Fahrenheit 9/11: Offscreen Roundtable


by Donato Totaro, Peter Rist, David Douglas Volume 8, Issue 6 / June 2004 22 minutes (5345 words)

The dust hasn’t even settled yet and already the debates over the political merits of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 have been bubbling. Most pundits may agree that the film is entertaining enough, but the real meat of the issue has been Moore’s ethical treatment of the facts (is he providing the complete picture? are the facts in their proper context? is the meaning completely dependent on their juxtaposition through editing?, etc.). The debate has been especially raging on the internet, where two anti-Moore sites have in particular gathered momentum against the film (mooreexposed & moorelies), and a film is in the making entitled Michael Moore Hates America by Michael Wilson (michaelmoorehatesamerica). It is interesting to speculate on who is endorsing Moore, since most serious pundits of both the Left and the Right are critical of Moore (perhaps the Right being more vocal). With his film doing as well as it is at the box-office, one has to give Moore credit for his marketing savvy, but the success should at least expose the fact that the consumer culture that makes such successes possible does have a tolerance and desire for issue films. Remember that the days of ‘bourgeois’ or ‘working class’ cinema in America ended back in the early days of cinema. As historians have argued, from as early on as the post-Nickelodeon period (1912), American cinema began to erase notions of middle and working class in favor of a more viable and profitable ‘consumer’ class. Clearly, Moore’s success is evidence of the great success of this venture. The point is not that everyone who sees the film necessarily endorses or buys into Moore’s schematic political analysis, but that they are interested enough in the issues to hear Moore out. Another important factor to the film’s success is the widespread success of documentary film in general. Recent unprecedented box-offices successes of films such as Bowling for Columbine (2002), Fog of War (2003), The Corporation (2003), Touching the Void (2003) and Super Size Me (2004) has made the documentary a ‘hot’ genre. The following is a spontaneous 45 minute discussion between three friends and colleagues immediately after watching Fahrenheit 9/11, film studies lecturer David Douglas, frequent Offscreen contributor, professor Peter Rist, and Offscreen editor Donato Totaro.

Recorded on June 22, 2004 at Café Vienne, Montréal

Peter Rist: What I would say first off is that, in one sense I feel exactly the same way I did before seeing the film, which is that if it does its job in terms of making sure Bush is not re-elected, then I am very happy about the film. So if it is successful in its political intentions, then I am very happy with it.

Donato Totaro: I would express the same thing, but it is just that at one point I became torn between enjoying the film and trying to decide who the audience is for the film. Because the film is structured in a certain way, where it presents certain characters that are seen as being prototypical American, almost pro-war, such as the Lila character, characters that are pro-American in a way that everyone could say: “that’s fine, that’s a fine position to take.” But then at some point you see they are being used to his [Moore’s] benefit. They turn against America. Like the African-American Lieutenant and the Lila character. His lynch-pin is this woman, Lila, who everyone should like, then at some point she confronts the White House and vents her anger there. It’s a very dramatic arc that he has and I saw it coming, so it wasn’t effective, at least not on me. My emotions were guarded at that point, because I saw what he was doing, the way he was using her to make his point. I wondered if there were other people that he could have chosen, that he cut out because they didn’t do that, where that turn wasn’t present in the discourse.

David Douglas: Actually the film infuriated me, I really hated it. I’m willing to concede Peter’s point, that if it forces the election of John Kerry instead of Bush then that is a good thing, but I have to say that everything I don’t like in Michael Moore’s films I saw in this film, from the sloppy research work, the connections that are non-connections, his ability to seemingly be completely hypocritical in the way in which he articulates a point and then articulates a response to that point. For me the most egregious one was his McCarthy-ite use of the Bin Laden family. On the one hand he is suggesting that it would have been great, we would have learned something, if we could have got the FBI to “beat up” the Bin Laden family before they left the country and then in the very next moment he is railing against the Patriot Act, which picks people up on suspicion and takes away their civil rights all in the name of some greater good. You can’t be on both sides of that issue. I see him doing that a lot. I see him using “ambush tactics” to expose people, much like 60 Minutes or anyone else. The only thing that he gives us is: “I’m an honest person, I want to do good and therefore you can excuse what I do.” When I look at his films, that is what I see and I think it’s a real problem for the viewer. At the end of the day, we are left hoping some good will come from this, but it is through the same sort of innuendo and guilt by association that he is objecting to in the first place.

