As much as the jurors at this year's Cannes Film Festival insisted that the Palme D'Or was awarded to the best film in competition, it was a sign of the times that they chose to honor Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, marking a clear and decisive victory for ideology over aesthetics. A Bush apologia made with the same mixture of speculation and low blows wouldn't even have warranted an invitation to Cannes, but the jurors can be forgiven for getting caught up in the excitement. A free-ranging dirty bomb of a movie, Fahrenheit 9/11 argues for a regime change, and it forwards whatever half-realized or marginally persuasive arguments it'll take to get the job done. Sloppy as cinema and dubious as journalism, the film nonetheless seethes with such anger and urgency that it feels like a historic provocation, one that could popularize truths that have been soft-pedaled by an acquiescent media.
Spiked with signature pranks and snarky pop-music montages, Fahrenheit 9/11 closely resembles Moore's last film, Bowling For Columbine, in form—it forsakes some overall cohesiveness in order to cover lots of ground. Starting with George W. Bush's non-election in Florida, Moore claims that before Sept. 11, Bush was an illegitimate, incompetent, and widely disfavored leader, given to bungling malapropisms and long vacations (cue The Go-Gos). After Sept. 11, Bush came into his own as a self-proclaimed "War President," fighting terrorism by stoking the electorate's fears and antagonizing the Middle East, first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, where he justified invasion with trumped-up allegations that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and conspiring with al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, but that country got a free pass, which Moore attributes to deep connections between the Bush family and its oil-rich friends in the House Of Saud.
For Bush's failures in leadership, Moore submits footage of the president on the morning of Sept. 11, placidly reading a book called My Pet Goat to Florida schoolchildren seven minutes after being told that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. It's a powerful ploy, but it's also deeply unfair: How could anyone be expected to process the news before witnessing its magnitude? Moore also swings and misses on the Saudi front: Special favors were clearly granted, but the ties binding Bush, his National Guard buddy James Bath, and the bin Laden clan make for a vague case of guilt by association.
But Moore gains momentum when he turns his attention to the war in Iraq, which has been waged on a much sturdier foundation of untruths. Fahrenheit 9/11 earned an R rating for showing carnage deemed unfit for cable, but it goes far in belying boasts of precision bombing campaigns and American TV's whitewashed depictions of war. In talking with soldiers and families, Moore also reminds viewers that these battles are fought not by the sons and daughters of politicians, but by the poor and disenfranchised, who currently languish in indefinite deployment. By the time Fahrenheit 9/11 ends, it's abundantly clear that arrogant, neo-con pipe dreams have real human costs.