I was a little too young to see Fahrenheit 9/11 when it first came out, but I still remember how massive the impact around the film was. At the time, I associated George W. Bush with the mocking caricatures of an inept buffoon that Michael Moore also partook in with this film. It wasn’t until years later and I had the benefit of hindsight that I truly understood the importance of this film, and the horrific realities of the actions and deeds of the Bush presidency. And to be a viewer in 2020 watching Fahrenheit 9/11 for the first time, the benefits of hindsight are in place yet again.
It’s hard to judge this movie from a modern perspective. In truth, I don’t know if I can truly appreciate this movie in full force. It seems like the ultimate “you had to be there” film. Not that it isn’t important or relevant at all to the current moment – in fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth. But at the same time I cannot even begin to imagine what this film must’ve felt like in 2004, when the post-9/11 nationalism was still in full effect and the Iraq War was sadly only in its infancy. It’s explicitly a movie for the then-current political moment, and removed from it one cannot have the full experience that Moore intended.
One must also deal with the figure of Moore himself, for his controversies and persona are inextricable from his films. To watch a Moore film is not to experience a measured, subtle and balanced argument. If a factual and balanced debate is what you seek in your documentaries, you will not like him. It may sound like anathema to the very nature of documentaries, but when you watch him you should abandon things such as nuance. You watch him because you like his politics or his humor, or his ability to make points about America via his films. As a storyteller, his strengths can be undercut by his smug condescension, over-explanatory nature, and occasionally unfunny humor. With this, he shares traits with Adam McKay, though Moore succeeds far more with this film than McKay’s obnoxious and pedantic Vice.
But despite all this, Fahrenheit 9/11 is still essential viewing for the politically conscious viewer. Because despite living underneath another Republican president who is even more of a idiotic rich boy barely masking his disdain for the job while in the midst of several separate catastrophes, the aftereffects of the events depicted in the film still permeate our soul as a nation. We are still in the Middle East, where American soldiers still drop bombs on civilians in the interests of the elite, with no reason for their presence. With time and the abandonment of media coverage, the Iraqi and Afghan wars ceased to become newsworthy. Instead, the military became commodified, complete with booming, epic ads about the adventures one could have after joining. In one of the most memorable scenes we see recruiters stalk the devastated communities of Flint, Michigan, preying on the nations poorest and most disenfranchised. As I write this an ad for the Marines plays on my Spotify. We don’t know our soldiers, do not see footage of the conflicts they fight, do not take care of them when they return. We certainly don’t see the footage of the lives we destroy in these foreign lands, we don’t see their deaths and pain. Fahrenheit 9/11 deviates from that norm. The most haunting images of the entire film are the ones that show the carnage and destruction of Iraqi civilians, complete with grieving families and mangled, almost unrecognizable bodies. To see such a stark depiction of the these murders in an American mainstream film is nearly impossible. But what’s even rarer is what precedes this footage: videotapes of everyday life in Iraq. People go about their lives, families go about their business. They wave at the camera, smiles on their faces. Such banal footage is taboo in America, because to portray Middle Easterners as everyday, human people instead of “the enemy” is rarely seen, even in the most “honest” of war films. For this, the film serves as an important document of perhaps the most shameful American act of the past 25 years.
We are still living with a media that assists the president in stoking fear. Moore shows how the media was all too happy to report on Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” parties and color-coded terror levels, rousing the base even further. Years later, what have we learned? The news is a constant Trump-fiasco, debating and entrenching every bullshit position and speech. They enflame and malign protests against the government, suppress the realities of American politics. We are still living in a “democracy” where elections are routinely stolen, whether by Trump and the Russians or The DNC against Bernie. We still have politicians who view their mission to be to enrich themselves and stockholders in any way possible – many under the thumb of the Saudis.
None of this is new to me, or to the world. Moore was not the only one at the time saying this, and he is far from the only one now. The subsequent years since the films release have only made this information even more apparent. You can call it preaching to the choir, and it probably is. The factual errors and discrepancies against Moore and his films are undeniable. If you can’t take him seriously because of them, that’s fair enough. But I can’t help but take issue with a common complaint with this film: is that it’s one-sided. Not that I disagree, because it most definitely is. But I don’t see why it shouldn’t be. With all that we know now, why should have Moore tried to throw a few pro-war Republican voices into the mix? When the Trump or coronavirus documentaries are made, will you want to see a few people talk about how great a job the president did? No, you want the reality, and that’s what Moore shows. He’s shown it in all his films, and consistently been ahead of the curve. In Bowling For Columbine he showed why we need gun control, in Sicko healthcare reform – two issues still at play today. He predicted Trump’s victory when all dismissed him. With the exception of his latest global warming controversy, he is almost always on the right side of history. I can forgive his flaws as a filmmaker and storyteller, because with Fahrenheit 9/11 he made a movie about Bush that today stands as a movie instead about the slow, horrific death of a culture, a floundering nation fed by innocent blood. Why be surprised that nothing has changed?