Fahrenheit 911 - The Temperature Where Freedom Burns

Fahrenheit 911 is the latest movie in the works by Liberal author and filmmaker Michael Moore. This movie will follow in the wake of Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine and best-selling non-fiction books Stupid White Men and Dude, where's my Country? I should point out that all three of the works are critical of George W. Bush; while the movie doesn't mention Bush and focuses more on American culture, the books are very critical, taking sides against Bush from the 2000 election fiasco to the botched Iraq war. Michael Moore has said since he got his tax refund from the federal government that he will spend it all in an effort to unseat George W. Bush from the White House.

This film, a non-fiction documentary, will try to describe why the US has become a target for hatred and terrorism. Michael Moore mentioned how the "What a Wonderful World" montage in his last film, "Bowling For Columbine," shocked audiences by a visual timeline that showed the consequences of US foreign policy, some very graphically. It's expected that this might follow upon the same theme. More importantly, this movie will show the connections between the Bush family and the Saudi Bin Laden family. Bush is connected to the Saudi royal family through oil deals, and has met Mohammed Bin Laden, the father to Osama Bin Laden, in the course of business.

The title of the film "Fahrenheit 911" is a play on the classic Fahrenheit 451, a well-known book which was later made into a movie (and is being remade for 2005), and 9/11, the media nickname for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The film will be a documentary, similar to Bowling for Columbine, an exposé of sorts, and with humor. Michael Moore is not new to documentaries, he won acclaim for Roger and Me, as well as two television series TV Nation and The Awful Truth. They're humorous while at the same time serious, poking fun at people and things while trying to discuss a serious issue, in a way that makes the audience feel something about the injustice. A critic once called Moore "in the style of Mark Twain."

The film has been selected by the Cannes film festival to premiere in their competition, only the second time in the last 48 years that a documentary has been chosen to be in the main competition (the first being "Bowling for Columbine" in 2002)

Disney, the studio that owns Miramax announced that it was prohibiting Miramax from distributing the film. According to The New York Times, it might "endanger" millions of dollars of tax breaks Disney receives from the state of Florida because the film will "anger" the Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush. Critics accuse the movie of being partisan (before it's even done), given the fact that Moore is a Green party member, amid accusations it will be anti-Bush. However, the decision was made last year, despite only surfacing now, which has led some of accusing Moore of creating a publicity stunt. He will most likely find another distributor anyway, his last documentary netted millions, becoming the highest grossing documentary in history.

Michael Moore as himself

The trailer has been posted at http://www.fahrenheit911.com/trailer/

Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" premiered at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Its first screening earned a 20-minute standing ovation, said by some to be the longest ever at the French festival. Fahrenheit 9/11 paints a deeply sinister conspiracy linking the war in Iraq to Bush's family's business relations with the defense industry and Saudi oil money. It also draws a connection between the Bush clan and members of Osama bin Laden's family. It also explores the US government's hurry to commit military forces to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the vague, seemingly endless "war on terror" which has hurt not only Bush's presidency but America's credibility overseas as well.

Moore, speaking at a press conference at Cannes, said that "something needs to be done" about the Bush presidency and added he hopes to make a difference with this documentary. "The fish rots from the head down", he said. Included in the film is footage of Bush meeting with a group of school children on the morning of the September 11 terrorist attacks and sitting in complete silence for nearly 9 minutes after hearing passenger jets had slammed into the World Trade Center. Moore also visits Congressmen on Capitol Hill and asks them if they would be willing to send their own sons and daughters to Iraq.

Previewing the movie, Moore said, "You will see things you have never seen before. Half the movie was about Iraq — we were able to get film crews embedded with American troops without them knowing that it was Michael Moore." The two-hour film also contains harrowing scenes of prisoner abuse and night-time surprise raids on Iraqi civilian homes. Moore, who also published two bestsellers that were aimed at "exposing" Bush, also shows footage of US soldiers expressing disillusionment with the war.

