To venture a socially concerned cliché, every American should see Fahrenheit 9/11. But that's not the same thing as making a movie anybody will enjoy seeing, and writer/director Michael Moore is enough of a showbiz pro to know it. While his new film lacks some of the flair of his previous Bowling for Columbine, it's still a rousing round of Bush-bashing a sometimes sidesplitting, occasionally saddening but consistently entertaining attack on the most disastrous presidency in modern history.
The filmmaker's central tenet is that George W. Bush has let Al Qaeda off easy because of his family's close economic ties to the Bin Ladens and other Saudi nationals. Most of the details of that complaint are as familiar to progressives as the Vince Foster suicide is to the Clinton-hating contingent. Yet Moore does what most leftie satirists can't, which is to find the grim joke at the center of the outrage. Found footage of Dubya yukking it up on the links and kicking back at the ranch is almost buffoonish enough on its own; Moore's gift is to jazz it up with perfectly timed smartass asides and allusions to pop culture. Some of his biggest scores are in the area of music. Will we ever again be able to watch W.'s notorious landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln without hearing in our heads Moore's chosen music bed, the theme from The Greatest American Hero? (Sample lyric: "It should have been somebody else.")
If you're worried that being one of the choir exempts you from Moore's preaching, think again. He has the incredible gift of showing the familiar in ways that make it seem shocking and new. As in Columbine, he makes the disaster of Sept. 11 feel headline-fresh, depicting it here in a series of gut-wrenching reaction shots of traumatized New Yorkers watching the towers fall. Arriving relatively early in Fahrenheit 9/11, the sequence establishes the film as a populist tract, suggesting that the Bush team's failures in the war on terror, mostly, but also of leadership in general are crimes against us.
Scenes from TV's Dragnet and a Bonanza spoof provide extra ammo to blast holes in the White House's feeble get-tough postures. Yet there's more at work in these segments than po-mo mockery. Moore is trying to show how an outmoded Joe Friday philosophy, though patently ridiculous to most sane individuals, is exactly the mentality harbored in today's corridors of power.
This filmmaker is a master of juxtapositions. One of his new movie's bitterest ironies commences with a scene of two Marines seducing potential enlistees with promises of money for college; later, an Iraqi woman pleads with U.S. soldiers interrogating a male relative, who she says is "just a college student."
The Iraq stuff sees the movie going off track a bit, forsaking the Saudi angle for an impassioned plea to bring the boys back home. That's not entirely Moore's fault. The very administration he's pillorying is a study in courses reversed, so good luck erecting a logical timeline. Still, it's a flaw that will be seized upon by his detractors even more than his one genuinely loathsome habit: talking over the comments of interviewees who appear to be quite capable of coming up with their own pearls of wisdom. In about three glaring instances, the movie becomes The Michael Moore Show when it doesn't have to be.
Even when it's an intrusion, though, the show is a damn good one. And if it sets the terms of debate in this election season for even two weeks ... well, what have you done to save your country lately?
What's that? You registered to vote? Never mind.