This week, Bri Lafond re-views Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and examines Moore’s penchant for style and rhetorical fallacy of substantive argumentation. Moore has yet to learn the basic principles of composition: the casual presentation of facts does not an argument make.
by Bri Lafond
I’ve owned a copy of Fahrenheit 9/11 since shortly after it was released on DVD in 2004, but I’ve never actually watched my copy of the movie until this week’s re-view. It’s not that I hated the movie or anything—I mean, why would I buy a movie I never wanted to watch again?—it’s just that I found my initial viewing experience of the film in theaters to be both so powerful and so profoundly depressing that I never had the desire to re-experience it until now. The reasons for not wanting to re-live this movie are both because of the film’s content—at times very disturbing and graphic—and because of the place I was in personally at the time I first watched the film.
In 2004, I was home from my first quarter and a half at UC Santa Barbara and I was re-adjusting to life back at home and on different meds. Shortly before transferring to UCSB, I’d been diagnosed with panic attacks and social anxiety disorder. During my second quarter at UCSB, a doctor made a bad call (I’m being intentionally vague here as in the inquiry that followed, this doctor was found to have made an “honest mistake” and I don’t want to open myself up to potential libel claims) and instead of treating the allergy symptoms I went to see him for ended up prescribing me an overdose level of medications for my social anxiety that caused me to have a break from reality and necessitated a medical withdrawal from school.
The first month or so, I barely left the house. I was having visual and aural hallucinations and I felt like a failure for having had to leave school. By the time June rolled around, I was going out occasionally with friends, but I was very skittish and sensitive.
This was clearly the perfect time to go see Fahrenheit 9/11.
I don’t remember much of the lead-up to going to see the film, but I remember that there was some level of anticipation among my extended group of friends to go see Michael Moore’s new movie. The cliché happens to be true: 9/11 changed everything. While the tragic events of September 11, 2001, seemed at first to bring people together, as the United States responded by invading first Afghanistan and then Iraq, attitudes became more divisive, to put it mildly. As to where I fell in that particular debate, let’s just say I remember listening to NOFX’s “Idiot Son of an Asshole” more than a few times during that period.
I went to the local megaplex with a couple of friends and we coincidentally ran into a group of my professors from my community college days. Because of this, I ended up sitting between my best friend and my former American lit professor and sobbing as the sounds of planes crashing and people screaming filled the theater. That was the moment that I remembered most about Fahrenheit 9/11 going into this re-view: Near the beginning of the film, the screen goes black and the viewer is immersed in sound so as to feel as if they are in the midst of the chaos. I remember it being chillingly effective.
Upon revisiting the film for this re-view, that moment was still particularly chilling, but so much of my re-experience of this movie was not nearly so immersive as that initial viewing. Ten years ago, I was twenty years old and sick and vulnerable and in the midst of both personal crisis and the larger national crisis of a country still raw from the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Watching the movie this time, I’m thirty years old, not nearly so vulnerable, and jadedly used to the idea of the United States’ continued involvement in the Middle East.
Though I teared up re-watching Fahrenheit 9/11—particularly during the previously discussed immersive black screen moments and the footage of the immediate aftermath of the attacks with raining storms of ash filling the streets of New York—so much of the time I spent re-watching the movie was noticing the seams of Michael Moore’s argument.
As of this month, I have a Master’s degree in Composition (with dual emphases in Literature and Applied Linguistics, thankyouverymuch), so I’ve spent the last few years immersed in notions of rhetoric and how arguments are crafted. As such, while I still found myself emotionally overcome by certain scenes, I also can’t help but recognize a “bloody shirt” appeal when I see one. This movie has several literal bloody shirt moments when the dead bodies of Iraqi children and American soldiers are hoisted up for the viewer to see. These moments clash wildly with the film’s more irreverent moments when, say, the soundtrack launches into the chorus of The Animals “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” over footage of airplanes taking off or when Moore says of Saudi investment in the Bush family’s business ventures: “Who’s your daddy?”
