When Michael Moore’s agitprop documentary hit piece Fahrenheit 9/11 won top honors at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, many assumed that it was agenda, not artistry, that the decision-makers were celebrating. Thankfully, jury president Quentin Tarantino was there to set the record straight. “I just want you to know it was not because of the politics that you won this award,” the former Palme recipient claims to have whispered to the new Palme recipient, moments before the latter began his acceptance speech. “You won it because we thought it was the best film that we saw.” There was evidence to suggest that the doc had struck a chord with many at the festival: A few days earlier, at the end of its premiere screening, Fahrenheit 9/11 earned a 15- to 20-minute standing ovation—the longest ever bestowed upon a movie at Cannes, before or since. But were audiences clapping for Moore, the loudmouth lefty bulldog of non-fiction cinema? Or were they just clapping against his target, a commander in chief whose celluloid effigy many were eager to watch burn, no matter who was lighting the match?
“That was a movie of the moment,” Tarantino confessed to The New York Times five years later. The words sound complimentary when applied to a new film, which might strive for topicality, but less flattering when used to describe an older one, whose “moment” has surely passed. But anyone who saw Moore’s outraged polemic in 2004, during the fever pitch of that election year, would surely agree with QT’s statement: Love it or hate it, Fahrenheit 9/11 really was a movie of the moment—a transmission from the cultural front lines, a call to action with real political stakes. To half of America and more of the world, George W. Bush was public enemy number one, and by the final year of his first term, he already had two wars, one Patriot Act, a stolen election, and countless vacation days under his belt. Moore’s feature-length screed appeared to summarize and strengthen the case against the sitting president; voting for it might have seemed like voting for a regime change. Best case scenario, this was a movie that could make a difference. How could any enraged liberal on that jury not stuff the ballot box in its favor?
Then again, maybe Tarantino, whose work has never scanned as especially political, saw something else in Fahrenheit 9/11. Maybe he recognized a little of himself in Moore, an American director with a cult of personality, a flair for self-promotion, and a finger planted firmly on the cultural pulse. 2004 was Tarantino’s year at Cannes, and not just because he was presiding over the jury. Beyond the special presentation of his own Kill Bill: Volume 2, the lineup of films appeared to have been curated to suit his particular tastes: Genre movies like Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead remake and Zhang Yimou’s House Of Flying Daggers premiered outside of competition, while the main slate included a South Korean crime flick (Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, which went on to win the Grand Prix), a new film from Tarantino favorite Wong Kar-wai (2046), and the first-ever anime to compete for the Palme (Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence).
In general, there was a sense that the festival had been given a shot of Yankee attitude, possibly to compensate for the generally unpopular, unglamorous nature of the previous edition. How else does one account for the inclusion of Shrek 2, of all major-studio alternatives, within the main competition? At this Americanized Cannes, Fahrenheit 9/11 might simply have seemed like the most representative winner—a film that summed up the brash, confrontational spirit of the two-week event that contained it. Conservative writers called the film’s win a classic case of the French celebrating anti-American sentiments—never mind that the jury who selected it was made up of artists from all over the globe, including several from the United States.
Like Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s own Cannes winner, Fahrenheit 9/11 left the festival on a wave of buzz, becoming a box-office phenomenon and a cinematic talking point. Controversy followed it wherever it went, a fact underlined by one of the film’s smug posters. Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein was forced to improvise a distribution strategy when parent company Disney demanded that he drop the film—a directive Moore has attributed to fear that Florida governor Jeb Bush would tax Disney World if the Mouse House released the movie in any capacity. The filmmaker lobbied for a PG-13 rating, despite graphic wartime imagery, but to no avail. Conservative groups launched campaigns to get the film pulled from the major theater chains, also to no avail. Once the movie finally opened in the States, a month after its Cannes debut, detractors from both sides of the political divide took issue with it—the right treating it like an act of treason, the left bemoaning its dirty tricks. The veracity of Moore’s claims was challenged from all sides, forcing the filmmaker to lawyer up and hire a small army of fact-checkers. Two response documentaries, Celsius 41.11 and Fahrenhype 9/11, were hastily assembled, rushed into theaters, and mostly ignored.
