Advocacy Filmmaking

Michael Moore shows his incredible skill in the obviously, appropriately biased 'Fahrenheit 9/11'

When I was growing up, Americans commonly watched a nightly network news broadcast. These days, only a minority does so, and the news they watch is highly sanitized compared to what was seen in the early '70s.

Nearly every night, I saw individual human bodies that had been burned, shot or dismembered by acts of war. While there was a wide-ranging debate about whether or not that war was justified, there was no way to hide from the damage it was exacting on both Americans and the Southeast Asians we were engaged with.

What I find most valuable in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is that it attempts to show the cost of war. This becomes most explicit in the final third of the film, when Moore interviews U.S. soldiers who have suffered multiple amputations, and when he speaks with the mother of a young soldier killed in combat.

Of course, all this is in the service of attempting to unseat George W Bush. I don't think an political attack is an unreasonable goal for a film: Polemic is important, and it's at its best when it's practiced by an artist of Moore's skill.

And it's as an artist that Moore is most successful. Fahrenheit 9/11 is certainly not great journalism (most of its newsworthy moments come from editing together clips from other sources), nor is it really in the let-the-images-speak-for-themselves documentary tradition of Frederick Wiseman or the Maysles.

Rather, because it's so particular in its bias, it's much more a piece of advocacy filmmaking. But it's still a piece of filmmaking, and on aesthetic merits alone, it's an excellent one.

Clearly, this is meant to be a manipulative film, and it certainly succeeds. The sad parts are legitimately sad; the funny parts actually funny. It's the way that Moore presents these parts, and the way he weaves them together, that show his artistry as a filmmaker. Of course, when you've got tape of Paul Wolfowitz sucking on a comb and then running it through his hair, then spitting on his hand, and then running that through his hair, you don't really need to be a great artist to get laughs.

But when Moore presents the events of Sept. 11, you can really see his skill. Instead of subjecting the audience to the now-overexposed images of the planes hitting the towers, Moore uses a black screen with a montage of voices, and then cuts to close-up shots of the faces of people viewing the attack. It's incredibly powerful and addresses the terror far better than the more titillating and Hollywood sight of the distant explosion.

Whatever artistic merits the film has, though, will do nothing to prevent the political attacks that have dogged it since it was first announced. Most recently, these have focused on whether or not Moore actually made two claims: one, that the Bin Laden family was whisked out of the country without ever being questioned by the FBI, and did so before anyone else at all was allowed to fly (Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, in an article that came out before the film's national release, claims Moore says this in the film; as far as I could tell, Moore does not make the claims Isikoff says he does, but rather makes more measured claims) and two, that Saddam Hussein had never threatened the United States (Moore does make exactly that claim). Frankly, these sorts of things are pretty nitpicky, though the accusation that Moore is extremely selective with his footage is accurate. In fact, it's the point of the film.

Bias as such is not a problem with the news media; it is rather an essential component of that media. It makes no sense to speak of an unbiased news report; at the very least, there's a selection process as to what is and what is not news, and that selection can only be made on the basis of a bias for certain types of stories. The further political bias in the major media is not a bad thing, either: It's important that different points of view be addressed.

The problem, rather, is confirmation bias, the tendency to only listen to those people or stations that present the point of view we already agree with. If you don't want to see Moore's film because you dislike his politics, then you should see his film. For the same reason, every American should spend a little time watching Fox News and a little time reading the Al Jazeera Web site.

What Moore has over both the Bill O'Reillys and Kareem Bin Jabbars of the world is that he's actually capable of taking his political slant and presenting it in a gripping and evocative manner.

Further, he's collated a lot of material that, though reported by the major media, was not highlighted. If you're unaware that thousands of eligible voters were improperly deregistered in Florida prior to the 2000 election, or that the Bush family made money off the Iraq war (in an entirely legal manner, mind you), or that there was indeed very little scrutiny of the Bin Laden family after the Sept. 11 attacks, then you'd benefit from seeing this film. If you did so, you'd be entertained and moved, and, I hope, compelled to look elsewhere for confirming and disconfirming evidence.

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