Disney subsidiary Miramax has been prevented from releasing the film in the United States, but currently Miramax bosses Bob and Harvey Weinstein are hoping to buy it back and release it through alternate distributors. Moore hopes to have it in theaters on July 4th 2004 and on DVD in time for the November 2004 presidential elections. Moore vowed that Americans would see the documentary soon, even if it took illegal means.

On hearing that Disney planned to block the film from release under pressure from the White House and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Democrats in Washington were seen to rush to Moore's defense, with cries of censorship. Moore came back with a reply that Democrats should not be too hasty to defend the film until they've seen it, as it also contains numerous attacks against the Democrat party (Moore is a spokesman for and registered voter with the Green Party, past Presidential candidates of which have included consumer advocate Ralph Nader, a onetime employer of Moore).

Asked by film critic Roger Ebert if he would make a film about Disney (Ebert suggested "Michael and Me" as a title, a reference to Moore's first film "Roger and Me" and Disney chairman Michael Eisner), Moore responded, "I might. It's dangerous to let someone like me peek behind the curtain."

Sources: Muslim American News, Google News, Chicago Sun-Times, "Stupid White Men" (book by Michael Moore), Singapore Today.

Some points of interest regarding Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore's new movie about the United States after September 11, 2001:

  • fahrenheit911movie.com originally pointed to the campaign URL of one George W. Bush, although it has since been repointed to www.mooreexposed.com. This is apparently not courtesy of the President's administration itself, but of Alex Emes, the executive director of Freedom Village, a series of faith-based homes for troubled teenagers.

    It probably wouldn't be too much of a hassle to reclaim the name for its proper purpose, given that the name Fahrenheit 9/11 has almost certainly been trademarked, but it's nonetheless a particularly underhanded thing to do. I would have thought this would also invite litigation due to loss of profits.

  • Speaking of loss of profits, it's now common knowledge that Moore had a dispute with both Mel Gibson's Icon Productions and The Walt Disney Company. Gibson is a fundamentalist Christian conservative, while Disney chief Michael Eisner is an idiot; neither one is quite in line with Moore's liberal ideology. So both decided to pull out their funding.

    However, the Weinstein brothers, monarchs of Disney's Miramax subsidiary, announced a plan to continue distributing the film. Rather than being an official Disney/Miramax film, they stumped up $6 million of their own cash in order to repay the parent company for all costs involved in making it, and:

    The brothers formed the Fellowship Adventure Group, described as "a new special-purpose company," to personally acquire all rights to the film, according to a joint press release from Disney and Miramax.

    They also reached a settlement so that Disney does not benefit from the movie it turned its back on. Any profits from the film's distribution that go to Miramax or Disney will be donated to charity.

    (Yahoo! News)

    The charity in question is unspecified, but it'll be a bit of a slap in the face to the House of Mouse if the film usurps its predecessor as the most profitable documentary ever made. Although it wouldn't exactly come as a great surprise, given Eisner's valiant attempts to sail the corporation triumphantly down the plughole.

  • One of the people interviewed for the film was Nick Berg, the American businessman who was unfortunately beheaded in Iraq:

    Moore confirmed Thursday that he had footage of Berg - shot for his film "Fahrenheit 9/11," which is critical of President Bush - but said he would share it only with the family.

    "He recognized it was a concern, and he kind of pointed out that he'd worked in difficult situations before," Sara Berg said from her home in Virginia. "It's definitely something that he didn't shrug off."

    "He went to Iraq because he had certain beliefs about helping people in messed up situations, but it's not like he was trying to help the Bush administration," David Berg said.

    (Associated Press)

  • When the film won the Palme d'Or, there were criticisms that of course it would win at a French film festival. However, the majority of the voting panel were Americans, including Quentin Tarantino, who whispered into Moore's ear:

    "I just want you to know it was not because of the politics that you won this award. You won it because we thought it was the best film that we saw."

