Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

It seems to me that Michael Moore's best point in Fahrenheit 9/11 got lost in the shuffle.

Moore goes up to several congressmen and asks them if they would be interested in sending their own children to the Armed Services recruiters, so they can help out in the Iraqi war effort. The reactions are so glib or rude or shallow that it truly offers a sorry glimpse of the people who are supposed to be running our country. But Moore touches on this very quickly, almost makes it a throwaway, then moves on to something else.

Let's stop and dwell on that point for a minute, because it is more profound and more complex than Moore seems to understand. I guess I am probably among the vast majority of Americans who thinks, "OK, I'll pitch in and do my part, even place my life in jeopardy if I have to, but our leaders damned well better have a good reason if they ask me to do that." The question is not whether war is dangerous and horrible, a point Moore seems to belabor needlessly. War is hell. Let us agree on that. And let us agree that nobody wants to invest his children in a war from which they may not return

But let us with no axe to grind also agree that there are times when such investments are necessary or inevitable. Like most of you, I am not a person who believes in blindly supporting his country's policies unquestioningly, but neither am I a nutbar who believes that there is never any reason for American troops to be in danger. I think all of us would just like some assurance that our leaders have the same stake as the rest of us when it comes to the risks of foreign military entanglements.

My son is about the same age as Bush's daughters, and I am about the same age as the President. So here's how I feel about his wars. I would not object to my son going anywhere the President's daughters are sent. If he puts the girls in a front-line unit and sends them into combat, then he must really be convinced that his war is important, over and above any empty political considerations. If he is that committed, then my son, and your sons - and you - should probably feel about the same way. I would support any war in which the President felt it was important enough to send his daughters into front line combat. I'll bet that most of you agree.

Unfortunately, the American politicians never have to make such investments. They are able to declare wars without any real personal stake in the validity of their decisions. There is no reason for the Bush daughters to be in combat. They will have good jobs that pay them fat salaries to work in workplaces free from shoulder-launched missiles and AK-47 fire. War is fought by the sons and daughters of the poor, those for whom the military is the best option to escape from the cycle of poverty and joblessness, and thence to finance a decent education. President Bush does not have to decide whether his war is important enough to send in his girls. He simply has to decide whether it is important enough to send in a lot of poor kids, many of whom have skin several shades darker than his own.

I don't have a solution. I'm not a policy guy, but rather an old fart who watches too many movies. I would like to be able to whip out a facile answer - let's have universal service for all Americans of both sexes, with no exceptions allowed, ever. No 4F's, no student deferments, no way out. Everybody serves in some way. Not everyone can be in combat, but everyone can serve in some way. Yes, I'd like it if there were such simple solutions to our problems. But there are not. The arguments against a "draft" are probably more compelling than those in its favor.

But it would be nice to have a way for our President to have to make the same emotional investment as the other mothers and fathers who send their kids to Iraq. If he had to do that, you can bet your ass he would make decisions we would support overwhelmingly, and would later forgive if they were proven to be poor judgments. After all, we would know the decision, even if ultimately proved wrong, was made with all due consideration.

Michael Moore pointed out that only one person in Congress has a son or daughter in the armed forces. I would have loved to see him expand that point as I did above.

As for the stuff that Moore actually did do, a very big portion of it is propaganda for the gullible.

Approximately the last third of the film is dedicated to the soldiers who came home wounded, and the parents of those who didn't come home at all. It is very moving, but it is simply false argumentation on Moore's part, using a completely universal point to create a favorable emotional landscape for his own specific argument. Every war is tragic. War is hell. There were boys who did not come home or came home damaged from the Civil War, The American Revolution, and World War Two, and there are mothers and sweethearts who cursed Roosevelt, Lincoln, and The Continental Congress. Undoubtedly, there were Russian mothers who thought their deceased sons should have surrendered to that nice Napoleon. Even if President Bush's war in Iraq had proven to have saved the free world from imminent nuclear attack, there would still be mothers crying over the empty chairs at their dinner tables.