In between the bloody shirt waving and the classic rock music cues, Moore attempts to draw a connection between the powers-that-be in Washington and the powers-that-be in Saudi Arabia suggesting that continued war in Iraq and the Middle East continues to benefit the rich while preying on the poor. He does this not by laying out a cohesive argument, but by pointing out certain connections. For example, Moore draws a connection between Osama bin Laden’s father’s money and George W. Bush’s failed Arbusto drilling operation, points out that Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan met with George W. Bush days after the 9/11 attacks, and emphasizes that members of the extended bin Laden family in the US were allowed to leave the country without debriefing at a time when most air traffic was grounded, but Moore doesn’t bring these facts together into a cogent argument. I don’t know what to make of these facts: I do find them somewhat interesting—particularly that members of the bin Laden family were able to leave the country without questioning—but I’m not sure what to do with those facts. Moore wants me—and any viewer—to take these facts as proof that W. and the Washington elite are up to something sinister, and, ten years ago, that is how I read them, but now, with a more distanced perspective, I don’t know what to conclude. Of the meeting with Prince Bandar, Moore narrates an imagined super villain scenario: “What did they talk about as they stepped out on the balcony for Bandar Bush to smoke his fine cigar?” I mean, maybe. But part of me thinks: fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi, so maybe meeting with the Saudi ambassador shortly after the attacks would, in fact, be prudent.
While I think Fahrenheit 9/11 captures that period of uncertainty between the seeming unity of post 9/11 and the jaded malaise of continual Middle Eastern conflict that we still “enjoy,” I wouldn’t call it a good movie by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a very affecting movie with a lot of pathos, but there is little logos to be found here and I don’t necessarily trust the ethos of the locutor. Michael Moore is to the left what Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly are to the right and while I sometimes feel that the left needs such firebrands as Moore and Bill Maher to bring attention to liberal issues, I can’t help but wish we could instead just be more even-keeled and respectful altogether.
I re-watched Fahrenheit 9/11 with an interesting cross-section of folks: a close friend who had a similar first-viewing experience of the movie ten years ago; another friend, a Navy veteran, who got out of the service shortly before the 2001 terrorist attacks; and her twelve year old son who didn’t know what “9/11” meant until about fifteen minutes into the movie when he clarified: “Oh: I know about the twin towers and the people dying. We talk about it at school. It’s a holiday.” I feel old.
While Moore casts George W. Bush as his villain, watching the footage of W. on the morning of September 11, 2001, trying to follow along with My Pet Goat kind of makes me feel sorry for the guy. He has such a deer in the headlights look. I think that has kind of become many liberals’ reading of W.: he seems like a basically nice guy who’s probably greedy and just not very bright.
Some of Moore’s argument about the culture of fear that developed post-9/11 seems to fit in well with his arguments in Bowling for Columbine (2002): businesses developing products to prey on people’s fear and make a quick buck. I wonder if there are still companies out there selling skyscraper parachutes?
Moore participates in some of his usual theatrics, including renting an ice cream truck to read the PATRIOT Act aloud outside the Capitol rotunda and approaching members of Congress to sign their own children up for the military. These theatrics might satisfy certain primal urges to see folks held accountable for their actions, but I think sometimes Moore takes it too far. For example, if you think for two seconds about approaching the members of Congress to sign their kids up to go to war, you realize that an adult has to sign him or herself up to join the military, making the exercise pointless.
An interesting thread in the movie that I don’t think Moore does much with is the perspective of the young soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many are fed lies by recruiters—and we see some of these lies as we follow two Marine recruiters—and expect war to be like a video game, but, as one soldier says; “It’s a lot more gruesome than you’d think.” Some of the soldiers talk about their preferred soundtracks going into battle—again, playing out as if some kind of movie or video game.
One figure I find interesting in the movie is Lila Lipscomb who works for an employment agency in Moore’s hometown of Flint, MI. We follow Lila on a bit of a character arc throughout the movie: She starts out saying that the military is a good option for poor folks in Flint and that she’s a proud military mom and then we find out that her son died in Iraq. She begins to show cracks in that steadfast military pride. I know the film is edited to show this progression, but I think it would have been more interesting to learn about her conflicted attitudes more organically.
Another thread that would have been interesting to follow is the change in news media organization’s access to soldiers. Moore briefly touches on this idea, but my former Navy friend had more to say: “If you think about it, journalists used to largely make their own way in theaters of war: they were responsible for themselves. With Iraq and Afghanistan, journalists supposedly had unprecedented levels of access by being embedded with units, but by embedding journalists, the military also had more control over what those journalists would and wouldn’t see. My friend was a press liaison while we were in Serbia, and she knew not to bring the journalists around me or she’d get in trouble. I wasn’t exactly giving out the message the military wanted getting to the press.”