  • Fahrenheit 9/11 will be released in the United States on June 25. It's supposedly less incendiary and far more thoughtful than Bowling for Columbine; although some people have described it as a two hour long, cinematic campaign leaflet for anyone but Bush, is that necessarily a bad thing? Even if you're pro-Bush, presumably you have the intelligence to filter through any bias and examine the film from your own perspective. I think it could well be the most exciting film of 2004.

(Hmm. I did not expect three people to write up a film they have not seen. I am lucky in that two theaters near me in New York City started showing this film early. I composed this yesterday, while the database was offline. I apologize if there is some overlap with details related above.)

See it.

Of course, you were already going to see it. You don’t need my advice. I’m fairly certain this film is going to be a massive hit. If there’s any danger of backlash, it’s not from people who love George W. Bush. It’s from people who hate Michael Moore.

They’re tired of his nasal Midwestern accent in voice-over. They’re tired of his overly wide body lumbering into frame – “That doesn’t look like a champion of minimum-wagers to me!”, they say. (Never mind the ubiquitous sources of obesity.) They’re tired of his wealth (though he was dirt poor until he started making art – isn’t that the American dream?), tired of a half-remembered altercation with an unhappy former assistant. They’re probably tired of him splicing in music that tells you when to feel sad and when to feel ironically jaunty, and they’re definitely, apparently, very tired of him cutting together footage of Charlton Heston to make him seem to say things that Heston did not say in that exact order. On that exact day.

“This makes him just as bad as the people he’s attacking!” they say.

Does it? Does it endow him with a 24-hour media empire, with corresponding arms in print such as The Sun and the New York Post? Does it prevent Disney from blocking release of his film because, in the express words of Michael Eisner, the company does not wish to endanger the status of its vast amusement park real estate holdings in Florida, a state whose governor happens to be the president’s brother? Does it stop a false grassroots organization from actively petitioning theaters to ban his film? Is Mr. Moore attempting censorship of anyone, in the fashion of his detractors?

I would argue that what these people are really tired of is him storming into the multiplex, and stomping onstage at the Oscars, and challenging them to think. To have an opinion, and defend it.

Yes, I am a huge Michael Moore fan and have been for almost ten years. I am “biased”. Just so you know.

Ah yes. The film.

See it.

For me personally, very little, if any of the “revelatory” information in the film was new. This is because I read Dude, Where’s My Country and because I frequently check both independent and foreign media reports. This does not mean that this information is common knowledge. Far from it. I speak mainly of three narrow subjects:

1. Bush flying the bin Laden family out of America on 9/13/01.
2. The uncontested contracts handed to Halliburton, of which Dick Cheney was CEO.
3. The UNOCAL natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan.

The film’s details on these matters may influence the ideas of people, such as my own father, who do not believe that the administration’s past tenures as fossil fuel magnates have any effect on their current foreign policy decisions.

But these details are not what the film is about. Information, facts and figures, is the domain of the exposé, the essay. This is a movie. Which means it is built out of emotions. Facial expressions.

For instance, you and I can argue gun control until we expire. In his last film, Michael Moore was not very interested in making an argument. Instead, he chose to show footage of a father whose son was murdered at Columbine. It is not really this man’s argument that we listen to. It is the earnest quaver of grief in his voice that any actor would gladly train for years to be able to duplicate. It is completely real. And the emotion we feel in response is as real.

Likewise, in this film we spend a good deal of time with a mother whose son was killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq, a mother who encouraged her son to join the army. Her angry tears say more than a thousand protest signs.

On the other hand, and other side of the planet, we see incensed Iraqis whose homes have been destroyed, and mutilated children. Images like this, despite how plentiful they are, have, for some reason, never been shown on American television, and so they may shock many Americans. (There is similar footage in the excellent documentary about Al Jazeera, Control Room, which, sadly, is probably not coming to a theater near you anytime soon.)