The point Moore needed to focus on is whether this specific war was worth dying for. This point is given short shrift, in my opinion.

The first third or so of the film is dedicated to establishing the great link between the Bush and bin Laden families, a link which theoretically has much to do with Bush's policies in general, and his post 9/11 actions in particular. Much is made of the fact that members of the bin Laden family and other Saudi nationals were rounded up and flown safely home after 9/11 when other flights were still grounded.

This entire section of the film is really a "so what" if you think about it enough.

  • First of all, those flights were authorized upon the sole authority of Richard Clarke, then the terrorism czar, now one of Moore's heroes, and the latest darling of the left because of the aspersions he has recently cast upon his former boss. You see the problem here? All of those flights that Moore makes such a big deal about were arranged by his buddy Clarke, and not by a Bush-driven conspiracy.

  • Second, why should Bush not be in business with the bin Ladens? They are a bunch of businessmen and capitalists who hate Osama just as much as everyone else does. Moore thinks that merely evoking the dreaded bin Laden name, and suggesting that the bin Laden family would actually profit from 9/11, is somehow supposed to associate the President with the evil Osama bin Laden. This is the same as holding President Bush responsible for the actions of Neil Bush, or for that matter holding Michael Moore responsible for the fact that Roger Moore was a shitty James Bond. The whole argument might make some sense if Moore could establish that there was some connection between the other bin Ladens and Osama, but his entire connection consists of precisely one fact: when Osama's son got married a few years ago, some of the other bin Ladens went from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan for the wedding. As it turns out, according to Yeslam Binladin, a Swiss citizen and Osama's half-brother, there was only one member of the bin Laden family who attended that wedding - it was Osama's mother, the groom's grandmother. Attending her grandson's wedding? That terrorist bitch.

What other powerful points does Moore make against Bush?

POINT: Prior to 9/11, Bush spent 42% of his presidency on vacation.

The film's narration says: "In his first eight months in office before September 11th, George W. Bush was on vacation, according to the Washington Post, 42% of the time"

This appears to be Moore's source: "A White House On the Range", from the Washington Post of August 7, 2001. It does not actually refer to whether the president is on vacation, but merely to his physical location for all or part of those days. Take special note of "or part". If he got up at six in the morning at Camp David, had a cup of java, then flew to the White House, that was counted as a day at Camp David. Here is what the Post actually said:

"By the time President Bush returns to Washington on Labor Day after the longest presidential vacation in 32 years, he will have spent all or part of 54 days since the inauguration at his parched but beloved ranch. That's almost a quarter of his presidency. Throw in four days last month at his parents' seaside estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, and 38 full or partial days at the presidential retreat at Camp David, and Bush will have spent 42 percent of his presidency at vacation spots or en route."

You have to realize, of course, that the calculation counts Saturdays and Sundays at Camp David as "two days at vacation spots". If the President leaves for Camp David very late Friday night and comes back very early Monday morning, it counts that as "four full or partial days at vacation spots".

In other words, Moore did not correctly cite the Post to begin with, because they never claimed the President was actually on vacation, but merely pointed out his geographic location.

But even if the Post had made that claim, this is a classic case of using a number that sounds like it means something, when it really doesn't. Let's do some math. Assuming you began your job on January 20, as the President did, what percentage of your time were you on vacation before Sept 11th? There are 234 days from Jan 20 to Sept 11. The average person takes weekends off, so that would be about 67 days out of 234 (two sevenths). The typical American family takes vacation in summer. If you are the President's age, you are probably entitled to three weeks. That's fifteen more days. You also get four legal holidays in that period. That means you probably took 86 days off out of those 234 days - by Moore's definition, you were on vacation 37% of the time, roughly the same as the President.

In other words, his 42% is not so very bad to begin with. All we have really found out is that the Prez is a normal guy just like you.

Unless you are French -  then he works a little harder than you! If you take six weeks of vacation instead of the American three, that means you probably had about 101 days off in that 234 day period - you were on vacation 43% of the time, by the standard Moore used. That's slightly more than GWB.

