Season 2, Episode 8: Let's Talk WMD's (What Michael Moore Documents): Fahrenheit 9/11
Part I: Preamble
Brother, this feels wild to say but this month — March 20th, to be exact — is the 20th anniversary of the start of the American War in Iraq. Can you believe that? 20 years!
20 years ago we were little 15 year-old babies who looked around at everything going on and said “This is fucked” and we’ve been trying for 20 years to fix it. Maybe 20 years doesn’t seem like a long time when you think about the history of the world, but I know that the last 20 years have certainly run us a little ragged and aged us in ways we won’t see the consequences of for a little while longer.
Shortly before this time 20 years ago, all I wanted to do was pass my classes, hang out with my friends, read books, listen to music, and kiss girls. Then, like so many other young people did either because their parents were watching it or because they were old enough to be interested in it, I watched one of the most repulsive humans alive (and still alive!), George W. Bush, sit in the Oval Office two days after St. Patrick’s Day, March 19, 2023, and tell all of us that we were going to war with Iraq because of the SUPPOSED threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction. A phrase that would be lovingly and slovenly shortened to WMDs by the press just days later. The FIVE minute speech — yes, it was only five minutes long — started like this: “My fellow citizens, at this hour American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger on my orders.”
Defend the world from grave danger. What the danger was, really, he didn’t say. We don’t have time to get into a full explanation of the history of Iraq here, but according to the Bush administration, Saddam Hussein was not only the biggest threat to our national security but also to the security of every single country in the world. The following day “Operation Iraqi Freedom” began with the U.S. — the same place where people are killed or arrested by authorities simply for looking a certain way, the same place where you can’t get a leg up unless you already have a leg up, the same place where an ACTUALLY rigged election made George W. Bush president in the first place — once again taking the position of Chief Reformer whose responsibility it is to show these good-for-nothing tyrants a thing or two about democracy and what it means to live in a free world.
Not only did Bush’s claims turn out to be absolute bullshit, but it also launched us into yet another endless cycle of death and destruction that still, to this day and regardless of what the government says, has not been successful in any way. In any single way. Well, actually, maybe it was successful in one single way. It made a lot of scum bags — including the Bush family themselves and Bush’s Vice President, Dick Cheney — A LOT richer. I mean, a lot richer. And I’m not just talking about the CEOs of defense companies and people who work high up in defense contracting. I’m talking about the people who invested in these companies, too…the stockholders. You might be wondering how that could be. Well, you see, not too long before the American War in Iraq started, many defense companies made their stock public, which means people who got on that bandwagon, got richer as well. And I’m not even scratching the surface of all the oil companies and oil drilling contractors who also made a shit ton of money as a result of the war.
But on March 20th, 2003, we didn’t know all of that yet. Many of us just felt — just knew, really — that something was amiss with Operation Iraqi Freedom and the War on Terror as a whole. And many of us also didn’t feel that way. For those of you who were around during that period, you can probably remember some of the most pacifist people in your lives suddenly becoming so down with war because of the events of September 11th and propagandizing of the Bush administration and the media. You can probably remember people just being fine with this. Just saying, “Well, if it’s what we have to do, then we have to do it.” Shit, you may have been one of those people and though that fills me with rage, I get it. I really do. We were a lost ass country. We were always a lost ass country but somehow, George W. Bush’s election and 9/11 made us even more lost. And people wanted answers. They wanted revenge. They wanted to feel like everything bad that was happening was all for something.
My friends and I, on the other hand, just wanted to feel less crazy about the world we were living in. We didn’t understand the purpose of state-sanctioned violence, and we didn’t want to be part of a system that created it, especially when that creation was so enormous that it threatened the lives of millions of people in an instant. We felt powerless against it, but we also felt like maybe if we kept yelling about it, it might stop one day. When you’re taught about the resistance of the past, you’re not given a head count so we were very optimistic about the power of resistance, but we didn’t realize that you need A LOT of people to resist in order to accomplish anything substantial. And sometimes, you might not even accomplish anything. People, overall, were not very resistant. Yes, there were sustained protest movements against the American War in Iraq, but most people — like many of the adults in our lives — were fairly resigned to the fact that this was just a fact of living in the modern world: countries disagreed with each other, threatened to destabilize whole regions of the world, and then, they went to war with one another in order to solve this disagreement. And the American War in Iraq was just another iteration of this.
