of poverty and a way out of Flint.

“Moore has done something the left rarely does. He’s made political criticism entertaining. And as polls show, Generation X and Y Americans get their news increasingly from entertainment shows—the hip irony of political jokes told on The Late Show with David Letterman and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”[6]

But through all of the joking, through all of the teasing, Moore does have a message. Namely that since George W. Bush has taken office, the United States has been lied to, kept in the dark, manipulated, robbed and left feeling powerless and scared.

We have entered Orwellian and Bradburian times, Moore claims. Times when society feels disconnected from its elected officials, and in turn, those elected officials keep society ignorant to what’s really going on. According to Moore’s film, the President of the United States and all of his cabinet continue to present a façade of democracy, but the reality behind that façade is something less than democratic—the wealthy have the power and ability to steer this country in whatever direction their agenda dictates.

The most telling images in the film of this administration’s secrecy, of their manipulation, comes very early on when viewers are shown footage of several cabinet members and the national security advisor in some off-camera moments. The viewers are allowed to see someone preening over Bush’s hair before the President speaks to the U.S. public; Paul Wolfowitz, the advisor to the Secretary of Defense, spitting on a comb and brushing it through his hair; John Ashcroft, Bush’s former Attorney General, telling the camera to “make me look young;” Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Advisor, having foundation applied; Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, having his face brushed with powder.

Although Moore never outright reveals the intent behind these images, the message seems obvious. Here we are in the beginning of a film called Fahrenheit 9/11 watching the major characters, the actors if you will, preparing to play their roles as representatives of U.S. democracy and capitalism.

But upon second glance, Moore has also given his perspective on how this administration functions. Interestingly, the images of Bush in this sequence are treated differently. Unlike any one else who appears within the opening credits, the images of Bush are grainy, and Moore bounces back and forth between showing Bush in real time and slow motion. These techniques force Bush to seem even more diluted, distant and unreal. Also, Bush appears to be speaking at certain times, but he is not given a voice. On the other hand, when either Rumsfeld or Ashcroft appears, they have a voice even if what they are saying is “make me look young.” Through this sequence, Moore sets up a dichotomy between the people behind the curtain who control governmental decisions and their wizard or front man.

This can be juxtaposed with Moore himself who is also a character in this film. Moore’s presence has become one of his signatures in all of his films where he acts much of the time as a narrator and also as comic relief. However, Moore as a character is not treated in the same way as Rice, Bush and his cabinet. Nowhere do we see Moore preparing to be the narrator for this film; nowhere is he combing his hair for the camera or having his make-up applied. He doesn’t need make-up because, Moore seems to be saying, he doesn’t act a role. He is who he is—the one who will reveal the secrecy and the hidden lies, the one who, unlike this country’s news media, will ask the hard questions. We can trust in Michael Moore.

But can we?

While Moore has never hidden his politics, both his agenda and methodology seem questionable from time to time. Moore clearly aligns himself with the average American through his appearance and language, which makes him both easy to like and easy to believe. Again, unlike the Bush Administration, Moore is the real person in this film—like the soldiers in Iraq and the widows mourning over September 11th, and the mothers weeping at the loss of their sons and daughters from the war. Yet, through all of the troubling elements of rigged elections or of war, Moore always comes back to humor as if entertaining his viewers holds as much importance as investigating what’s really going on. It is this oscillation between silliness and seriousness that creates confusion.

Continued: Montage to create meaning