Walking out of the jam-packed cinema after Fahrenheit 9/11 my friend said: “well that didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.” Much has been written about this film and its faults the casual racism in the portrayal of the ‘coalition of the willing’ (not quite as offensive as it sounds), its hounding of the Saudis, its lack of ‘balance’ and its implication that in terms of US foreign policy Bush has been an aberration , but from the point of view of cinema rather than politics and fact checking the biggest problem is that, with its linear structure and single-mindedness, it lacks the drama that the unexpected brings.
The film takes us on a journey through Bush’s presidency of the USA and it is not a pretty picture – so much so that Moore blanks the screen for the attacks on the World Trade Centre. The director himself keeps a low on-screen profile as if he had foreseen the anti-Moore backlash and wanted to head off ad hominem attacks and accusations of egotism (much good it did him: Moore is now a regular target of complaints from both right and left that he is not radical enough and therefore a hypocrite, as if only the starving millions had any right to complain about the world order).
Nevertheless, his low profile is a strength: there is less of the hectoring and overly-broad humour that mar Stupid White Men. Instead what we have is a sober setting out of facts (or at least some of them) with a couple of stunts thrown in, such as Moore pressing army recruitment literature on politicians or driving around Congress in an ice cream van reading out the PATRIOT act, having learned that few if any congressmen had read it before passing it. Moore shows how warnings about a spectacular terrorist attack were ignored by the Bush administration and how in the aftermath of the September attack, while aeroplanes all over the country were grounded, members of the Bin Laden family, which has close business ties with the Bush family, were allowed to leave without even being questioned.
I suspect that revelations like these have less impact in Europe for two reasons. One is that they have been covered in the mainstream media here. (During the invasion of Iraq traffic from the US to European news websites such as BBC surged as Americans sought out information that was not readily available at home.) The other is that opinions here of Bush are already very low and Europeans do not have the reverence for the office holder that bedevils American reporting: Americans reacted in shock when Irish journalist Carol Coleman had the temerity to interrupt the president during what was by no means a hard hitting interview recently.
Even the scenes showing how army recruitment officers target and trick young, usually black men will not come as a great surprise to anyone who has worked in sales or a call centre. This ability to hoodwink the general public is often proudly emblazoned on the CVs of otherwise decent people. Moore has been praised for showing the effects of the war on both Iraqis and Americans. Again, this might be more daring in an American context, where the unpleasant truths of war (dismemberment, death) are apparently glossed over. As is well known by now, the Pentagon has forbidden the filming of bodies coming home from the war, and Bush has not attended any of his soldiers’ funerals. At the risk of sounding like a snooty European, we know all this. We know people get killed. We’ve seen the pictures and indymedia has shown the coffins of American soldiers layed out in rows.
The trouble with this film is that if you are sympathetic with Moore it will come as no surprise. If you are not you probably won’t watch it anyway. The film is not good enough to overcome this polarisation. It doesn’t draw together various strands of information into a new synthesis in the way that Bowling for Columbine did and consequently lacks the shock of the new.
Tags: post 9/11