Naturally, all of this controversy proved great for business, and much to the chagrin of its various opponents, Fahrenheit 9/11 became not only the first documentary to debut at number one at the American box office, but also the highest-grossing non-fiction film of all time. It also inspired scores of imitators, a whole generation of spotlight-craving infotainment hucksters. What it didn’t end up doing is make the difference many hoped it would. Though Moore sacrificed Oscar eligibility to have the film shown on pay-per-view the night before the election, Bush still won his second term. It’s possible that no documentary, no matter how popular or effective, was going to sway the results of a major American election. Maybe, on the other hand, this was just the wrong one to do it. A decade after it became a lightning rod of debate, Fahrenheit 9/11 looks dispiritingly like a case of the choir being preached to, with not enough effort put into speaking to the hearts and minds of those whose vote would have made a difference.
I’m not qualified to definitively render a judgment on the accuracy of every piece of evidence Moore presents throughout the movie. (Those seeking a Internet wormhole to fall down should read Christopher Hitchens’ hysterical smear campaign against the film, and then chase that with the various, much-more-convincing rebuttals it inspired.) From an organizational standpoint, however, Fahrenheit 9/11 is fairly coherent, its critique of the 43rd president unfolding with point-by-point clarity. Beginning with images of Election Night 2000, when much of the country went to bed thinking Al Gore had won the White House, Moore takes audiences through each folly of Bush’s first term—from his alleged theft of the election (a travesty he attributes to Fox News and spineless Democrats, among others), to his endless time spent out of office, to his exploitation of post-9/11 anxieties, to his insufficiently justified war in Iraq.
Moore is sometimes lambasted as an awful, manipulative documentarian, as well as a liability to those who feel his gotcha tactics give liberals a bad name. But Fahrenheit 9/11 puts many of his directorial strengths front and center. The filmmaker’s gift for condensing enormous amounts of information into snappy montage has never been put to better use, especially in the passage that reveals the troubling ties between the Bush and Bin Laden families. Moore is also a skilled investigative journalist, capable of using his vast resources—and resourcefulness—to score incriminating footage (like the shot of Bush sitting paralyzed in that grade-school classroom on 9/11) and damning documents (like the former president’s military records, before the pertinent info was redacted). His tendency to play dumb to set up a video clip, and to hold public figures accountable for their claims by putting them in dialogue with themselves, is reminiscent of what Jon Stewart does every night on The Daily Show. Moore’s sense of humor is generally hackier—see the scene where he superimposes the faces of cabinet members onto the cast of Gunsmoke—but he has in Bush a bumbling “star” who provides much of his own material.
Moore’s glib wiseass routine has served him well in the past, most notably in his first (and still best) film, Roger & Me. Here, it sometimes seems at odds with the more empathetic approach he takes. The result is a documentary that oscillates uneasily from moments of genuine power to the kind of cheap shots in which Moore too often specializes. Take, for example, the first post-title sequence. One of the director’s most queasily effective choices is to play the audio of the Twin Towers attack over a black screen, plunging the viewer back into the chaos and terror of that awful day without exploiting images of the tragedy. Moments later, Moore drudges up that aforementioned footage of Bush at the photo-op, pretending to read a children’s book after being informed of the situation in New York. This moment of stunned, indecisive stasis speaks for itself, especially when juxtaposed with the sobering audio recording played a few minutes earlier. But Moore just can’t let it be; he instead speculates wildly about what Bush was thinking in those minutes, lessening the scene’s potency by affixing them with an obnoxiously judgmental running commentary.