I surprised myself by agreeing with the MPAA’s R rating. It is not censorship. This violence, however brief, is horribly graphic. Also, it has long been established that for a film to achieve a PG-13 rating, it can only include one utterance of the word “fuck”, which must not refer to the literal act of intercourse. This film has five or six “motherfucker”s plus a soldier touching an Iraqi prisoner’s erection. Our children must of course be protected from homoeroticism.

There are a few Awful-Truth-style guilt pranks in this film, like we expect from Moore. There are also a few episodes of absurd FBI “anti-terrorism” prosecutions. I’m deliberately avoiding spoiling the jokes for you, and yes, these brief segments form the comic relief in this unnerving, disturbing spectacle. Moore stays mostly offscreen.

The film’s final damning effect is cumulative. It simply places events in the proper chronological order and mercilessly lets W.’s every empty promise, meaningless swaggerism and idiotic mangling of English wither in the harsh light of a roomful of laughter. You have to laugh, so that you do not cry. You might do both at once. Repeat after me:

Bush Sr.’s Supreme Court Justices overturn recount. Not one Senator challenges. 42% vacation. 12 minutes of “My Pet Goat” while people leap out 100-story windows. Taliban escapes. Still no bin Laden. Patriot Act printed the in middle of the night and approved by a Congress which never read it. Civil liberties eradicated. Actual borders left unprotected. Flights still unsafe from weaponry. 10,000 dead Iraqi civilians. 700 dead American soldiers. 5,000 more wounded. And still no weapons of mass destruction. But plenty of oil.

Boy, when you put it like that, it really does sound like a bunch of CEOs hijacked the Constitution and are using taxpayer dollars to exterminate anyone necessary in the name of profit! But that’s too terrible to be true, right? Those are broad generalizations!

See it.

In the age of The Grey Album, this is a mash-up masterpiece of found footage. No matter how you feel about the President, this is artfully edited. It’d be beautiful if it wasn’t sickening.

I’ll close by explicating the title, since Mr. Moore doesn’t, in case maybe there are some young people out there who are not well read. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a science fiction classic. The number is the temperature at which paper burns. Mr. Bradbury, as you may have heard, is not at all happy about Mr. Moore’s homage. The book depicts a future where firemen are employed by the state to burn books, where an out of control motor industry has transformed crossing the road into a potentially fatal activity, and where a population is kept contentedly stupid by four walls of soap operas. Moore’s message, therefore, is that the Bush administration is exploiting a devastating attack on us to bring us this future as fast as they can.

And lastly, thank you, Mr. Moore, for not including anywhere in this film a single frame of the smoking World Trade Center. Unlike BBC News, you are sensitive to the pain of New Yorkers, and you know that I never want to see that again.


UPDATE June 28, 2004:

In its opening weekend, this film smashed the box-office record for a documentary with a take of over $24 million. That record was set by Bowling for Columbine over a period of several months. Analysts had predicted that the Wayans brothers comedy White Chicks, also in its debut, would triumph; however, despite playing on three times as many screens, it did not. Audience members in such Republican strongholds as Mobile, Alabama and Houston, Texas reported standing ovations.

UPDATE August 25, 2004: (Public response to below writeup)

"To denigrate this as propaganda is either naive or perverse, forgetting (deliberately?) what the last century taught us. Propaganda requires a permanent network of communication so that it can systematically stifle reflection with emotive or utopian slogans. Its pace is usually fast. Propaganda invariably serves the long-term interests of some elite.

This single maverick movie is often reflectively slow and is not afraid of silence. It appeals to people to think for themselves and make connections. And it identifies with, and pleads for, those who are normally unlistened to. Making a strong case is not the same thing as saturating with propaganda. Fox TV does the latter; Michael Moore the former." John Berger, The Guardian http://film.guardian.co.uk/features/featurepages/0,4120,1289516,00.html

Walter has tried to pre-empt any critical appraisal of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 in his writeup. He has attempted to show that criticizing the film's generalizations is pointless. However, I will here do just that. I hope that you will not immediately decry me as a Bush-loving, pro-war boogieman. I am not a Republican, nor a Democrat, since I am indeed not even an American. As a citizen of Finland, a neutral country, I have no personal interest in defending President Bush or criticizing Michael Moore.

