Was it all just a dream? It’s Oscar night 2003, just four days after America 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.
Moore’s speech was cut short, the music began to swell and his microphone receded into the floor.
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. “Here comes Fahrenheit 9/11 like a breath of fresh air. Like a release,” a 9/11 survivor said. 
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 an 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.
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. ) 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.’”
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.
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.
Montage to create meaning
Throughout much of the film, Moore uses the technique of montage to create meaning. In some sequences, the montage works by splicing several images or scenes back to back to allow the audience to discover their connection. For example, when Moore explores the Patriot Act and Homeland Security, he provides three vignettes to demonstrate how extreme the Patriot Act has become.
In the first example, Moore meets and hangs out with a group called “Peace Fresno” that was infiltrated by the sheriff’s anti-terrorism unit. Moore uses a 50s style background music to give a sense of innocence and peacefulness. In the next example, Moore introduces Barry Rheingold, an older retired gentleman, who one day at the gym said some denigrating remarks about Bush and the war on Afghanistan. Because of these remarks, Rheingold was visited by the FBI. In the third example, Moore introduces baby Patrick Hamilton, whose mommy’s breast milk didn’t make it past security. Finally, Moore shows a scene of someone going through airport security and being allowed to carry four books of matches and two butane lighters on the plane.
“Okay, let me see if I've got this straight,” Moore says. “Old guys in the gym: bad. Peace groups in Fresno: bad. Breast milk: really bad. But matches and lighters on the plane, hey, no problem.”
Moore’s point is clear. The U.S. government has enacted a bill for the protection of this society, but if you have enough money, power and influence (i.e., like the cigarette industry), you don’t have to follow the rules.
Moore also uses montage sequences to provide shock value. Words are juxtaposed with images that directly contradict each other. These are Moore’s oxymoronic moments.
For example, Moore shows Donald Rumsfeld standing behind a White House podium during a press brief. Rumsfeld says, “The targeting capabilities and the care that goes into targeting.” Moore quickly cuts away to show an Iraqi building blown apart. Rumsfeld’s voice continues and blends into another shot of a young boy writhing in pain, his right temple stitched crudely, his left temple being treated. “is as impressive as anything anyone could see.” Moore then cuts to a shot from the perspective of a scope on a machine gun shooting and killing ghostly figures that move along the horizon. “The care that goes into it, the humanity that goes into it,” Rumsfeld says. And then there is a shot of an older Iraqi woman standing in ruins and yelling in hysterics. “They have no conscience,” she screams. “This is our uncle’s house! We're all civilians! There is no militia here.”
Not only does Moore juxtapose images against Rumsfeld’s words, but he also juxtaposes place. Rumsfeld stands securely behind his podium, but the elderly Iraqi woman stands in front of shambles.
Moore also uses montage to provide the punch line. At the end of this sequence with Rumsfeld, Moore blends this series of shots into a shot of Britney Spears sitting in front of a reporter, smacking her gum, a hot pink stripe rippling through the blond wig she is wearing. “Honestly, I think we should just trust our President in every decision he makes, and we should support that,” she says.
On top of this, Moore blends the Iraqi woman’s yelling with the sound of Spears chewing her gun. Before Spears enters the frame, before the camera cuts to her interview, the sound of gum smacking can be heard. The jump from a war zone to a teenage pop star is jarring: As the Iraqi woman’s world has been destroyed, Spears sits leaning forward with a giant jeweled “B” hanging from her neck. Moore seems to include this particular scene with Spears to lighten the mood, but because of the jarring transition, Moore also seems to be chastising the Spearite age group (who seems to be his target audience) and the general ignorance of the U.S. people.
And there are other examples. A series of shots showing Bush golfing with the Go-Go’s “Vacation” playing in the background. The war on Afghanistan is edited into a Western with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Blair wearing huge cowboy hats sitting around a camp fire. Bush’s repeating the phrase “smoke him out” in reference to how U.S. forces would capture bin Laden is then juxtaposed against a scene from a Western film using the same line. How is the bombing of Afghanistan supposed to be interpreted when presented in such a fashion?
