In Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore’s potent and infuriating fight-the-power documentary, the most memorable indictment comes early on. It’s the moment you’ve heard about, but probably never seen, of President George W. Bush sitting in a Florida grade school and reading the book ”My Pet Goat” for a full seven minutes after he’s been told that the second plane has hit the World Trade Center. The power of the footage transcends virtually any issue of left, right, or center. Bush wears a look of pale suppressed horror, yet an executive decision seems beyond him. He’s portrayed as a man who can and will not act, a President — a President! — who greets this most calamitous of events by waiting for others to tell him what to do. On the soundtrack, Moore guilt-trips Bush by speculating, mischievously, as to his thoughts. Moore’s voice is pitiless in its didactic sarcasm, yet he gets at something essential about the inner Dubya. Watching the footage, you don’t doubt that Bush’s anguish was genuine, yet you also can’t help but wonder if it reflected his ultimate slacker nightmare: that the job was now going to be exponentially harder than he’d bargained for.
At moments like that, ”Fahrenheit 9/11” offers a catharsis for the audience. Dazzlingly assembled, at once reckless and insightful, the movie filters the actions of the Bush administration through a nose-thumbing outrage that might have been irresponsible if Moore’s own words weren’t girded by images that spoke 1,000 more. Watching ”Fahrenheit 9/11,” you may find yourself rejecting one line of attack (like, say, Moore’s opening salvo about the Republicans stealing the election), chuckling at an irresistible cheap shot like clips of Bush on his ranch set to the Go-Go’s’ ”Vacation,” and responding to such richly evocative gambits as the movie following two Marine recruiters who seek out a working-class shopping mall to prowl for new enlistees. When the filmmaker hits the streets of Washington himself, wandering up to random congressmen to ask if they’d consider sending their own children to fight in the Iraq war, you’re reminded of how Michael Moore dramatizes, in a way no one else can touch, the distance and hypocrisy of power.
”Fahrenheit 9/11” sharpens the focus on power, and it reveals the cataclysm of Iraq — the blood and the turmoil, the hidden doubts of the soldiers — in a way that makes the official news coverage look like a dryly censored press release. At times, I felt moved and manipulated at the same moment, notably when Moore interviews Lila Lipscomb, a Flint woman whose son was killed in Iraq. Her tears and anger bring the war home, yet Moore won’t let go. He follows Lipscomb to Washington and films her in front of the White House, where she gets into a shouting match with a woman on the street. The mix of grief and showboating reduces Moore’s empathy to a thin parody of empathy.
Moore portrays the Bush era as a series of sinister forces run rampant, with a puppet firebreather in charge. Yet what, according to the movie, is the essence of the administration’s corruption? That it used 9/11 as an excuse to increase oil profits? To frighten all Americans into giving up their freedom? To keep the workingman down? As analysis, ”Fahrenheit 9/11” is mostly a smash-and-grab polemic. It’s less cogent or searching than Moore’s ”Bowling for Columbine,” which looked at one issue — gun violence — from every angle, until Moore had surprised himself with what he discovered. In ”Fahrenheit 9/11,” Moore makes the devastating point that the attempt to hunt down Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan wasn’t as all-out as it pretended to be. Many more troops could have been deployed. Yet the scandalous explanation for this strategic botch — that the administration was holding back for the war in Iraq, already in the planning stages — is never even mentioned in the movie. Where to locate that ultimate damning analysis? Why, in any one of the countless TV interviews given by Richard Clarke more than two months ago.
”Fahrenheit 9/11” creates as much heat as it does light. Moore, however, does pull together the last four years by filtering them through the prism of Bush’s personality. He gets you to connect the theatrical snigger that’s meant to look manly but, instead, telegraphs a cushy insularity; the overreliance on others to stake out decisions; and, finally, the application of the slacker mind-set to warfare by the substitution of an easy target (Iraq) for a hard one (al-Qaeda). Scalding and glib, derisive yet impassioned, ”Fahrenheit 9/11” is highly resonant Bush-bashing, since the President does most of the work for it. The film depicts the war on terror as run by a man who turns taking a stand into the ultimate form of role playing. B+