PR: Well I was one of the few people who really didn’t admire Bowling for Columbine, for the main reason that I thought it was incoherent and he was completely off the wall and doing all these different things. I liked the beginning of the film but it just got more and more out of control. This film is definitely more in control, but I would agree it is extremely manipulative. Something interesting about this one is that he [Moore] is not on camera very much whereas all of his other films are very personal. I think the assumption is, now, that everyone knows him, everyone knows his voice. So it is as if he has this rapport with a certain percentage of the North American population, which is part of the problem in terms of how this film is going to work: people who hate Michael Moore are definitely not even going to watch it. He is so well known I think that he has polarized the audience. The Michael Moore fans are going to watch it and they are going to love it, because they already know who he is. But the film is dependent upon this knowledge of him and it terms of the unethical approach, I think in this context it is good that we have someone on the other side. The media have swung so much to the right or the middle in the sense that they just don’t criticize anything. We need Michael Moore as that media critic, but as a film, it is not a good film. But I am happy with it there because of the way that it answers everything else that is out there on television.

DD: I’d like him to be a better media critic. I think when you go back to Roger & Me you can see how he has structured his documentaries, and he has clearly learned things along the way. About how to be more effective, clearer and things. But at the same time, I don’t think he has really developed a stronger sense. I think he is right to point out that Fox was the best cheerleader for the Bush administration, with everyone else right behind them. But I still get a sense that in his glibness, through his recourse to music, the songs and things that we will immediately associate with, there is this immediate irony that we take from whatever the image happens to be at that point, I think he takes a lot of short cuts that he need not take. I think if he should spend a little more time and not take those short cuts or not go for the cheap laugh. Yes, laughter is one strategy that draws people in and I think he has to use it, but I think there are times when I think he goes too far.

DT: Maybe the fact that his films are becoming popular and he is becoming more of an entertainment filmmaker, that makes his message become a little blunter and a little easier. In this film here, you never ever hear a position other than the Republicans and the Democrats and that’s it. I guess that is sort of the way it is in the US, but there are other dissident voices, there are other political voices that are also heard in alternative presses, and while Moore may be alternative, it is not to the point where he would bring in anyone who isn’t either on this side or that side. So there’s a very “black and white” position that he is taking. There is rich and poor, and he takes the position of the poor. The poor are the disenfranchised and those are the people he is speaking to, but I am just wondering how they can be empowered through a film like this: what can the poor, who are always the ones going to war, what positions is he offering that are any different than those that may be oppressing them?

PR: The message at the end I think is a clear message, whereas the message at the end of Bowling for Columbine wasn’t at all: I wasn’t sure in the end what on earth he was saying in terms of gun control, because he was saying “well in Canada they don’t have gun control, but that’s fine in Canada.” So in this one at least he does make the point about the disenfranchised, about how they are the ones who suffer and are killed, but I think he could have made a better film maybe about the economy, the whole economy thing and the Bush family’s economic connections with the Bin Laden family, but he goes away from that and you get the shocking stuff about the war. If the film is successful, ultimately this will mean that people are actually going to get to see the war which they have never seen on television. You see dead bodies and stuff like that and you get these personal stories of veterans which you did not see on television.

DD: Well, we’d seen them before, but we hadn’t seen the negative ones. We hadn’t seen veterans who said “I don’t know what I’m doing here.” We saw the one veteran he did use in the film that says “I think Donald Rumsfeld should resign,” but that soldier got in trouble for that remark. When that hit the papers there was a little you know: “someone in uniform is not allowed to say this.” I don’t know ultimately what happened to the soldier, but there was a little bit of a media flap when that came out. So Moore is giving us more of the people who are not happy about events. Lila Lipscomb, who we mentioned earlier, she is the convert on the road to Baghdad in this case, who begins as I’ve got my son in the military..

DT: Her whole family…

DD: She’s clearly been taped over a period of time and we see her go from being very positive to questioning, to grief, to some kind of catharsis after grief. It is a very powerful scene, the scene of her reading the letter from her now dead son. It is a way for Moore to strike out. It is the dead voice of the soldier, Sgt. Pederson, who gets to say “don’t elect this fool.”

DT: And this is right out of Battle of San Pietro (1944). John Huston had recorded some soldiers talking about their thoughts one day and then played the audio over the corpses of the same soldiers, who had died in the intervening days. Eventually he cut out this footage because it was too emotionally powerful.

DD: But it is interesting, at the end of the movie, there is this urge to “do something” and what we see is Michael Moore’s website. It doesn’t say: “Vote for Kerry” or “Vote for the Democrat” So in an odd way, he stops short. Here is the soldier saying: “don’t vote for Bush” through his mother’s voice from his letter. And yet, Michael Moore, whose object in making the film – and he says it in every interview– is that he wants to see Bush thrown out of office, at the end of his film stops short of endorsing this. I mean, if you compare this to wartime films from WW II, at the end there was always the intertitle card: “buy war bonds!” Do something very specific. And yet Moore says: “go to my website.”

