Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

15 years later, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 remains essential American agitprop

Illustration for article titled 15 years later, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 remains essential American agitprop
Screenshot: Fahrenheit 911

One of the most striking things about watching Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2019 is realizing just how deeply, uncomfortably resonant it is with our current state of the union. Within the first half hour, it depicts a venal, intellectually bankrupt administration led by a preening dimwit as he spends most of his time in the White House golfing and avoiding responsibility. And then—even more timely—the film depicts the American president actively impeding the cause of justice by trying to prevent the House Of Representatives or independent commissions from setting up probes to investigate the links between his own checkered past and avowed enemies of American democracy that might not-so-secretly hold a little too much sway over him. Sound familiar?


But even without the striking parallels to our current fiasco of an administration, Fahrenheit 9/11 remains a potent and stirring work, cinema with the ability to boil the blood and activate righteous indignation in the viewer. True, Moore’s reputation has diminished somewhat in recent years. (Turning in messy and uneven works like Capitalism: A Love Story and Where To Invade Next certainly didn’t help, especially in comparison to the laser-focused coherence of his best films, like Roger & Me or Sicko.) A lot of this has to do with his self-aggrandizing persona, a loudmouthed man-on-the-street type who seemingly never met a camera for which he couldn’t mug. But focusing heavily on Moore’s cult-of-personality bravado tends to overlook the fact that he remains one of the country’s best and most effective creators of documentary propaganda, a craftsman of the highest order when it comes to assembling weapons of political persuasion.

We tend to define propaganda as intentionally misleading, but it historically can simply mean “biased,” which Moore’s work undeniably is. To call it successful propaganda is simply to acknowledge his ability to achieve his intended goals of promoting a left-wing populist ideology. Whether you’re entertained or irked by his disingenuous everyday-schlub routine, his films gain a powerful clarity whenever he’s not face-first to the camera, employing his increasingly hoary “aren’t I a stinker?” brand of satire. They become, in the absence of that shtick, potent Molotov cocktails of carefully orchestrated narrative—collages of fact, inference, and provocation calculated to incite maximum outrage in their audiences.

And with the genuinely world-changing event of 9/11, and the attendant profit-minded malice of the Bush administration’s response, Moore found a topic large enough to accommodate his outsized sense of anger. “Was it all just a dream?,” the film begins, the director’s usual voiceover snark tempered by a tone of disbelief. The look back on the first four years of Bush’s presidency still resembles something out of farce: the history of a banana republic, an assessment whose bill the United States now all too clearly fits. A first cousin to the candidate, working in the employ of a right-wing media network, calls the election for his relative, and the media unquestioningly follows suit. A stolen election succeeded by an unjust war based on obvious lies gives Moore a clear throughline to follow, as he traces the crude manipulations of public fear in the “War On Terror” to the redacting of media imagery from the Iraq War to the ways our militarized culture preys on the poorest and most marginalized communities to supply fresh bodies for the frontlines of our atrocity exhibit of a foreign invasion. To this day, the fallout of that administration’s lies weakens our country’s standing in the eyes of the world.

His specific talents lie in the way he crosscuts the imagery and rhetoric of his right-wing targets with the horrifying consequences he so effectively pins on them. Shots of President George H.W. Bush and his son, along with their various cronies, amiably palling around with other members of the Bin Laden family could easily come across as issuing a shaky guilty-by-association verdict. But Moore interlaces it with flat data of the Bush administration arranging for private jets to fly these extended family members out of the U.S. right after 9/11—they were the only commercial planes allowed in the sky, in fact. Pair this with FBI terrorism experts pointing out that the first thing you do in any serious crime is talk to the family members, and suddenly Moore’s created an appalling narrative of collusion with anti-American forces at the highest levels of government.

Or take the famous sequence of Bush sitting in a kindergarten classroom after being told America is under attack, silently dumbfounded as the minutes tick by and he does nothing but listen to a teacher read a children’s book, rather than excuse himself, ask for a briefing, or do literally anything that would serve the interests of a nation under attack. True, Moore gilds the lily by speculating in voiceover about the president’s stupefied state of mind, but when combined with footage showing the national crisis underway throughout the rest of the country, what’s left is a damning indictment of a man apparently woefully unqualified to even be a crossing guard, let alone sit in the highest office in the land. And breaking with the 20/20 style of breathless more-is-more editing that was the norm in American political documentary prior, Moore just lingers with it. He knows how powerful a single shot, contextualized with the briefest of commentary, can be. Time and again, a few choice words reframe otherwise innocent images of chiefs of staff, secretaries of the administration, and others to appear malevolent or incompetent.

