- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2004

For anyone familiar with Michael Moore’s slovenly tendencies, his new cause celebre, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” is bound to seem a stupefying rather than persuasive hatchet job.

Somehow, a frankly prejudicial and scornful outlook fails to prevent Mr. Moore from being scatterbrained and butter-fingered; he can’t keep a firm grip on a very blunt instrument. It’s as likely to recoil and conk the assailant as inflict a palpable dent on its intended victim, President Bush.

Because Mr. Moore doesn’t bother to explain the derivation of “Fahrenheit 9/11” as a title, let me clarify the connection. One of Ray Bradbury’s science-fiction novels, “Fahrenheit 451,” depicts a dystopian society in which firemen are state police agents who hunt down readers and burn their books. Printed material is said to ignite at 451 degrees.

Mr. Moore, in his inimitably shambling and absent-minded way, suggests that the Bush presidency has been systematically torching truth and decency, from election night in 2000 through the prosecution of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This blanket indictment probably is welcomed by much of the Democratic Party base, but Michael Moore is far too shoddy and unreliable as a muckraker to substantiate any particular charge. He may suffer from genuine attention-deficit problems; his preferred method is to belabor a charge for a few minutes, then shift to another one before anything resembling plausible confirmation or corroboration accumulates.

A hodgepodge of accusation is filtered through Mr. Moore’s mocking and contemptuous tone, either as camera subject or voice-over commentator. This simultaneously prejudiced and ignorant voice becomes insufferable right away, when Mr. Moore presumes to read the president’s mind during his visit to a Florida elementary school on the morning of the September 11 attacks.

The upshot of this line of speculation is neither clever nor penetrating: “Is it rude to suggest that when the Bushes wake up in the morning, they might be thinking about what’s best for the Saudis?”

An early libel — that the president authorized flights out of the country for members of the bin Laden family soon after September 11 — has been discredited already. It wouldn’t surprise me if some other complaint were substituted in later versions of the movie, which looks as if it were rushed into release.

After dismissing the Afghanistan war as a corrupt trifle and depicting the war in Iraq as a wanton assault on children’s playgrounds in Baghdad, Mr. Moore turns to the Patriot Act and illustrates its potential for abuse with a lame vignette about a peace club in Fresno, Calif., infiltrated by a local deputy.

Then he feigns shock at a Homeland Security Department that has left the Oregon coastline lightly patrolled. Evidently, Oregon is our soft left armpit for terrorist infiltration. Then it’s back to atrocity footage from Iraq, a fizzled attempt to mock the term “coalition of the willing” and the inevitable Flint homecoming.

(Mr. Moore keeps doubling back to Flint, Mich., as a primal source of grievance. He began posturing as a radical gadfly whose sense of bedrock virtue was nurtured by an idyllic Flint boyhood in his breakthrough “Roger & Me.” In that 1989 film, he took General Motors and its then-CEO, Roger Smith, to task for abandoning Flint as the manufacturing home of spark plugs. Mr. Moore’s Oscar-winning “Bowling for Columbine” also incorporated a pilgrimage to Flint.)

Locating a vulnerable hometown mother, Lila Pedersen, whose son perished in a Black Hawk crash, Mr. Moore lingers effectively over her grief while reading a last letter. Then he pushes his luck with an encore in Lafayette Park, which leaves Mrs. Pedersen stranded as a figure of pathos.

In fact, Mr. Moore repeatedly miscalculates his Washington episodes: A stunt about reading the Patriot Act from a Good Humor truck falls flat, and so does an attempt to sandbag congressmen into signing a bogus petition.

While trying to maximize embarrassment for certain officeholders, “Fahrenheit 9/11” reminds you of how vulnerable all public figures are to sucker punches from ceaselessly intrusive video cameras. As a practical matter, you don’t have to refine insults, verbal or illustrative, if the audience promises to be receptive anyway. “Fahrenheit 9/11” clearly counts on defective character assassination to overwhelm persuasion.

*1/2

TITLE: “Fahrenheit 9/11”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and images of atrocities and wartime carnage

CREDITS: Written, produced and directed by Michael Moore. Cinematography by Mike Desjarlais. Archival producer Carl Deal. Editing by Kurt Engfehr, Christopher Seward and T. Woody Richman. Music by Jeff Gibbs

RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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