You might be wondering why and how this is the preamble for an episode on the 2004 Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. Well, Fahrenheit 9/11, along with the rest of the content we’ll produce this month, is a documentary about the beginning of the American War in Iraq, Actually, it was the first documentary that many of us who were teenagers at the time saw on the American War in Iraq because Fahrenheit 9/11 was a Miramax production that was highly distributed to movie theaters across the U.S. as the time. That makes it stand out to me for two reasons.
The first is that I went to see it in a movie theater with my friends. Some of us could drive by the time of its release so we piled into three cars and drove over to the Gateway Movie Theater in Ft. Lauderdale the weekend it came out. Our radical politics were still just in the infant stages of development so naturally, we were Michael Moore fans at the time. We had seen Roger & Me and The Big One and Bowling for Columbine. We viewed him as a big guy — truly one of my fat idols at the time and also just big in the sense that people were scared of him and work he was doing — in Big Media who was speaking truth to power. And we revered him for the work we thought he was trying to do.
The second reason it stands out to me is because of the critical reaction to the film from all sides — Conservatives, Liberals, and everyone in between, which is mostly what this episode is going to be about, actually. Because I think the reaction tells us more about us than the film does. The reaction is connected more broadly to how we got to where we are now.
Before we get into that, though, let me tell everyone a little bit about the film so we all have the same context and understanding.
Part II: The Film Itself
One of the most wild things about Fahrenheit 9/11 is that it is one of the highest grossing documentary films of all time. The only one that surpasses it is Michael Jackson’s This Is It, and it only surpasses it by $40 million, which in industry context doesn’t seem like that much. I know you love numbers, brother, so let me just tell you…it was made with a budget of $6 million dollars and it made $222 million worldwide. That’s…..a lot of DOUGH. It came out in 2004 and got a wide theatrical release, as I mentioned before. So, we were less than a year into the War when Michael Moore started filming this. He, like a lot of others, knew it was all bullshit from the start.
Despite its name — which is obviously a play on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 — Fahrenheit 9/11 doesn’t actually discuss 9/11 that much. There is some stuff in there on it, of course, but mostly, the first half of the film focuses on the Bush family’s financial connections to Osama bin Laden’s family, the Saudi Arabian government, and the Taliban, which according to Moore’s findings have existed for decades. Obviously, in the first part of the film, he’s building a case to show that the Bush family was financially benefiting from the American Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and that they set it up so that their friends could benefit from the wars, as well.
The next part of the film takes aim at the media, which Moore accuses of being a propagandizing force for the wars and for the Bush administration. I’m using the word accuse here not because I think he’s wrong but because that is how this part is framed in the film. In this part, he also examines the government’s use of supposed counter-terrorist tactics such as the passing of the Patriot Act and the government’s infiltration of anti-war activist groups.
Following that examination, Moore then explains what life was like for people in Iraq before the wars, and he asserts that the situation in Iraq is just going to get worse from there. Remember, this was 2004 so he was really just pointing out anxieties that turned out to be true. He also talks to journalists who were sent to cover the beginning stages of the war with some of them stating that they were told to uphold the best journalistic integrity possible by blatantly lying about what was happening there.
The final part of the film kind of just brings all of this together to discuss the socioeconomic demographics of the people who enlist in the military and what it means for those families. He talks about how it is usually poor people who ended up serving and dying for the U.S.’s “useless wars” and, unfortunately, does assert that troops should only be used to actually defend the U.S. Not sure exactly what he means by that, but you know, he’s not radical, just liberal, so I understand where it’s coming from. One cool thing he does in this part is accost senators and representatives going to work on Capitol Hill to ask them if they’re sending their eligible kids to enlist in the military so they can go fight and die in this senseless war. Anything with government people getting harassed, you know I’m in. The film basically ends on the note that the war in Iraq fucking sucks but the people who are fighting it are like all perfect innocent creatures who deserve better. Not great but, again, I understand where it’s coming from!