PR: Also, the amazing thing is, with any anti-war film… I heard this story about Full Metal Jacket, where they would have recruiting officers outside of screenings of Full Metal Jacket. The whole intention of that film was against the war, against the military and yet they were still able to recruit. I was thinking, in this film, you see so much of George Bush and he’s always this “party animal” kind of guy. He’s always smiling. And actually, Bush supporters are going to watch this film, see that, and say “what a nice guy” he is. So this is it, an audience can just ignore, just cut out all of the stuff they don’t like; now that’s an extreme interpretation, but Bush supporters, are they going to watch the film? Probably not. But if they do, what are they going to get out of it? They are going to say it’s all a bunch of lies and actually Bush in fact still comes away looking really good.

DT: The other thing that upset me about the use of the Lila character is that her “turn” is based on a very personal connection: she loses her son and therefore turns against the military. Obviously if you lose someone close to you, you will turn against the killer. But I think it would be much stronger if the turn was based on a moral, ethical, or ideological position, not a personal connection. If she were to somehow have been converted without the fact of her son being killed, it would have been more powerful, politically speaking. Everyone can relate to the fact that her son has been killed, but I think that is too melodramatic.

DD: Now what he should have done during this scene in Washington, after she has talked to this woman who is protesting and living in a tent, when this other woman comes up and says: “this is all staged!” And she asks: “where did he die?” Lila replied, “In Karbala.” The woman now realizes she has walked into something, but Moore walks away following Lila. He should have followed the other woman and asked her: “why would you walk up to someone and do this?” “What were you doing?” “How do you feel now that you have walked up to the mother of someone who has died and you have accused her of lying about this event?” If you are going for the jugular, and that’s what I think Moore was doing, you go after that person. You don’t follow Lila. Because in effect, the scene was staged. They met in Washington, and he said: “hey, let’s go do this scene in front of the White House.” The other woman was perfectly right to say this is a staged scene. It just wasn’t staged in quite the way she was thinking about it. It didn’t feature someone who hadn’t suffered.

PR: No, well she’s the star of the film and the intended audience is mainstream Americans who may turn against Bush. That’s people who would be open enough to hear these things and so that is presumably who he wants to reach with this film. Therefore you have this human subject who is the centre of emotion in the film and she has changed her mind. But this is kind of the problem I had with the film, is that he really had something going with the economic connections between the Saudis, the Bin Ladens, but that is not what most people want, so he drops this for other issues. It is not as sexy a subject…

DT: He wants to be entertaining.

PR: You’ve got to have something visual and emotionally engaging. How do you make that emotionally engaging? It’s just a bunch of statistics and talking heads. For the average movie goer, that is not going to work, that’s like TV. So he has put drama in it.

DT: Which is fine. All documentary filmmakers have done that, right?

DD: Well, that economic argument wasn’t as interesting for me. Because although it sounds great, although when you say the Saudis own 7% of America, those are all figures out of context. We don’t know how much America owns of Saudi Arabia, how much Germany owns of America, how much Japan owns of America. Those figures are a little misleading in some sense. The economic argument I did like much better was the class war that he follows through the film. I thought that was a much stronger…harder argument to make, because people in America don’t care about their poor, but it was a more profound argument. I think the closing oration that he gave, which was connected to that, was a much stronger moment. The poor fight the war.

DT: And it has always been that way.

DD: Yes, and so that economic argument was a better argument for me. The Bin Ladens I think he uses in the same way that Bush talks about fear: just make people afraid, talk about the Bin Ladens. Well, who are they? These 42 people who were in the United States: were they 17 years old, were they 45? One of the Bin Laden names, Salmen Bin Laden, was at the meeting for the Carlyle Group at that time. But the rest of the Bin Ladens are this amorphous mass of nobodies, and Moore does use them as anybody. They are the boogeyman in the closet for him. He never explains who they are, he never explains who they might be. We only assume that all 42 were dangerous in some way, shape or form OR that they might have known something about this. That kind of associational argument is much less interesting than going to the guys in the gym in Flint and saying: “how many of you have somebody in the military? What kind of jobs can you get if you are not in the military? That economic argument held more resonance.

PR: But I think the Bush family thing, if it had been a film about the Bush family, the fraud of the election as well, it would have been better. Like the pre-credit sequence, for me, was very strong. Having them disenfranchise the Blacks, who are speaking out against the election fraud and not being able to do anything because they couldn’t get Senators to sign the document. That was actually very powerful, if the film had been about the Bush family, their connections and the fixing of the election and all that, but he just goes everywhere. And he has to go to Iraq. That has to be the end.