Moore’s camera follows two Marine Corps recruiters through the parking lot of one of Flint’s shopping centers as they work their magic. These two recruiters are seen by the camera differently from the people they are trying to recruit. When they are first introduced, swanky 70s music plays in the background adding to their image as suave, smooth talkers. The camera peers up at them making them appear larger than life. In contrast, many of the men they are trying to recruit are filmed from the side, standing on the fringes of the frame. Rarely does any potential recruit appear in the center of the frame.
“I am not trying to pretend this is some sort of... fair and balanced work of journalism,” Moore told a news reporter. “I would like to see Bush removed from the White House.”
Beginning with his first film Roger & Me (1989), Moore became a voice of the working class, an average concerned citizen (who grew up in the town he was filming about) who could do and say what others couldn’t or wouldn’t. Whereas the thousands of workers laid off by GM in Flint, Michigan were concerned with how to pay bills, where to live after being evicted, how to feed their families, Moore takes it upon himself to be the individual who has the time, the passion, and the obsession, to do what others are too busy to do.
Here he is donned in his baseball cap, wearing blue jeans with shirts untucked, walking around with disheveled hair. Here he is standing at the reception desk of a prestigious country club or fitness club where he stands out like a sore thumb asking to see Roger Smith, the CEO of GM at the time. He almost never gets past that point. Instead, it seems, he’s always one step behind the CEO, and rarely does he even make contact with the people he wishes to question. But, because of his style, because of his appearance, he is easily familiar. And because he is pushed aside, thrown out, marginalized, he is an everyman. He’s one of us.
For example, in one episode of Moore’s television series The Awful Truth that aired on Bravo in the late 90s, Moore confronts members of Congress who support the display of the Ten Commandments in schools. He hands Dave Weldon, a representative from Florida, a plaque with the quote: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Weldon claims that this is one of his favorite quotes from Scripture. When Moore segues from the quote to politics, asking Weldon about accepting money from PACs and supporting a flat tax, Weldon says these things make it easier for “the little guy” to file their income tax reports because filing can be “too complicated.” Moore, always ready for debate, quickly says in response, “Do you think we're that stupid that we can’t fill out our tax returns?” Moore is the little guy.
Along with aligning himself as the average American, Moore also becomes a living, breathing example of democracy (whether you agree with his views or not). Through his appearance in his films and this characterization of himself as the average American, Moore reminds his viewers that they have the responsibility and the power to act as educated, concerned citizens. Rather than sitting idly by and accepting the choices CEOs or elected politicians make, Americans have the right to question these choices completely.
Moore has carried this style into all of his other films. Rather than being the observant eye, rather than documenting life, Moore takes his viewers on a journey and asks that they trust he is leading them in a good direction. And because his persona is so outwardly flawed yet capable of putting elected officials or CEOs on the spot (something many Americans no doubt would love to do from time to time), it is easy to follow Moore.
Although Moore’s persona as the little guy and his style of placing people on the spot holds a prominent position in all of his films, Moore’s physical presence as the common linking device from scene to scene and as a prankster seems to be diminishing in Fahrenheit 9/11. In his past films, Moore has gone after Roger Smith, the CEO of GM, and Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike, and Charelton Heston, the president of the NRA. But in Fahrenheit 9/11, it is the President of the United States. Unlike his other films, Moore doesn’t chase President Bush through the streets of Washington D.C.. He doesn’t appear at the Capitol Building waiting for some presidential representative to escort him out. He doesn’t hunt Bush down for an interview. And he doesn’t appear on the screen nearly as much as he has in the past.
Instead, Moore is less physically visible in this film than in his previous films, but he is more visible (and some would say more intrusive) in his editing style. So, instead of chase scenes, we have images of Bush playing golf, fumbling over speeches, saying the most inappropriate thing at the most inappropriate times. Here is President Bush on September 11th sitting in a classroom in Florida. He learns that the United States is under attack, but he doesn’t move. And here is the voice of Michael Moore wondering what the President must be thinking in these moments (“I've been hanging out with the wrong crowd.” “Which one of them screwed me?”), imagining that the President is worried about himself more than about the state of the country.
Bush may have written all of the best lines, but Moore has spliced these moments together so this is all we see of the President. For example, in one scene early on in the film when Moore is taking his viewers back through the 2001 elections, Moore shows an image of the Fox News Channel and says,
Moore cuts to a scene of Bush laughing, his shoulders shaking, and then Moore quickly cuts away and continues his narration. Moore’s meaning is obvious here. He shows Bush giggling like a county bumpkin while asking viewers how this guy managed to pull off the scandal of the year.