But it must also be realized that the President's accounting also includes those Fridays and Mondays en route, and that the President is actually working on many of those "vacation days", so the 42% figure is deceptively high. Moore himself makes that point inadvertently. When Michael Moore's voice is declaring his points about the President's lack of a work ethic, one of the images on screen is President Bush walking in the great outdoors ... with Tony Blair! Do you consider that to be vacation time? I surely do not.

In summary, Moore's citation of 42% doesn't mean jack shit. It includes weekends. It includes Fridays and Mondays en route. It includes days when the President is actually working. It may even include days when he works sixteen hours at Camp David. Most important, it merely indicates about the same level of work as any average American in the same period, and more than the average Frenchman!

If you are reading what I have written, and are thinking that the President of the United States should work a lot harder than Wal-Mart clerks and French dudes, well, I guess I agree with you. I'd like to think that the President of the United States is invariably spending all of his waking hours looking for ways to ameliorate the lives of Americans. I'd like to think that the President can and should work as hard as I do. But he doesn't. Have other Presidents worked harder than George W. Bush? Yes. President Clinton, for example, was a workaholic. That doesn't mean President Bush is a loafer, and it doesn't mean President Bush is a worse President than Bill Clinton. It merely shows that President Bush is an average Joe.

That doesn't particularly indicate he ought to be President, but it doesn't identify him as a slacker either.

I guess there is one more key point to be made here. I once had a a particularly incompetent employee whom I inherited from another department and had to fire. Some time before I fired her, my boss asked why I allowed her to get away with working 25 hour weeks. My answer was that I was building a legally airtight and fully documented case to terminate the employee, but in the meantime, the less she worked, the better, because I had to spend so much time fixing every single thing she did, and soothing over all the clients she alienated, that I was better off doing it all myself from scratch.

The less she worked, the better.

If George Bush is truly an incompetent warmonger, as Moore seems to believe, then Moore should be relieved that the guy doesn't have a good work ethic. If the President were to work 100% of the time, and is really as bad a guy as Moore suggests, then he would probably get the country involved in twice as many wars. Hell, Moore should thank the President for taking all that time off. Surely Moore would prefer to see the President fishing than planning new invasions.

POINT: In 2000, Al Gore won Florida, thus the Presidency

Who did win Florida in 2000? By the applicable legal standard, President Bush did. As CNN reported, "A comprehensive study of the 2000 presidential election in Florida suggests that if the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed a statewide vote recount to proceed, Republican candidate George W. Bush would still have been elected president." It is possible to construct a scenario in which Gore won. In fact, it is probably fair to say that Gore deserved to win. But it is still a matter of fact that he did not.

A non-partisan firm, commissioned by the big media outlets, studied this issue with all but 2200 of the Florida votes in their physical possession, having obtained them as a result of a Freedom of Information Act suit. Their conclusion actually depends on whether you measure people's intent, or stick with a strict legal interpretation. If one counts only legal ballots, President Bush would have won Florida by 493 votes.

However ... 

"thousands of ballots in the Florida presidential election were invalidated because they had too many marks. This happened, for example, when a voter correctly marked a candidate and also wrote in that candidate's name. The consortium looked at what might have happened if a statewide recount had included these overvotes as well and found that Gore would have had a margin of fewer than 200 votes."

Including this group of votes would obviously have been perfectly fair, because it was absolutely clear whom those people wanted to vote for - they indicated it twice! But "fair" and "legal" are not synonyms. Those ballots were legally invalid. If we could read everyone's minds, we would probably find that Gore won. CNN said, "Secondary analysis suggests that more Florida voters may have gone to the polls intending to vote for Democrat Al Gore but failed to cast a valid vote". But we lack such extra-sensory powers, and even if we had those powers, they have no legal standing. We must concede that Bush won fair and square based on the law.

Furthermore ...