DT: We seem to be saying that the film is too emotional, that he relies on emotional touchstones rather than intellectual, in terms of understanding the problems; like the Lila character and how she became a convert because of the loss of her son. I think this relates a little bit to what Mark Seltzer, an English professor who wrote a book on the serial killer [Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture, 1998], says about America being a‘wound culture’ which bonds together emotionally when it is under duress, after terrible, painful events. America unites in times of crisis, when there is a visible hurt. And for that woman, this is clearly the case. So do you think he is using that lynch-pin of emotion because he is trying to go for the lower working-class and he feels this is how he can connect to them, rather than offer them intellectual arguments?

PR: I don’t know, I mean…Black America is not going to re-elect Bush. They were like 98% against him the first time, so what Moore needs to be doing actually is making sure names are on the ballots and people get to vote. That would be the useful thing there. So I think the audience for this is middle American, undecided voters or people who could turn against Bush and are not already against him. But as David says, the class argument is perhaps the strongest part of the film, but that the under-privileged, the underclass, if they can vote, they are going to vote against Bush anyway. If they can vote and they do vote. I guess “blue collar,” it’s blue collar people who have jobs, union people, that’s his franchise. They are the people who could swing.

DT: It’s funny because we think that is the majority of people, so why can’t they…

DD: Well, the majority don’t vote in America.

DT: That’s what I mean.

DD: These are the majority that don’t vote. And you can even see it the soldiers who were saying: “I don’t know why we’re here.” They knew why they enlisted, they knew what they were doing in terms of their duty and their job, but there was an absence of any greater sense of what the world and what are the issues in the world? They wonder, “Why didn’t the people like us for occupying them?” As you watch, it seems like a fairly simple response. But I can understand their sense of: “well, we came here to help people, and they don’t seem to like us. I don’t get that.” If you look at the American education system, it is very isolationist and doesn’t bother to explain a good chunk of geopolitics. So you can get a lot of people and take them far away into other countries, but they will have no real context for how people perceive them, perceive their actions. Even in a benign tourist situation, let alone the situation of occupation. And you can see the sense of bewilderment and frustration on the faces of the soldiers as they were giving their testimonials and saying: “I don’t know why they don’t”…well the one soldier who says: “well, they want us to leave, but as soon as something bad happens, they want us to be right there.” And he couldn’t understand the context of what he was in the middle of.

DT: That’s a bit like the Vietnam war, in the sense that there are questions or two possibilities. The soldiers are saying: “why are we here? We don’t know why we are here.” But that is actually almost like saying “we know why we are here, but it is not for the right reason” because the film does posit the reason why they were there. People knew why they went to Vietnam. Bush knew why he was going to Iraq. There was an agenda, perhaps one hidden from the soldiers. But maybe when the soldiers say that, what they are basically saying is that they shouldn’t be there. – No one said that about WWI and WW II.

DD: Well those are the points in which the war is analogous to Vietnam, which it is not in oh so many ways but, when you look at going to war under false pretences and getting bogged down in a conflict which has no solution to it, no military solution, then those two conflicts do start to merge and we can see the absence of people trying to find a political solution to it. The film really doesn’t deal with that question, but you can see why these guys are getting mystified. Even when they come home, and the film didn’t deal with it as much as I thought it could, but the episode in the army hospitals, where we start to see the injured…

DT: That reminded me again of John Huston, and his World War 2 film Let There Be Light, which was set in the psychiatric ward of a veteran’s hospital, and took an unflinching look at the difficulties veterans had in re-adapting to civilian life. The film was actually withheld from public view until 1981.

PR: That stuff works, because we haven’t seen it.

DT: We weren’t allowed to see it.

PR: We weren’t allowed to see it and therefore it is powerful. It is building toward this “let’s bring our boys home.” That is what surprised critics at Cannes about the film. How it actually was sympathetic to the soldiers and kind of used that as its trajectory. Let’s bring the boys back home and end this war. So that is perhaps the surprising dimension of the film, but that is perhaps what is going to work in it.

DD: What interested me about that scene was once again the way in which Moore again backs off. The scene was very brief when we are in the hospital looking at amputees. We talked to the one soldier who had nerve damage and was having trouble speaking. He was on camera for quite a long period of time, but the amputee soldiers were very brief. And if you think about Fredrick Wiseman’s cinematography over the years, where he focuses on gestures, on glasses and the like: why wasn’t Moore’s camera looking at the stump? Or asking soldiers? We see the one heavily bandaged soldier saying: “I feel like my arms are there,” but we don’t see other soldiers learning to use prosthetic devices. So there is a sense in which that scene could have offered more, but Moore is very, very careful to not show this, because he knows that will turn people away.