So, on the one hand, Moore is invested in presenting his views, and he seems particularly careful to express those views through a hip-hop, MTV-esque style. He uses montage sequences to not only create meaning, but to create his meaning. And, on the other hand Moore asks his viewers to trust that he will get to the bottom of whatever situation he is investigating to the best of his ability, that he will provide the truth in a time when journalists are not asking the hard questions, that he will show you what the powers that be don’t want you to know or remember.
Melodrama and one woman’s story
One of the methods Moore uses is simply talking to the U.S. public. In the first three-fourths of the film, Moore essentially allows for Bush and his cabinet to set up the story. Moore then cuts away from this political-speak by focusing in on an ordinary American. One woman mourning. One woman with a face and a voice.
When Moore begins to discuss the 9/11 Commission created to investigate the attacks on September 11th, he takes his viewers through several quick cuts to provide a backstory of the situation telling his viewers that Bush tried to block Congress’s investigation. Moore cuts from this to tell his viewers that Congress did complete its own investigation, but that the White House censored 28 pages. According to Moore’s source, these censored pages directly related to Saudi Arabia. When Bush is asked whether he will testify in front of the commission, Bush says he'll be happy to “visit” with them.
Moore breaks from this political swirl of news reports and presidential interviews and introduces his viewers to Rosemary Dillard who was widowed on the day of the attacks.
“I need to know what happened to him,” she says. “That man was my life and I have no plan... and if I'm not doing something with this, I don’t know what reason I have to live.” She moves away from the camera with tears in her eyes.
Moore reminds his viewers that through all of the politics of the situation, through all of the censoring of information and the blocking of commissions, there are real people out there still reeling from this tragedy. People who are still trying to put the pieces of their lives back together. People, Moore seems to be saying, who deserve to have answers.
In the last one-third of the film, Moore allows for these ordinary people to have more than just a voice, more than just 20 seconds of screen time, he allows for one of them to tell her story.
Here is Lila Lipscomb. She describes her family as the backbone of America. This county was built on the backs of her people and people like hers. She talks of her supporting the armed services because the military has provided a way for her children to become independent, to find a way out of Flint, Michigan. And she is proud of her children’s commitment to the United States, beaming when she talks about her daughter’s service in the first Gulf War and her son’s service in the current war on Iraq. We see the U.S. flag flying in her front yard, a pin of the U.S. flag attached to her lapel.
At this point in the film, Moore has already given his viewers the scary sense that several of the teenagers in this town do consider heading overseas to fight in this war because this could be their chance to get out of Flint. Already he has followed two recruiters around the parking lot of some mega-shopping center to corner young men and ask them to sign up. Already he has placed a circle around the type of people attracted to the armed services: they are young, innocent and poor. This “voluntary” service is not “voluntary” to them. It is a practical way out. Lipscomb and her son become the tangible example of this.
Lipscomb’s perspective, though, seems surprising in the face of all of this. But when her son Michael Pedersen dies in a helicopter crash in Iraq, Moore is there to show Lipscomb’s change in attitude. She reads the last letter her son sent home, tears flooding her eyes:
“I cannot wait to get back to home and back to my life... and I'll see my first nephew soon, as soon as I get back to the States,” Pedersen wrote. But this will never happen.
Moore personalizes this war. More important, he does something that seems unMoore-like. Rather than running after the good joke, Moore deviates from his norm to entertain his viewers with a different genre—with melodrama, a genre that highlights women’s struggles in a society through a narrative charged with emotion. Everything about a melodrama is created to highlight emotion, from costumes to lighting to music to set design. Like traditional melodrama, Moore films Lipscomb in dress similar to his, in jeans and t-shirts. He shows Lipscomb in her kitchen sipping her coffee or in her front yard displaying her U.S. flag.
However, even this storyline has been manipulated for his audience. Moore admits he knew of Lipscomb only after her son had been killed in Iraq. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly he says,
And when Moore reveals the moment of her son’s death, Moore has decided to film this with all of her children sitting around her, her husband gently placing his hand on her back as she reads Pedersen’s last letter home. Moore suddenly has a narrative arc. The conflict is not simply Moore’s frustration with the political situation, but Lipscomb’s grief.
