Efficient, nasty action scenes can't overcome mostly bland characterizations and a half-baked story.
CANNES, France -- Michael Moore the muckraking wiseass has been replaced by a more subdued version in "Fahrenheit 9/11," his new documentary questioning the anti-terrorism credentials of the Bush regime. In the Moore version, President Bush, his father and members of their circle have received $1.5 billion from Saudi Arabia over the years, attacked Iraq to draw attention from their Saudi friends, and have lost the hearts and minds of many of the U.S. servicemen in the war.
The film premiered Monday at the Cannes Film Festival to a series of near-riot scenes, as overbooked screenings were besieged by mobs trying to push their way in. The response at the early morning screening I attended was loudly enthusiastic. And at the official black-tie screening, it was greeted by a standing ovation; a friend who was there said it went on "for at least 25 minutes," which probably means closer to 15 (estimates of ovations at Cannes are like estimates of parade crowds in Chicago).
But the film doesn't go for satirical humor the way Moore's "Roger & Me" and "Bowling For Columbine" did. Moore's narration is still often sarcastic, but frequently he lets his footage speak for itself.
The film shows American soldiers not in a prison but in the field, hooding an Iraqi, calling him Ali Baba, touching his genitals and posing for photos with him. There are other scenes of U.S. casualties without arms or legs, questioning the purpose of the Iraqi invasion at a time when Bush proposed to cut military salaries and benefits. It shows Lila Lipscomb, a mother from Flint, Mich., reading a letter from her son, who urged his family to help defeat Bush, days before he was killed. And in a return to the old Moore confrontational style, it shows him joined by a Marine recruiter as he encourages congressmen to have their sons enlist in the services.
Despite these dramatic moments, the most memorable footage for me involved President Bush on Sept. 11. The official story is that Bush was meeting with a group of pre-schoolers when he was informed of the attack on the World Trade Center and quickly left the room. Not quite right, says Moore. Bush learned of the first attack before entering the school, "decided to go ahead with his photo op," and began to read My Pet Goat to the students. Informed of the second attack, he incredibly remained with the students for another seven minutes, reading from the book, until a staff member suggested that he leave. The look on his face as he reads the book, knowing what he knows, is disquieting.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" documents the long association of the Bush clan and Saudi oil billionaires, and reveals that when Bush released his military records, he blotted out the name of another pilot whose flight status was suspended on the same day for failure to take a physical exam. This was his good friend James R. Bath, who later became the Texas money manager for the bin Laden family (which has renounced its terrorist son).
When a group of 9/11 victims sued the Saudi government for financing the terrorists, the Saudis hired as their defense team the law firm of James Baker, Bush Sr.'s secretary of state. And the film questions why, when all aircraft were grounded after 9/11, the White House allowed several planes to fly around the country picking up bin Laden family members and other Saudis and flying them home.
Much of the material in "Fahrenheit 9/11" has already been covered in books and newspapers, but some is new, and it all benefits from the different kind of impact a movie has. Near the beginning of the film, as Congress moves to ratify the election of Bush after the Florida and Supreme Court controversies, it is positively eerie to see 10 members of Congress -- eight black women, one Asian woman and one black man -- rise to protest the move and be gaveled into silence by the chairman of the session, Al Gore.
On the night before his film premiered, Moore, in uncharacteristic formalwear, attended an official dinner given by Gilles Jacob, president of the festival. Conversation at his table centered on the just-published New Yorker article by Seymour Hersh alleging that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally authorized use of torture in Iraqi prisons.
Moore had his own insight into the issue: "Rumsfeld was under oath when he testified about the torture scandal. If he lied, that's perjury. And therefore I find it incredibly significant that when Bush and Cheney testified before the 9/11 commission, they refused to swear an oath. They claimed they'd sworn an oath of office, but that has no legal standing. Do you suppose they remembered how Clinton was trapped by perjury and were protecting themselves?"
Would something like that belong in the film?
"My contract says I can keep editing and adding stuff right up until the release date," Moore said. He said he expects to sign a U.S. distribution deal this week at Cannes; the film's producer, Miramax, was forbidden to release it by its parent company, Disney.
After the first press screening on Monday, journalists noted on their way out that Moore was more serious in this film and took fewer cheap shots. But there are a few. Wait until you see Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz preparing for a TV interview. First he puts a pocket comb in his mouth to wet it and combs down his hair. Still not satisfied, he spits on his hand and wipes the hair into place. Catching politicians being made up for TV is an old game, but this is a first.