When Cannes bestowed the Palme d’Or on Fahrenheit 9/11 last May, it wasn’t all that surprising, a political paint bomb lobbed from Europe toward the White House. But the question remained, how would the film play in Peoria? To packed houses, we know now. Fahrenheit opened on 868 screens in June-unheard of for a documentary-then spread to twice that many on the 4th of July weekend, bringing Michael Moore’s brand of political fireworks home to Main Street and symbolically affirming his status as an American patriot.
Fahrenheit 9/11 presents the typical Moore package: the faux-naive questions and good-time banjo music; the fun with American cultural absurdities; the rowdy rock ’n’ roll populism, like REM’s “shiny happy people holding hands” piped in over clips of Bush and Co. glad-handing various Saudi royals. But beneath the mirth works an ice-cold tactician. Fahrenheit 9/11 is not a documentary, it’s a prosecution, charging a dark convergence of interest between the Bush family and the Saudis, including the wealthy bin Laden clan. As a prosecutor Moore works by a kind of evidentiary pointillism, not so much connecting the dots as spraying them into a shadowy outline of complicity. To take one typical charge, he notes that George H. W. Bush serves on the board of the Carlyle Group, an investor consortium whose military interests include United Defense, manufacturer of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The bin Ladens belong to the Carlyle Group, too-indeed, Moore ominously relates, both the senior Bush and a bin Laden family member were attending a Carlyle meeting in Washington on September 11. “September 11 guaranteed that United Defense was going to have a very good year,” Moore intones. But what is he implying, exactly? That Osama bin Laden masterminded the attacks to boost his family’s investment? That the other bin Ladens knew in advance? That Bush père knew? That even if he didn’t know, he probably wasn’t too upset when it happened?
Such operatic insinuation might well sway a jury, but it remains highly circumstantial; and indeed, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a masterly piece of propaganda. Tricky cuts and juxtapositions create damning, and quite possibly misleading, impressions of villainy. For instance, after informing us that the first to call Bush the victor on election night 2000 was Bush’s own cousin, Fox News analyst John Ellis, Moore asks, “How does Bush get away with this?”-and cuts to a shot of Bush gleefully laughing. Later, following a somberly frightening montage of the World Trade calamity, Moore informs us that Saudi ambassador and Bush pal Prince Bandar dined privately with Bush at the White House just two nights later. They dined practically within sight of the Pentagon, he tells us-and cuts to a shot of the Pentagon in flames. Moore asks, “Did the two compare notes?...I wonder if George Bush told Bandar not to worry, because he already had a plan.” Then we cut to Richard Clarke testifying about Bush’s insistent focus, in the aftermath of 9/11, on Saddam Hussein. Consider the implications of this presentation. First, that Bush was being callous in the extreme, if not traitorous, in inviting a Saudi to dinner on the heels of a murderous Saudi-led attack on Americans. Second, that he and Bandar spent a merry evening plotting how to safeguard the fortunes of the Saudis and their American corporate connections. And third, that they colluded in a cynical campaign to cover their tracks by starting a war against Iraq. These are grave charges, made through a folksy innuendo that looks a lot like demagoguery, albeit of an often hilarious variety.
Bush is a terrible president, and I want him gone as passionately as the next liberal. And maybe we need a Moore to help get the job done. But though in the past I have admired Moore’s films-with reservations-this time the contrarian in me resists his Snidely Whiplash-like portrayals of villainy. Do we really need to know that deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz greases his hair back with spittle to know that his role in the Iraq war merits condemnation? To me, Fahrenheit 9/11 fares best when Moore chucks his warmed-over Saturday Night Live act and straightforwardly chronicles a hardworking and patriotic woman named Lila Lipscomb, from his hometown, Flint, Michigan, who loses a son in Iraq. Here Moore’s primal sense of justice, roused on behalf of the mostly poor young Americans who join the armed forces, rises to a moving pitch of indignation. For once, Moore has the sense to shut up as Lipscomb quotes from her son’s last letter: “I am so furious. Bush got us out here for nothing. I really hope they don’t reelect that fool, honestly.” Or dishonestly, either.