If Al Gore had simply gotten what he first asked for - a hand recount only in heavily Democratic Broward, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Volusia counties - the study indicates that Gore would have picked up some additional support but still would have lost the state by 225 votes. 

So what DID Moore score on, besides the heavily emotional and completely unfair "mom losing her son in the war" anecdote which could have applied to any war in history, justified or not.

He really scored big when he shut his own trap and turned the camera on President Bush, his associates, military recruiters, and various congressmen and businessmen. I have a personal rule of thumb: my opinion of which is the bigger dork, the President or Michael Moore, depends on which one has spoken last. It seems that neither of them has ever heard of that axiom that it is better to shut up and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. Therefore, when he speaks, Moore seems like the bigger fool, but when he lets the President speak ... well, let's be honest, the President on camera is an unmitigated disaster. He's arrogant, combative, verbally clumsy, immature, unsympathetic, and unresponsive. What's more, he appears to be a complete dimwit, although he actually is not. Moore needed to give the President a lot more rope, and just let the man hang himself, rather than trying to string 'im up personally. When Moore did move in that direction, he scored big:

  • The golf course incident showed a particularly shallow President Bush:

    • "I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. [brings up his golf club]  ... now watch this drive"

  • And there is another great sequence - an incident in which the President sat and read a children's book about goats for seven minutes after being informed of the Trade Center attacks.

  • Moore also turned up an interesting expurgation in the President's recently released military records, which Moore compared to earlier, uncensored versions of the same records. One of the expurgations was the name of Bush's Air Force colleague and friend - a guy who managed bin Laden interests in America! I'm not sure that Moore draws a fair conclusion about that censorship - perhaps the redactor simply crossed out every single name, and Moore just made a big deal because that name was one of the hundreds expunged. I don't know. But it was an interesting point. Unfortunately, even if it is true that Bush did not want to draw attention to his relationship to this bin Laden lackey, the Bush relationship to the secular, capitalist bin Ladens still adds up to a heavy dose of "so what?", as detailed above.

Moore also used some fairly cute, if arguably unfair, film devices to generate some humor, like punctuating the President's screen time with "Gilligan music", in an effort to make GWB seem even more of a buffoon. (No easy task!) Why didn't he use the imperial march from Star Wars every time Darth Cheney appeared?

Finally, the film has a good solid emotional punch if it is viewed without an analytical eye. It made me laugh quite a bit, and it brought a tear to my eye more than once. The fact that it may not be intellectually honest doesn't mean that it isn't both powerful and entertaining. Moore knows how to get a visceral reaction, although he's not as strong at producing a cerebral one.


One final point. Moore is absolutely correct about one thing. The MPAA totally screwed him over on that R rating. The film should be PG-13. The decision is obviously either corrupt or stupid. Michael probably believes that the decision is corrupt, but I'm ambivalent. Given the MPAA's track record, "stupid" cannot automatically be ruled out.

  • "The Release of Fahrenheit 9/11" featurette
  • Montage: The people of Iraq on the eve of invasion
  • New scene: "Homeland security, Miami style" (footage of the old men who patrol the Florida coast lookng for terrorists as part of the homeland security plan)
  • "Outside Abu Ghraib Prison"
  • Eyewitness account from Samara, Iraq
  • "Lila, D.C.": Lila Lipscomb at the Washington, D.C. premiere
  • Arab-American comedians: Their acts and experiences after 9/11
  • Extended interview: More with Abdul Henderson
  • "Condi 9/11": Condoleezza Rice's 9/11 Commission testimony
  • "Bush Rose Garden": George W. Bush's press briefing after 9/11 Commission appearance



The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: three stars. James Berardinelli 2.5/4, Roger Ebert 3.5/4.

  • It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes


The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. Disney passed up a license to print money. This film was made for $6 million dollars, and ended up grossing more than $100 million. Along the way, it became the first documentary ever to attain the #1 spot, with a $22 million opening weekend - and it did so despite being on only 868 screens!

Miscellaneous ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics, possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

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