That’s the problem with Fahrenheit 9/11 in a nutshell, and with Moore’s satirical strategy in general: He mucks up his own muckraking by tangling up the facts with his sometimes off-putting grandstanding. Much was made, upon the film’s release, of Moore staying behind the camera for once—a smart move, given how often his ego threatened to overshadow the more salient points of his Oscar-winning Bowling For Columbine. The director appears on screen very infrequently in Fahrenheit 9/11, and he doesn’t ambush any bewildered interview subjects, à la Charlton Heston in Columbine. Still, even a little of his man-on-the-street routine is too much; scenes of Moore reading the Patriot Act aloud from an ice-cream truck or asking congressmen to enlist their children in the military are just distracting stunts. And even when not actually occupying the frame, the divisive documentarian lets his own persona run rampant—it’s there in his wall-to-wall narration, read in a “soothing” voice that Moore employs as a tool for both sarcasm and solemn pity. He’s not so different, in his worst moments, from the right-wing pundits he despises.
Of course, it’s Moore’s plus-size personality that’s made him one of the only true stars of documentary cinema; a savvy one-man publicity machine, he’s cultivated a love-me-or-hate-me image that sells tickets, which in turn allows him to speak to a larger audience of potentially sympathetic viewers (and voters). But is he clouding his message by delivering it with such alienating bluster? According to Moore, Fahrenheit 9/11 was designed to appeal, intellectually and emotionally, to undecided voters and habitual nonvoters—the kind of people who could have tilted the election in John Kerry’s favor. But Moore’s occasionally condescending rhetoric and bullying, attack-dog methodology threatens to render his cogent analysis moot. The problem is not a lack of objectivity. It’s that Moore communicates in a fundamentally partisan manner, talking down to those who might not agree with his politics. Anyone turned off by the overbearing emcee might throw the baby out with the bathwater—though I suppose that unfairly assumes that those not already on Moore’s side would be unable to separate his points from how he expresses them.
Thankfully, Fahrenheit 9/11 eventually makes good on Moore’s promise to table his own shtick; he’s humbled, it would appear, by the gravity of his later material. The film gains its greatest power in the homestretch, when turning away from a blow-by-blow takedown of the Bush administration to a larger examination of the way wars perpetuate themselves and the military preys on the desperation of the impoverished. Scenes of recruiters approaching and blatantly lying to impressionable teens in a parking lot are more infuriating than anything Moore divulges about his rich and famous archrival.
For that reason, maybe it’s okay that Fahrenheit 9/11 didn’t accomplish its stated mission of ousting a tyrant from office. It contains insights greater than a topical takedown of just one single president; that the film found such an enormous audience is heartening even without the election-day payoff, because it suggests that Moore, during his most effective passages, may have succeeded in communicating a larger message. One can likewise forgive Tarantino and his jury for handing the Palme to a “movie of the moment,” because its perceptions extend beyond the moment it captured. The Bush razzing was timely. The exposé on how men like Bush keep their schemes afloat, often on the backs of the young men and women they’ve lied to, is close to timeless.
Did it deserve to win? That depends on what you think an award should represent. Regardless of Tarantino’s claims, then and now, the victory for Fahrenheit 9/11 was clearly a politicized gesture—a show of support for Moore’s bold intentions. There are worse reasons to hand something a prize, and worse goals than contributing to the undoing of a corrupt leader. But on purely artistic grounds, the film was out of its league. Cannes 2004 boasted an unusually strong roster of candidates, several of which would have made for a less flashy but perhaps more worthy Palme winner. Clean is one of the most emotionally resonant films Olivier Assayas has ever made, featuring knockout performances by Maggie Cheung and an uncommonly warm, restrained Nick Nolte. (The ending is also transcendent.) Likewise, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda tore a devastating coming-of-age story from the headlines with Nobody Knows, about a group of young children fending for themselves in the city after their mother abandons them. And Lucrecia Martel’s The Holy Girl is a thrillingly claustrophobic, morally ambiguous drama set within the hustle and bustle of an Argentine hotel. But the most adventurous film in competition was easily Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s bifurcated jungle romance, Tropical Malady. It was radical in a much different way than Moore’s film is, and has aged much, much better.
Next up: Gate Of Hell (1953)