Control Room is Egyptian-American director Jehane Noujaim’s quietly remarkable study of the slipperiness of news in times of war. Her documentary takes us behind the scenes at the controversial Arab news organization, Al Jazeera, vilified by the Bush administration as an outlet for anti-American propaganda. Noujaim makes a strong case that this is not so. The mostly Arab reporters, editors, and producers we meet are candid about their dismay at the American invasion; having acknowledged their sympathies, they strive to produce a fair and balanced news show nonetheless. For instance, one staffer-doing simultaneous translation of a tendentious Pentagon spokesman-mugs derisively to Noujaim’s camera, even as he translates the words, apparently without editorial comment, to Al Jazeera’s listeners. And after conducting a phone interview with an American academic who delivers a ranting screed against American imperialism, Al Jazeera’s chain-smoking senior producer, Samir Khader, blasts his interview director: “Where’d you get this guy? He’s just a crazy activist.” In comparison, the American reporters Noujaim surveys seem guilty of lazy dependence on Pentagon spinners, and sometimes of outright cheerleading.
Its preoccupation with objectivity places Control Room in profound contrast to Fahrenheit 9/11. From the opening scenes, when we listen in on Al Jazeera staffers discussing the merits of eliminating Saddam, we find ourselves in the presence of something Michael Moore never provides: a substantial clash of opinions. Sometimes in Control Room the clash takes place within a single person. One eloquent and combative reporter, Hassan Ibrahim, loudly rejects the American condemnation of Al Jazeera for showing Iraqi civilians wounded in bombing attacks. “You are the most powerful nation on earth, I agree. You can defeat everybody, I agree. You can crush everyone, I agree. But don’t ask us to love it as well!” Yet seconds later, asked by a despairing colleague, Who is going to stop the Americans?, Ibrahim answers: “The United States is going to stop the United States. I have absolute confidence in the American Constitution. And I have absolute confidence in the ability of the American people.”
Noujaim catches this ambivalence again and again, opening up wide realms of ambiguity where Moore habitually narrows to a hard point of certainty. There is no doubt, for instance, what Moore would do to the Army spokesman, Josh Rushing, who is one of Noujaim’s primary subjects: he would destroy him. But in doing so, he’d miss what Noujaim catches-namely, Rushing’s deep consternation when the U.S. government condemns Al Jazeera for broadcasting video of American soldiers’ mutilated bodies. Rushing describes feeling ill while watching the clip; then goes on to admit that the next night, when the network showed wounded and dead Iraqis, he found himself less bothered-and is deeply troubled by the difference in his own reactions. “It makes me hate war,” he says. Such perplexed moments sound a human note missing from Moore’s films. Noujaim does people the honor of exploring their conflicting allegiances-and their mixed motives. After listing his many reservations about the American system in general and news organizations in particular, Al Jazeera producer Khader draws deeply on his cigarette and says: “But between us, if I get offered a job at Fox, I will take it.” He smiles, wanly, adding, “I have plans for my children.”
In the documentary’s closing scene, a soft unexpected rain falls over the media outpost in the desert as Khader ponders the futility of trying to cover war fairly. “There is one single thing that will be left,” he says. “Victory, and that’s it. People like victory. You don’t have to justify it. Once you are victorious, that’s it.” History is written by the victors-they have the final control room-and all you can do in the face of this reality, Jehane’s film implies, is to assert an idea and a model of fairness, however doomed. Michael Moore, on the other hand-whose production company is tellingly called Dog Eat Dog Films-fights fire with fire. A brilliant propagandist, he offers no glimpse of a world without war; of a disinterested view or conflicted mind; or of a fairness that, in his view, we cannot afford.