DT: I think that just reflects what we have been saying, the whole film is that way. He never stays anywhere for too long. He makes a point, then moves on, moves on, moves on. Either it is because he wants to be entertaining and not get bogged down in any one thing or looking at the amputees is too emotionally wrenching. But in the hospital scene you start feeling as if he is being a bit of a voyeur, so I can understand why he would turn away.

DD: I think he makes half-points. The problem for him is that, early on, Harvey Weinstein told him he would allow him the money to keep adding footage. This print was what, 8 minutes longer. He appears to have added footage from the spring [Senate] hearings which wouldn’t have been in the print sent to Cannes film festival, which was all of the stuff about Condaleeza Rice stating the [Presidential briefing title] “Bin Laden wants to find ways to attack America.” It is nice that he has had the ability to put that footage in, but it also come at the cost of clarity. Overall the film starts to wander. Early on, when he is doing business analysis, the film is fairly tight. But during the whole sojourn in Iraq, the film gets lost for a period. Then it comes back at the end. There is a noticeable tempo change when he gets back on to what he has started the film off with.

DT: Well, there is a connection, because basically he is setting it up to say that the Iraq war is what saves Bush’s political career. And the idea of keeping the nation worrying about the threat, keeps them from thinking about their economic problems. So there is that kind of connection to Bowling for Columbine. That was a major theme in that film: keep the nation living in fear.

PR: Bowling for Columbine ends up with Charlton Heston, who can actually seem like a sympathetic character, because Moore’s invading his home. So he doesn’t have that problem with this film. People will feel that the Iraq war was wrong and it was unjustified and we have to end it. But does the film come back to Bush: it doesn’t actually say do not re-elect Bush, which is kind of interesting.

DT: The soldier’s letter says that.

PR: Yes, the letter from the dead soldier says that.

DT: It says, please don’t elect that fool again.

DD: I think it is interesting, as you said earlier, Moore is less in this film than he has been in earlier films, which I believe is a definite strategy of his. He knew when he made this film the Republicans were going to be out for him. Him not being on camera, not being in the frame is a defence against that: saying “it’s not me.” Even though he is at the microphone and talking to people. So the soldier saying: “don’t vote this guy in,” has the right to say that, because he died for his country. It would be very different than Michael Moore saying this. If he had said this, then it would be a point of contention. He is crafting these strategies, which are also mindful of the audience who is going to see this film and how they will attack it, and they will to attack it.

DT: Well, we didn’t talk about all the connections to other films.

PR: Right, The Corporation, how The Corporation was such a successful film.

DT: Do you remember in the beginning after he deals with Bush being on vacation so much, he goes right to the 9/11 attack, and it’s all done with a black frame and the sound.

PR: That was good.

DD: That was really impressive.

DT: Yes, but I think he took that idea from 11’09’‘01 (2002), the Mexican segment directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.

PR: But with that you do get flashes, people falling…

DT: After a while yes.

PR: Yes, in fact I thought that was smart. I thought the beginning of the film was good, it just goes all over the place after that. Although it does come back, it does focus better than Bowling for Columbine. I think it is a better film than Bowling for Columbine. Maybe it is his best film.

DD: Yes, I’d say it is better than Bowling, but it still has a lot of problems for me.

DT: Its connections, and the ‘found footage’ he selected was interesting, the fact that he showed Jack Webb from Dragnet, an arch-conservative who hosted that wild anti-Communist hysteria piece Red Nightmare (1962).

DD: Well yes, “beat them up, then we can get some information out of them.” Someone defending the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] wouldn’t be taking that position.

PR: Well I’m sure we have enough material here, and our time is up….

DD: Sure.


Fahrenheit 9/11: Offscreen Roundtable

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Fahrenheit 9/11: Offscreen Roundtable

Peter Rist, Ph.D has been teaching film history and aesthetics at Concordia University, Montreal, since 1989. He was principal writer for, and edited, Guide to the Cinema(s) of Canada (2001) and (co-edited with Timothy Barnard) South American Cinema: A Critical Filmography, 1915-1994 (1998). His more recent publications (from 2014) include Historical Dictionary of South American Film and a chapter of Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema, “Hong Kong: From the Silents to the Second Wave.” He has written extensively on Chinese and Korean cinemas and is a frequent contributor to Offscreen.

Volume 8, Issue 6 / June 2004 Interviews   documentary   genre_documentary   michael moore   political   political cinema