Is it a good film to watch for the first time in 2023? Probably not. But the power of it in 2004 was HUGE.
Part III: Some People Really Loved This Film, Some People Really Fuckin’ Hated It, but Mostly, the Reception was Lukewarm
I don’t want this to be a jump scare for anyone so I’m just going to say up front that I’m going to mention Harvey Weinstein because this film was funded mostly by the Weinstein brothers. Harvey was the one who was fucking involved in the publicity of everything so he’s in here.
Fahrenheit 9/11 first premiered at Cannes in 2004 and, according to reports and Harvey Weinstein, it received a 20 minutes standing ovation after it finished. But WHO is surprised that these Hollywood Liberals at this shit up? After rewatching it for the first time in 19 years, certainly not me. Harvey actually went on to claim that “It was the longest standing ovation I've seen in over 25 years.” Who knows if that’s true but it makes sense. Hollywood loves to pretend it hates presidents. And Cannes is also representative of the international film community, so I’m sure Harvey was not far off.
It actually went on to win the Palme D’Or, making only the SECOND documentary to ever do so after Jacques Cousteau's and Louis Malle's The Silent World in 1956. When it won, FOX News immediately jumped on the news to claim that the film had only won that award because Cannes awards come from French people which……..was too fucking funny a fact not to include in this episode. Moore actually expected this and had commented days before, "I fully expect the Fox News Channel and other right-wing media to portray this as an award from the French. […] There was only one French citizen on the jury. Four out of nine were American. […] This is not a French award, it was given by an international jury dominated by Americans.” And turns out he was right because the jury was made up of four North Americans (one of them born in Haiti), four Europeans, and one Asian. We’re still waiting on a response from FOX News on this.
When it was released stateside in the theaters, it received mostly positive reviews from film critics we both respect and it was panned by Conservative publications like FOX News but it also got some weird responses, too. Two critics, Shailagh Murray of The Wall Street Journal and Stephen Dalton of The Times, both said that the film was satirical…which is a very confusing thing to read. My guess is that they couldn’t really contend with the political content of the film so they had to diffuse it through interpreting it as satire.
Andrew Sullivan also reviewed the film, and because he occupies such a weird space in our culture — he’s Conservative, for sure, but he’s also gay and wants full gay assimilation, so he’s also at odds with conservatism IN A SENSE — I had to read it. Anyone familiar with his work, especially in regards to his Islamophobic comments about the wars over the years and his recent work, will not be surprised to hear he fuckin’ hated it. It’s a short review and I really want to read the whole thing, but I’ll spare y’all and just give you some of my favorite passages. It starts like this:
“Sitting in the movie theater watching Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 amid an audience utterly riveted by a movie speaking to its deepest emotions, I kept getting a sense of deja vu. Where had I felt such crowd dynamics before? And then I remembered. What I was sensing was eerily similar to the awestruck devotion I had noticed in another audience--this time of Fundamentalist Christians--as it watched Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Both movies were appealing to what might be called their cultural bases. They weren't designed to persuade. They were designed to rally the faithful, to use the power of imagery to evoke gut sentiment, to rouse the already committed to various forms of hatred or adoration.”
And then he goes on to say, “Gibson and Moore--two sides of the same coin? Absolutely. There are times when the far right and the far left are so close in methodology as to be indistinguishable. And both movies are not just terrible as movies--crude, boring, gratuitous; they are also deeply corrosive of the possibility of real debate and reason in our culture. They replace argument with feeling, reasoned persuasion with the rawest of group loyalties.”
He continues, “Moore argues that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were designed only to enrich the Bush family with oil money. For Moore, Sept. 11 wasn't the cause of the war on terrorism. It was a pretext for corruption. He cannot prove this, and so he tries to bludgeon the viewer emotionally to that conclusion.”