Some Czech and Polish commentators have likened Fahrenheit 9/11 to Soviet propaganda films and even to Hitler's court filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. That may be stretching it a bit far, but Moore does use propaganda techniques throughout the picture.1 We see plenty of George Bush's linguistic fumbles, and watching him just sit and read to children for seven minutes after he had learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center is somewhat disturbing. All this gives us - especially us Europeans - a chance to laugh at a man who is generally considered a mediocre intellect, to put it mildly. But that just clouds the issues, which is exactly the objective of propaganda. Anyone can be made to look stupid with the right editing. Showing George Bush as an idiot works so well because it panders to our prejudices. Because Moore does this, the audience lets him get away with a lot of things.

The most glaring example of Moore's one-sidedness is his coverage of the war in Iraq. He portrays the Iraq of Saddam Hussein as a Middle-Eastern paradise. We see footage of a wedding, and happy people walking the streets of Baghdad. Then the bombs start falling, and we see an Iraqi woman calling on God to avenge the destruction. Which is of course something the Bush administration would prefer us not to see, and it is sobering to witness. But how is this woman's anguish more important than that of those murdered or tortured by Saddam Hussein? Or of those deprived by UN sanctions of basic necessities? The Bush administration has tried to show the invasion in the best possible light; Moore has tried to show it in the worst possible light. Neither cares for objectivity, and neither is to be believed.

According to Moore, Iraq was a sovereign country that has never attacked the United States nor killed a single American citizen. Thus, an American invasion of Iraq sounds as bad as if the United States had attacked Sweden. There is absolutely no mention of Saddam Hussein's war with Iran, or his invasion of Kuwait. We never hear of Saddam's murder of the Kurds. And we most definitely do not hear of the crippling UN sanctions on Iraq. Of course we know all these things, but a mention of them would have given Moore's film at least an air of objectivity. Just like it didn't suit the Bush administration's interests to consider the possibility there might be no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or show the civilian casualties caused by the precision bombing, it didn't suit Michael Moore's interests to consider whether Iraq really was well off under Saddam Hussein after all. The other critical question he failed to ask is whether the economic sanctions or the invasion caused more damage. I for one would have been much more persuaded by his argument had he considered the evidence on both sides of the case and then concluded that even taking into account the brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime, the suffering caused by his toppling was so great that the war was a mistake.

The part of the film focusing on the connections between both George Bushes and the bin Laden family is much more convincing. There seems to be no denying that the families have done business together. But the whole argument hinges on the assertion by an American author that some of the other members of the bin Laden family were at the same wedding in Afghanistan in 2001 as Osama bin Laden. Perhaps this is true, but it is the only piece of evidence presented that the assertion of the bin Ladens that they have had no contact with Osama is untrue. And even if they have had contact with him, it does not prove that the bin Laden family have financed Osama bin Laden's terrorism. There is an implicit accusation in the film that the September 11th terrorist attacks were good for the Bush family and the bin Ladens because of their joint business ventures. Of course this easily leads one to believe that there is a sinister connection - George W. Bush didn't seriously tackle terrorism before 9/11 because he stood to gain financially from a successful attack. This is an extremely serious accusation, and should not be taken lightly by even the most die-hard Bush-hater. The film gives rise to such speculation, but the evidence put forth is hardly sufficient to sustain the argument.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is a very well made piece of propaganda. Michael Moore has admitted that the film is aimed at throwing George W. Bush out of the White House in the next presidential election. This in itself is fine, if only Moore reached a negative verdict on Bush's performance based on an objective evaluation of the facts. However, Moore resorts to showing only one side of the argument. In this way, he is no better than the Bush administration.2