Rather than cutting and pasting images quickly together, when Lipscomb appears on the screen, she is given long takes. In fact, even Moore begins appear more frequently when Lipscomb is present in the frame than at any other time. Not only is she speaking, like all of the other interviewees, but she is speaking to him. The camera also pulls in to show close-ups of Lipscomb wringing her hands when she talks about the death of her son, or of her face when the tears start falling after she has read her son’s last letter home.
Moore includes this excessive emotion so that, at this point, we don’t need Michael Moore voiceovers or quick cuts or funny lines because this one story speaks for itself. What viewers sometimes fail to remember is that truth and fact in film are almost nonexistent. Something captured on film has already been manipulated, sometimes staged with the filmmaker having the power to include as well as exclude quotes, people, images, angles, scenes. If film is being funneled through someone’s perspective, how can it be fact (or truth for that matter)?
Is this what the conservative press fears? That Moore can entertain too easily and in a time when society is thirsty for the truth, for information with no spin attached?
“It is not a documentary which seeks to present the facts truthfully,” wrote Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City. “The most significant offense that movie commits is to cheapen the political debate by dehumanizing the President and presenting him as a cartoon.”
Nearing the end of the film, Moore returns to the images he started with in the opening credits. Here is Condoleezza Rice removing her earpiece. Here is John Ashcroft exiting the frame. Here is Colin Powell removing his earpiece. This acts as a trigger to the audience: We have come full circle. But Moore also seems to be implying that now is the time for this administration’s charade to end.
Maybe what the conservative press really fears is the ultimate impact of Moore’s tactics. Bush’s Presidency was born out of controversy within a country that has felt divided by the Democrat and Republican parties. Maybe what the conservative press fears is Moore successfully targeting the 18-29 year-old population by using humor and aligning himself as the average American. Youth represents a population known to take the liberal side of political issues but a population weak in actually voting. Are they afraid that Moore will convince this age group that now is the time to cast a ballot and dethrone the Republican Party?
Now, after the 2004 presidential election has yielded George W. Bush as the winner of both the popular and the electoral vote, Moore’s comments the night of the 2003 Academy Awards seem far away, and the intensely heated debate over Fahrenheit 9/11 seems to have fizzled out. Bush is no longer a fictitious President, he is the real President-elect.
But Moore will continue to push after controversy.
And Michael Moore will provide that truth. Right?Notes
2. Moore, Michael. “Fahrenheit 9/11. Special Features: The Release of Fahrenheit 9/11.” Lions Gate Fellowship. 2004
3 Brooks, David. “All Hail Moore.” The New York Times. June 26, 2004.
4. Kopel, Dave. “Fifty-Nine Deceits in Fahrenheit 9/11.”
5. Moore, Michael. “Fahrenheit 9/11. Special Features: The Release of Fahrenheit 9/11.” Lions Gate Fellowship. 2004.
6. Mattson, Kevin. “The Perils of Michael Moore: Political Criticism in an Age of Entertainment.” Dissent Magazine. Spring 2003.
8. Fierman, Daniel. “The Passion of Michael Moore.” Entertainment Weekly. July 9, 2004. 30-38.
9. Mattson, Kevin. “The Perils of Michael Moore: Political Criticism in an Age of Entertainment. Dissent Magazine. Spring 2003.
Corliss, Mary. “A First Look at 'Fahrenheit 9/11': Controversy aside, the new Michael Moore film is a fine documentary.” www.time.com. May 17, 2004.
Curiel, Jonathan. “Fahrenheit Rising: Critics are already attacking Michael Moore for hisnew movie, which is aimed squarely at derailing Bush’s re-election bid.” www.sfgate.com. June 20, 2004.
Denby, David. “George & Me.” The New Yorker. June 28, 2004. v80 i17. p108.
Heyden, J.D. “Burning Bush: Michael Moore says the President lied to America. But does his movie play fair?” People Weekly. July 5, 2004. v62 i1. p69.
Hitchens, Christopher. “Unfairenheit 9/11: The lies of Michael Moore.” http://slate.com. June 21, 2004.
Kelly, Christopher. “Michael Moore makes politics pop with Fahrenheit 9/11.” Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. June 28, 2004.
Sheff, David. “Playboy Interview: Michael Moore.” www.playboy.com. July 2004.