And finally, he concludes, “It is a sign of how far the culture war has gone that almost no one condemns both movies. If you're a Fundamentalist red-stater, Gibson is a hero. If you're a leftist blue-stater, Moore is, in the words of the New York Times, "a credit to the Republic." The truth is that both movies are different but equally potent forms of cultural toxin--poisonous to debate, to reason and to civility. And the antidote is in shorter and shorter supply.”
My favorite part about this is Sullivan, one of the leaders of the culture wars in the U.S. and abroad for the last two decades, accusing Moore (and Gibson) of doing what he has always done.
Christopher Hitchens — may he rest in piss — is another person I was surprised to find chiming into the criticism about the film. I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised because he was a vocal supporter of the wars and a raging Islamophobe while he was alive, but nonetheless, it surprised me that he even gave a shit the film was made in the first place. Alas, he had much to say about it. In an op-ed titled Unfahrenheit 9/11, which doesn’t even fucking make sense, he claimed that Moore’s entire film is based on made-up lies that were created to puff up some liberal sense of moral superiority. I can see what Hitchens is getting at in regards to the liberal sense of moral superiority, that is a real thing but I don’t think this film has anything to fucking do with it. In his piece he says, “To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental. To describe it as an exercise in facile crowd-pleasing would be too obvious. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of “dissenting” bravery.”
Then, Hitchens joined forces with former democratic mayor Ed Koch, not to be confused with the billion Koch brothers but still just as annoying, after he wrote a review about Fahrenheit 9/11 in the World Tribune that made similar claims. Koch’s review said, “I am a movie critic, so I went to see “Fahrenheit 9/11.” The movie is a well-done propaganda piece and screed as has been reported by most critics. It is not a documentary which seeks to present the facts truthfully. The most significant offense that movie commits is to cheapen the political debate by dehumanizing the President and presenting him as a cartoon.” These two “”” Liberals “””” (lots of quotation marks) then kind of went on a media campaign against the film because they felt so strongly that the Islamic State needed to be stopped by American forces.
The Hitchens/Koch alliance actually forced Moore to make a separate space on his website proving the stuff that he addressed in the film is all factual. He provided all of his notes and research and resources there for people to see.
Look, I’m not defending this film…I think it’s very flawed, also, but I don’t think Moore’s claims about the Bush family finances and all that are unfounded. He was right. He was right the whole time that this war was started for financial gain, and I think it’s important for me to say both of these things: the film kinda sucks but he was right.
Now, with that being said, I think the thing that surprised me the most about my research is, like I said, that the response was pretty lukewarm overall. Sure, he received a standing ovation at Cannes, but in all of the positive reviews I’ve read of the film, not a single one of them was like “You know what, the American Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are bad and Moore is right about that even if some of the things happening in this film are a little questionable.” Not a single one. And that’s the thing that really gets me, that’s the thing that has been bothering me about this: the resistance of the people in the media to JUST SAY HOW IT FUCKING IS.
Part IV: Relevance
This leads us into the last part of this…why is this relevant today? I actually don’t think the film is a very useful resource for understanding the American War in Iraq so I’m not sure if it’s very relevant. I think people SHOULD watch it just to see what the understanding was at the time and to see some very early criticism of the Wars, but I don’t know if it has like POWER anymore. What I think is relevant about examining this is just what I was talking about…the media’s unwillingness to go in on shit that is happening around us. And I say this as a member of the media myself, you know. Like shouldn’t we be more FEARLESS than that?
When movies address the circumstances of our reality, isn’t it our responsibility to address those things, too? I feel like it is.
And on top of that, I feel like this is just a good example of what living through this time was like. People didn’t want to be like “No, this is bad” because they were afraid others would respond by saying they’re un-American and not patriotic. They would accuse them of sympathizing with the supposed bad guy and make it seem like war is the only rational response to the attack on 9/11 and the threat of weapons of mass destruction. And even though it’s easy to be like, “who cares about that?” now, in 2004, everyone truly thought that your political beliefs were not indicative of the person you were, so civility and civil discourse were demanded at every turn.