Original release: June 25th, 2004
Running time: 122 minutes
Writer and director: Michael Moore
In the summer of 2005, I began to experiment more seriously with photography, using the only camera I had – my mobile phone. Then, on July 7th, the London suicide attacks happened, and my new-found passion got me caught up in the security hype that followed the bombings.
Much like I do now, I took pictures all the time and of pretty much everything and naïve as I was, I did just that inside the underground station King’s Cross St. Pancras where the most severe explosion had taken 26 lives. A policeman stopped me and suddenly I found myself thrown into one of the most bizarre episodes of my life.
I was searched, questioned and due to some confusion involving a fake diamond in my wallet, I was placed under arrest and taken to a police station where I spent several hours locked in a cell. Eventually two gentlemen from the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism interviewed me…
Having experienced some of the post 7/7 security measures at work and up-close, I couldn’t help but wonder if there’s something wrong with the system.
Michael Moore’s controversial documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 does that more than anything – the film is a philosophical exploration of whether there is something fundamentally wrong with the system. Moore seems to think there is, and he demonstrates this by making several points starting from George W. Bush’s controversial election victory, the events leading up to the attacks of September 11 and what followed in the wake of the disaster that had a grave impact on world history.
Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding the film, there is no doubt Fahrenheit 9/11 is an effective and well-made documentary. After an account of the presidential elections, the following turmoil and the first eight months of the Bush presidency, the film comes to its opening credits – and the events on 9/11.
This part makes me shiver no matter how many times I watch it. Moore does not exploit 9/11 imagery – he doesn’t use a single frame from the attacks. With the screen blackened out, we hear the sound of those massive, shattering impacts, the first one and then the second. Then we only see images of people’s faces that convey emotions so overwhelming we cannot help but feel what they feel – a sensitive and respectful way to deal with a much-observed event.
Considering the general point Moore makes in the film, the brief mention of the “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US” memo that was given to the President in his Daily Brief on August 6th 2001 seems like a missed opportunity. Condoleezza Rice, using a very effective method of communication invented by Karl Rove, downplayed the importance of the memo and simply denied that it was a warning about possible attacks.
Moore could have pressed this as the document – declassified in 2004 – is rather clear on its meaning. Rice indicating it was nothing more than a history lesson on Bin Laden is simply not true. The report is quite straightforward about a Bin Laden cell recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks – already foreshadowing ‘home-grown terrorism’ – and it also elaborates on “suspicious activity consistent with hijackings … including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.” The Bush administration never acknowledged the significance of this error, and Moore doesn’t seem to find it worth stressing either; apart from a brief mention and a joke, he glosses over the memo.
The film’s exploration of a complex maze of connections between the U.S. Government, the Bush and Bin Laden families and Saudi Arabia is an intriguing sequence with an overwhelming amount of information. The fact that these revelations don’t surprise is precisely why we might feel somewhat embarrassed. We know this is going on; we see politicians making frequent visits to Saudi Arabia – with strong and widespread opposition from human rights groups.
This isn’t exposed by Fahrenheit 9/11; it is merely detailed and highlighted, though it could easily be the most important point the film makes. While the promotion of human rights and tolerance is integrated into foreign policy and diplomacy, these values don’t necessarily always apply – as far as it suits financial interests. Moore poignantly puts his finger on this inherent hypocrisy by showing footage of public beheadings in Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, there are reasons to cautiously scrutinise Fahrenheit 9/11. The most glaring factual error concerns the Unocal gas pipeline deal and its relation to the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan 8 weeks after the attacks in New York. Moore says the pivotal pipeline deal was signed after the invasion when U.S. installed president Karzai. The film even shows footage of Karzai apparently signing the relevant documents – making the audience think the invasion was a pre-meditated plan to accommodate a financial deal.
In fact, the deal was signed back in 1998 but the construction work was abandoned completely when Bill Clinton ordered missile attacks on Osama Bin Laden’s Afghan training camps in retaliation to the Al Qaeda bomb blasts at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Connecting the pipeline deal to the invasion is an error but it’s also a conveniently placed error that supports the film’s general narrative.
Former counter-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke’s interview about Bush wanting to find justification to invade Iraq after 9/11 speaks for itself. However, the film spends very little time debunking the Bush administration’s reasoning that led the country and its allies into the war in Iraq.
Right before the invasion, Moore takes us on a lengthy and pointless detour through the state of Oregon – as though the total number of state troopers in this vastly natural area had something to do with homeland security or terrorism. When we enter Baghdad, again, the footage of conflict and the interviews with soldiers speak for themselves. It is very apparent that the government sent in the military without sufficient planning as most soldiers seem quite puzzled about what is happening. One of them complains about the number of civilians they’ve killed as they don’t know who the enemy is. Another one seems surprised that killing people face to face really feels different from the video games he used to play.
On the whole, Fahrenheit 9/11 was an instrumental film in shaping my views during my young adulthood. Over the years, I looked at this film with more and more scepticism though. Most of the time, I feel Moore simply doesn’t go deep enough, or avoids important issues. He mentions 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia but doesn’t elaborate on what this could mean. He seems to think that some aspects of the 9/11 attacks have been swept under the carpet but he doesn’t explore what this has to do with the West protecting Saudi Arabian assets.
While Fahrenheit 9/11 was to become the highest grossing documentary of all time, it didn’t make the intended impact on the presidential elections in 2004. Most of the film’s unquestionably valid points concern the inadequacies of the Bush administration, but eventually both the United States and the rest of us were in for another four years of the same.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.