I was nervous last week when I bought my ticket to Fahrenheit 9/11 at the mall in Oklahoma City. I didn’t know if someone was going to scrawl "traitor" in lamb’s blood on the theater door, or quote angry scripture verses at the screen.
But the scene inside wasn’t part of some dated Bible Belt stereotype. Instead, for two hours a hundred ordinary Oklahomans were here on a workday afternoon, watching in astonishment and horror, until the lights came up and the room shook with grateful applause. As I got up to leave, I couldn’t help but smile in relief, both at them and the film itself.
In general, I like Michael Moore for his well-humored politicking, but his willingness to indulge a mawkish streak has put me off in the past. Case in point: the ending of Bowling for Columbine, when he holds up the little girl’s photo to guilt-trip the doddering Charlton Heston into submission. This is bathos incarnate.
But Fahrenheit 9/11 has almost none of it. Instead, Moore gives us artful storytelling about an empire undone, presenting a devastating picture of our president and his minders. In scene after scene, George Bush comes across like a washed-up soap opera actor trying out for the Royal Shakespearean Company—he’s terminally ersatz on the world stage. At least Reagan had some mild virtues: the gift of timing, a modicum of style, a beautiful speaking voice, and a long track record of B level accomplishments in Hollywood and Sacramento to prop up his presidential charade. Moore reminds us that Bush lacks even this meager preparation for the oval office. After all, this is a drunken C student who wracked up an embarrassing list of business failures, lined his pockets as a glorified carnival barker for major league baseball, then took a crash course in gubernatorial bloviating, Texas-style.
Which brings me to the Texas thing. Fahrenheit 9/11 rightly mocks the president as a make-believe cowboy with a two-bit Bonanza ideology, a skin-deep good old boy toting his chain-saw around Crawford, Texas and giving his syntax a down-home garble that he never would have used at Yale. By working to conceal that which is missing, Texanness seems to function as a codpiece for the Bush boys. "Ivy league cheerleader" doesn’t have much cachet in the red states, so the Bushies affect the kind of masculine ruggedness that goes over like warm biscuits in these parts.
Or does it? The Oklahoma response to Fahrenheit 9/11 suggests that plenty of Americans have lost faith in their president—and faith is the operative word. The way people are lining up for Fahrenheit 9/11, watching it in reverence, coming out feeling moved and changed and cleansed and furious, makes it more like Mel Gibson’s The Passion than either filmmaker would probably care to admit. Both are artful propaganda designed to rally the spirits of the faithful. Both are the work of soft-spoken reformers who share a genius for public relations. Both defied the box-office predictions. And both bring out the cinematic fact checkers in droves, those dull literalists who refuse to see that these films are idiosyncratic, personal visions whose veracity cannot be tested through Lexus-Nexus citations.
Just as Time and Newsweek were obsessed with checking the historical accuracy of Gibson’s movie, hoping to achieve what centuries of scholarship has not, critics are now parsing every sentence in Fahrenheit 9/11. One of the worst offenders is Christopher Hitchens, who describes the movie in Slate.com as a "sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness." Hitchens takes an empiricist sledgehammer to the movie, chipping away at something far larger in cultural import than anything to which he has put his pudgy hands. And what does our snot-nosed Oxford-boy discover? He whines that Moore did not make it adequately clear that U.S. bombs were dropping on buildings associated with Saddam’s regime. (Isn’t that obvious to anyone who watched the shock and awe coverage on TV?) He complains that Moore didn’t spell out how the U.S. should be fighting terror. (When did that become the responsibility of a satirist?)
I agree that Moore sometimes treats "the facts" as an artist would tubes of paint, squeezing and blending them to achieve a desired effect. No shit, Sherlock. Hitchens should know that documentary is not a dry government report filled with graphs and tables—at least not in Moore’s hands. It is humorous, evocative, and corrosive. It is Mark Twain and Lincoln Steffens and Abbie Hoffman brought together for the age of CNN, and it mugs for the camera, jeers at the powerful, and jerks our emotions. It is a rude polemic, an everyman’s dissent, a televisual sermon on the moral iniquities of the powerful, not a dry recitation of "the facts" as Hitchens would prefer them. It is political art designed to cause a reaction, not a dissertation fated for a library shelf.
Is it a cheap shot? You bet. Does it play loose with some of the facts? Strictly speaking, yes, but so does the nightly news. Fahrenheit 9/11 is far from perfect, but it tells us something that CBS, Fox, and CNN forgot to mention during the past four years, something we’re desperate to hear in the heartland as much as anywhere else.
Moore has earned his uneven reputation as a media gadfly, but here he has landed on an essential truth about our fearless leader, one that hits you in the chest and leaves you gasping for something to happen, some change to come, something that will send this little man back to Crawford, Texas where he can play dress-up cowboy the rest of his livelong days.