My Pet Scapegoat

Michael Moore further insinuates himself into the mind of George W. Bush. Funny what a good fit it is.

Score at least one more vote for Kerry. Neither I nor anyone else in ultraliberal Seattle is going to pull a different lever this fall after seeing Fahrenheit 9/11 (which opens Friday, June 25, at the Neptune and other theaters). If you hate Dubya already, you'll hate him more after viewing Michael Moore's latest op-ed documentary, which is obviously more of an indictment than a neutral account of the president's election and subsequent response to 9/11. And I seriously doubt any area Bush supporters will line up for Fahrenheit; they'll just wait for the Fox News review, feel outraged, then leave it at that.

But at least one former Republican will stick in your mind after the movie: a shell-shocked young GI, evidently hooked on morphine in a VA hospital after suffering nerve damage in a Baghdad battle. Amid a ward full of amputees (many of them unsurprisingly bitter about the costs and causes of war), this gaunt grunt declares he's going home to join the Democrats and defeat Bush in November. We never learn his name, since he's only one of several tangential figures who pop up among Moore's interview subjects, White House targets, Halliburton villains, Saudi smoothies, and talking heads (our own safe-seat publicity hound Rep. Jim McDermott gets prominent screen time and sympathetic lighting).

Proceeding from the premise of Bush's Florida electoral illegitimacy in a 10-minute prologue, Moore rehashes old news and repackages familiar allegations with all the righteousness and indignation he can summon. He places his signature shaggy populism in the service of an argument, which I don't find remotely convincing, that runs something like this: Dubya's disastrous early private-industry career was supported by Saudi money covertly channeled through family connections. After 9/11, that debt caused him to sanction the repatriation of dozens of bin Laden family members (no one else could fly), where they couldn't be subpoenaed by U.S. law-enforcement agencies. Then, eager to conceal his ties to the Saudis, Enron, and Halliburton, and looking for a ruse to advance Ashcroft's Patriot Act assault on civil liberties, he attacks Iraq.

How is this news? I'm afraid it isn't. You can share Moore's every political sentiment in the movie yet fail to be persuaded by his logic. It's all associative, an argument by induction and inference. All the cheap shots and easy cuts—Iraqis bleed, Bush smirks—fail to make a coherent case. The current reports from the 9/11 commission are equally damning, without overreaching for a pattern (conspiracy, anyone?). Moore cites plenty of prior media accounts—but who's reading them? Look behind Dubya's head at the Florida elementary school where he spent the morning of 9/11, and you'll see the slogan "Reading Makes a Country Great." It's as much a rebuke to us as to him for not paying closer attention to world events both before and after the Sept. 11 attacks.

As an emotional argument, however, the film has enormous power. Here we have the napalmed Iraqi children, the legless American soldiers, the grieving families, and the 9/11 widows. All want someone to blame. So does Moore, but that desire too often gets the better of him. Speaking of the seven minutes the blankly discombobulated Bush spent at the elementary school, TV cameras watching, as incomplete infor­mation reached him from his staff, Moore sneers that the president had "no one telling him what to do," i.e., no Cheney, no handlers, no Daddy.

Does anyone believe Gore would've leaped up decisively before the schoolkids to deliver a Gettysburg Address for the 21st century? FDR had speechwriters for his day of infamy. Dubya had nothing to go on. How would you or I react to such horror? Moore scoffs that Bush obliviously continued to read from My Pet Goat, but isn't it also possible he was simply stalling for time in his own unphotogenic, beady-eyed manner? Why panic kids about something they wouldn't understand?

In this way, Moore makes Bush his scapegoat, his Saddam, the objective correlative onto which he can project his entire worldview. His oversimplifications alarmingly resemble those of his nemesis. For Dubya, it's the God-fearing versus the terrorists in an apocalyptic showdown. For Moore, it's the globalization of the class struggle—Flint writ large, with gunfire and missile strikes. The Saudis and the Bushes and Halliburton somehow form a kind of Trilateral Commission for the left. It's not enough that one or two offenses should be laid at their feet (and, granted, there are plenty more than that); everything amiss with the new world order must emanate from their nefarious petro-capital axis.

When Moore—who shrewdly minimizes his own physical presence in the film—goes out for a Washington, D.C., street stunt and is approached by Secret Service officers, he reacts with paranoia—as if Condi and Wolfie are watching from surveillance cameras in a bunker and directing his harassment. From Roger & Me, he's moved on to harpoon another great white whale in George & Me. Even though this may be his most fact-checked movie, I'd say it's a step backward from his Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine; there he was pointing the finger at all of us, not just one man. Nowhere does he criticize Republican voters as he does donors. Why is the Supreme Court more to blame than the Bush backers in the other 49 states?

At its best, the unvarnished immediacy of Fahrenheit harkens back to Moore's TV Nation (1995–96). Although he limits the camera-on-the-street stuff, the director gets some amazing footage from ordinary, blue-collar Americans who open their lives with shattering candor. Today, such reality-TV stuff disgusts me, everyone grasping for their 15 minutes of shame. But Moore has the sense to stick with a woman like Flint's Lila Lipscomb, who speaks proudly of her GI son in Iraq, then bares her soul after a wrenching loss. And he keeps himself out of the frame, keeps his mouth shut—as when another mother reads a letter from her dead soldier son criticizing Bush ("He got us out here for nothing"). It's confessional, but with a cause.

Concluding with a passage from Orwell, Moore foresees an endless conflict in the amorphous War on Terror in which the poor will continue to fight and die on behalf of the rich. Again, the fact that he's even quoting Orwell shows how little Fahrenheit has to offer that's new or original in its analysis. Money in politics. Lies in office. Secret agendas. "Access is power" (that courtesy of Dubya himself). I'm shocked, shocked. Only the names and faces have changed in this familiar story. Although sure to rouse its intended audience, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a documentary that feels like a remake.

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