Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Film Review: Fahrenheit 9/11

I've seen every Michael Moore release (including "Pets or Meat" and all of the "TV Nation" run), and based on the hype, the many critical reviews, and the picayunish nitpicking, but most of all based on my experience in watching his films before, I fully expected a lot of the sophomoric Michael Moore to be on display in F 9/11. I still keep going back to seeing his films, of course, because the guy's got a huge heart for his hometown and his people, and whether you agree with his viewpoints or not, that affection for his folk and country comes across. But I didn't have high expectations as far as subtlety and narrative coherence when I entered the theater tonight.

I was amazed to see in F 9/11 a mature, coherent, simplified, and dare I say it -- subtle?!? film. Quentin Tarantino wasn't blowing smoke when he stated the awarding of the Palme D'ors had nothing to do with politics. This is an extremely accomplished film, both technically, and in capturing the zeitgeist of an extremely trying time.

What's especially encouraging about the way the film is put together is that Moore seems to have gone to see some Erol Morris, Ken Burns, and maybe even a bit of Sam Fuller. The film is not like previous Michael Moore movies, where there's a lot of turning on the camera and letting Moore say and do things we sort of wish we could and in the end often wish Moore hadn't, after all. (Some of the more forced moments in "The Big One", making poor PR flacks squirm, or the Charlton Heston ambush in "Bowling for Columbine" come to mind.) Rather, there's an extremely forceful and clear arc -- a story! -- that's told, and the story itself, even if one knows all the constituent parts, speaks in the end.

The Morris is evident in that he largely lets the subjects of his film speak for themselves, whether it's members of the administration, the soldiers in the field, greedy war industry profiteers, the Saudi ambassador, or random passersby spinning their own media conspiracy theories about the Peace Protest Lady in Lafayette park (she, I can assure you, was not a set piece: I've seen her myself. Lila Lipscomb certainly was no set-up.)

The Burns is evident in that he's done an admirable job at taking complex relationships of facts and not burrowing into excruciating detail. Critics of the film who have taken on every nuance are treating this not as a movie, but as if it was some kind of guest appearance on Crossfire or an attempt to write a scholarly book. You wouldn't look to Ken Burns for a scholarly recap of every detail of every battle of the Civil War. So while the facts and video are laid out often without bulky connective tissue, and occasionally with motives imputed, this is not done with a sledgehammer any more than Ken Burns came right out and said the South was doomed because slavery was evil. In both cases the choices of the filmmaker in how to present his subject make the argument much more forcefully. And, I might add, Moore's adopted some of Burns' framing techniques for interviews, although his old man-on-the- street style is also evident.

The Sam Fuller evident in the film is the use of the raw truth of the picture to tell the story. The rather arty use of reaction shots of ordinary people during 9/11 itself and the even artier pictures of paper billowing in smoke are positively symbolic but utterly true to the real event. Where the punches aren't pulled is in showing the true brutality of the war -- not just to the Iraqis, or to the victims of the terrorists and resistance fighters being dragged through the street, but the corrosive effect on our own troops, their suffering in the field, their uncertain recovery at home. It's frighteningly brutal to see some of the footage of an actual IED attack on our troops and the evacuation of our wounded, and raw footage of Iraqi victims of stray fire. It's even more gut-wrenching when you realize: I haven't seen this before. Where was the media for this?

There's plenty of the Moore trademarks, including some video inserts and ironic background music and wry commentary. But for once they seem to be done largely to propel his theme along, not just to be smartass for smartassness' sake.

What grabs one most intensely about this film is the focus on our troops in the latter half. Moore draws a careful arc, using his hometown, to show how recruitment is done, why young people will join as a way out but also out of the best motives and from the best families - "the backbone of our country" as the mother of Michael Pedersen, Lila Lipscomb, puts it, and what happens when they get to Iraq. It almost has the effect of following a single person from high school to a body bag, even though there are dozens of separate scenes in the development of the theme.

And finally having learned from some other filmmakers at long last, Moore injects the best parts of himself into the last part of this movie. It's that sympathy, understanding, and love of his place of origin and the people who struggle every day there that allows Moore to be able to comment on the ultimate price we're paying for this war with utter genuineness and a complete lack of ironic hipsterism. I think it's entirely possible that one might disagree with the rationale for the war that Moore alleges, the distraction from our real enemies, and quibble with the things he leaves out. But regardless of one's politics vis a vis Moore, the final third of the movie is a tale with resonance not just for any patriot, but for anyone asking others to fight and die on their behalf. What you get in the last 20 minutes of the film simply can't be missed. I can't imagine you could not hear the story of the Lipscomb/Pedersen family and be moved by the truest and most noble patriotism.

I believe that the critics of this film may have been annoyed by the obvious challenge to that very notion -- what does it mean to be patriotic? and the way that Moore decides to connect the dots in the end. Of course he attributes venal motives where mere incompetence or blind arrogance might be a better explanation. But it's not over the top; it's a crafted message, one that cuts home to the ultimate question of personal responsibility.

Filmmakers have to make choices, and Moore finally seems to have mostly made the right choices. He injects himself in the film a few times, and twice for his celebrated stunts, but that's it. The rest of the film is just an attempt to make sense out of a seemingly uncontrollable situation with seemingly irredeemably tragedy.

What else do you want from a documentary? It's not a textbook, it's a film. And a good one.

To my own surprise, I'm giving this film an 8/10.

[Cross-posted to IMDB on 6/29/04.]

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