With hindsight, however, comes an even clearer grasp of the film’s weaknesses. The TV Nation-style stunts Moore interjects into the film (renting an ice cream truck to read the Patriot Act aloud in front of Capitol Hill; trying to get members of Congress to sign up to volunteer their own kids for the Iraq War) play as clumsy theater, especially given the weight and heinousness of the crimes on which he’s commenting. It’s far more satirically effective when he lets images and opponents speak for themselves—see, for example, the ad Dick Cheney’s war-profiteering corporation Halliburton produced at the time, defensively claiming the company’s blood money is in no way earned “because of who we know.” There’s also clip after clip of Bush hanging himself through his words and actions, be it the reckless idiocy of his “bring ’em on” incitement to terrorists or the ballroom scene of the president surrounded by one-percenters, announcing, “Some call you the elite. I call you my base,” to roaring applause.


The film still packs a wallop, even with the bloated running time and occasionally shoehorned-in political points. But it’s remarkable to see the degree to which Michael Moore’s tactics and style have simply become the lingua franca of American political media. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show is often credited with the mainstreaming of satirical snark, and to a degree that’s true. But that show adopted a good portion of its style and spirit from the kind of humor-based advocacy journalism Moore had already been practicing for a decade. The primary difference is one of tone: Stewart (and his fellow travelers Colbert, Larry Wilmore, and others) were nearly always focused on the jokes, a laugh-first approach to the daily indignities of American politics. Moore is neither funny enough nor restrained enough to ever make anything but outrage the central mission of his work. While he does maintain an “at a certain point, you have to laugh” mentality toward his subjects, he’s much too (justifiably) angry to be able to hang it up at the end of the day and go home for a breather. If he’s gonna be this pissed off, you should be, too.

Fahrenheit 9/11 was the zenith of Michael Moore’s influence as a cultural lightning rod, coming on the heels of his Academy Award-winning Bowling For Columbine and released at the height of anti-Bush anger from the global left. (That it came out in the midst of the hotly contested 2004 election didn’t hurt matters, either.) And it was maybe the last time such expertly edited clips of politicians behaving badly wasn’t readily available at the tips of your fingers. The internet was still evolving into an easily accessible source of armchair punditry—YouTube wouldn’t launch until 2005, meaning it was still at least a little difficult to access conspiracy-theory videos like Loose Change, itself modeled in part on the Moore model. There were no legions of wannabe Alex Joneses and Michael Moores blasting out endless reams of charged political rhetoric. Hell, single-font blogs were the primary means of accessing outside-the-mainstream political opinions. It was possible to do what Moore did on a shoestring budget, but not yet possible to immediately make that work easily visible on an international scale.


But as a casual perusal of everything from The Young Turks to Sean Hannity makes clear, even now it’s hard to be as good at political agitprop as Michael Moore; most attempts at inflaming passions over hot-button issues are no more effective or artfully done than your average tweet. For a better comparison’s sake, it’s illuminating to sit down and watch his spiritual sequel to 9/11, Fahrenheit 11/9. Even if it no longer occupies the cultural zeitgeist, his work remains vital. Despite his methods becoming the norm for the political culture of scorn on the right and left, Moore remains just as effective as ever, when he’s got a good story—and a good target on which to focus his ire.

Fahrenheit 11/9 would be superlative if it weren’t essentially two movies in one. The first is a true successor to 9/11, in that it documents the travesty of Trump’s victories over Clinton, the Republican primaries, common sense, basic decency, and so on. (Watching 9/11 and 11/9 back to back is to be reminded how everything old is new again, in the worst possible way.) But the second film hidden within Fahrenheit 11/9 is a subtler sequel, a follow-up to Roger & Me. The documentarian once more returns to his hometown of Flint, Michigan, this time to lay bare the corruption and criminality at the heart of the the city’s water crisis, now unconscionably stretching into its fifth year. Watching Moore piece together the elements of this slower but no less devastating humanitarian crisis is infuriating, and all the more potent for how specific and detailed he gets with the coverage. This should have been a standalone film, with the same attention and extensive research that went into his debut.


What it demonstrates is that Moore still has the potential for great films inside him, but with every outing he’s attempting to do too much, painting in broad strokes rather than displaying expertise in a single area in the manner of his best work. (Hell, there’s even 10 minutes or so of gun-control discussion crammed into Fahrenheit 11/9 that plays like a demo reel for a part two of Bowling For Columbine, but also a third story shoehorned into an already overstuffed film.) Fahrenheit 9/11, in that regard, looks like the beginning of his too-much-at-once era of filmmaking. It’s electrifying with just a hint of enervating; the exhaustion comes from the sheer size, the beginning of a bloat he’s adopted as his usual metier in the past decade. But the propagandist par excellence is still visible within these films. Hopefully, that sharper and more focused purveyor of leftist political ideology will return.

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.