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"Now see folks, this here ball represents civil libert--er, I mean, terror, and this nine-iron is the PATRIOT Act..."


Fahrenheit 9/11
(NR, 123 min.)
Selected theaters

Critic's pick
McDonald's didn't want you to see Super Size Me. Disney wouldn't distribute Fahrenheit 9/11--but Harvey and Bob Weinstein are: Michael Moore's must-see Palme d'Or winner opens Friday.

Thursday, June 24, 2004
Copyright © Las Vegas Mercury

Fahrenheit 9/11

Burning Bush: Fahrenheit 9/11 is a timely exposé of Dubya's perfidy and the media's subservience

By Jeannette Catsoulis

Seated opposite a hostile Matt Lauer on a recent episode of NBC's "Dateline," a Buddha-like Michael Moore, hands clasped comfortably beneath his substantial belly, smiled genially at his infuriated host. "How can you say you didn't set out to make a political movie?" railed Lauer, clearly forgetting he was fronting a soft-core infotainment program. "Isn't this film a direct attack on George W. Bush?" "Well, if you put it that way," chuckled Moore, "yes, of course it is."

The kicker would come a few minutes later, as Moore pointedly remarked that it would be nice if Lauer and his fellow "journalists" would subject Bush himself to such incisive questioning. A utopian idea, perhaps--at least by today's groveling media standards--and one raised coincidentally just a few weeks earlier by Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." After screening a clip of a London Times reporter ferociously grilling Prime Minister Tony Blair on his fudging of intelligence reports, Stewart turned to the camera with his trademark look of baffled innocence. "Where do we get one of those?" he inquired.

Where, indeed, is the question that informs every frame of Fahrenheit 9/11, an appalling and timely exposé of the connections, machinations, and financial dealings of the Bush administration. But as shocking as these are, the movie's most devastating indictment is reserved implicitly for our mainstream news media, whose indolence, subservience and cowardice appear immeasurable. As one horrifying image follows another, and each revelation is superseded by one even more disturbing, the deficiencies of the fourth estate cannot be ignored. Why is it left to Moore to present us with an uncensored copy of Bush's military records, and disclose coherently the highly suspect actions of Dubya's relatives in the 2000 election debacle? And how does Moore manage to embed his own camera crews in Iraq--obtaining footage of civilian casualties and abuse of Iraqi prisoners well before Abu Ghraib--while our networks feed us the pre-digested pablum prepared by the White House?

These questions are answered, after a fashion, by a brutal montage of televisual pandering and bias disguised as patriotism. But Fahrenheit 9/11 is only indirectly an anti-press polemic; drawing its title from the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451--the temperature at which paper ignites--about a totalitarian society where books are illegal, the movie is an ambitious and earnest attempt to connect the dots of a story that begins with the 2000 election (and the disenfranchisement of thousands of black Floridians) and ends with the carnage in Iraq. More linear and less scattershot than any of Moore's previous films, Fahrenheit 9/11 examines the behavior of the Bush White House in the wake of the terrorist attacks and the influence of Saudi money on that behavior. Though 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, Bush refuses to investigate Saudi funding of al-Qaeda and speedily evacuates 24 members of the bin Laden family--long-term contributors to Bush's financial adventures--from the U.S. without questioning them. He even enjoys, two days after the towers fall, a congenial dinner with family friend and Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar (nickname: "Bandar Bush").

That politicians can disregard the most fundamental imperatives of justice and humanity to protect their most generous contributors may be no surprise, but Fahrenheit 9/11 is driven by a more sinister thesis: The wholesale hijacking of our civil liberties. Every event in the movie--from the half-hearted feint at Afghanistan to the largesse of Iraq reconstruction contracts to the climate of terror induced by incessant alerts on our nightly news--leads inexorably to the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, which Moore sees as little more than an Orwellian excuse for Trent Lott and John Ashcroft to spy on American citizens. Fortunately, Moore's humor hasn't completely deserted him; hearing from Rep. John Conyers that "we don't read most of the bills we pass," Moore commandeers an ice-cream truck outside the White House and helpfully reads the Act over its loudspeakers.

Stunts like this are fewer this time around, and Moore himself maintains a much lower profile, allowing the facts to speak for themselves. (With uncharacteristic delicacy, he opts for a black screen as the Towers collapse, fading into a dreamy, grey-white blizzard of paper scraps drifting to the ground.) Though peppered with jaunty pop tunes and several loony-surreal moments--John Ashcroft lustily belting out a song he wrote himself, a pair of intense Marines stalking potential recruits among poor black kids in a Wal-Mart parking lot--Fahrenheit 9/11 has an altogether more sober, less boisterous rhythm than we've come to expect. And though a lengthy sequence involving a woman whose son has been killed in Iraq slows the film down considerably, it's clear Moore has connected with her, one betrayed patriot with another.

As a documentarian, Moore is no Frederick Wiseman, or even Errol Morris. But he possesses an unerring media sensibility and an unassuming, populist style aimed directly at those weary of unrelieved punditry. Coated with humor and propelled by a non-threatening intelligence, Moore's political barbs are all the more deadly, his influence on the upcoming election possibly as profound as the Bush family (and Disney) seem to fear. Either way, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a searing, startling piece of filmmaking and a heartfelt portrait of runaway greed and unfettered political arrogance.


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