I do not wish to fully condemn the film, however. Some of the issues it raises are genuine. Why were the bin Laden family flown out of the United States right after 9/11 and not questioned? Why does the United States continue to support a regime widely condemned for its human rights violations? How on earth was it possible for the 2000 presidential election to be such a fiasco? The film also touches on another important subject, the 'culture of fear' in the United States, which Moore exposed in Bowling for Columbine. Americans have a tradition of overreacting to events (internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, the Communist scares during the Cold War, the panic over the Millennium, and so forth). Guantanamo bay and the Patriot Act are perhaps the starkest present day examples of this. Moore asserts that the Bush administration worsened the fears of the populace by issuing terror alerts and raising the threat level. I think it is hard to deny that this was a major factor in the widespread public support in the United States for the invasion of Iraq. It is one of the best points that the film makes.

More generally, I think the film is healthy for American public debate. At least now there is an alternate viewpoint, though one which is hardly more objective than the official one. One of the arguments John Stuart Mill presents for the freedom of expression in On Liberty is valid here. It is good that opposing points of view are presented, since it may thus be possible to discover the truth which lies somewhere between the two extremes.

1. Walter argues that since Fahrenheit 9/11 is not an essay but a film, it is "built out of emotions". But there is a necessary difference between a piece of fiction and a documentary, just like there is a difference between a short story and an essay. Both can be about the same thing, but the documentary should at least attempt to achieve some objectivity. Of course a documentary can appeal to your emotions. So it's fine showing grieving Iraqis or Americans who have lost their loved ones in war. But you should also show the damage Saddam Hussein did to his people and his neighbors. If you do not do this at all, you cannot claim any objectivity, and you are using the grief of those mourning Iraqis and Americans for your own ends.

2. Walter conveniently circumvents the issue by asking whether Moore has a huge media empire or political connections. This is a different question - it is one of power. Obviously Michael Moore is not nearly as powerful as George W. Bush. But he is as bad as the Bush administration in his extremely selective use of evidence.
Even though "Fahrenheit 9/11" didn't accomplish Michael Moore's goal in unseating George W. Bush as president of the United States of America, its success at the box office still makes the film a truly monumental achievement in the history of American cinema.

The film, released by Lions Gate Films had a production budget of 6 million dollars backed by a 15 million dollar marketing campaign. While the film is still tracking at the North American and International box office, it will end up with 119 million made domestically and another 103 million made internationally (222.4 million worldwide). These figures easily make it the highest grossing documentary of all time, a record Michael Moore had already set twice before with his 2002 film Bowling for Columbine (21 million domestically, 36 million overseas) and his 1989 breakthrough Roger & Me (6.7 million domestically, 1 million overseas). It also should be noted that the documentary record was broken after the films very first weekend. It also broke the record for widest number of screens for a documentary three weeks in a row (868 opening weekend, 1,725 2nd weekend and 2,011 3rd weekend). It was also the first documentary to ever cross the once heavily coveted $100 million dollar mark.

"Fahrenheit 9/11" also was the highest grossing film to ever win the Palme D'Or at Cannes Film Festival, out grossing American classics such as Pulp Fiction, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, The Piano and sex, lies and videotape that also won that award.

Outside of the independent film and art house circuit, "Fahrenheit 9/11" made its mark just as strongly. It was the 17th highest grossing film domestically in 2004, having out grossed big budget blockbusters such as Mean Girls, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Grudge, Collateral, Hellboy and Alien vs. Predator, the latest Spielberg film, The Terminal, and outgrossed every single film nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

The film's 24 million dollar opening weekend was one of the biggest opening weekends for an R-rated film of all time and one of the biggest in 2004. It also broke Rocky II's record for the biggest box office opening weekend for any film that opened in less than a thousand theaters.

With all partisanship aside, "Fahrenheit 9/11" set a true milestone in the history of American film: A documentary film that was in the style of few documentary films that came before it and managed to achieve success not only in the independent film world and the political world but in the world of popular culture as well.


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