Writing in his memoirs, the Oxford historian Tapan Raychaudhuri wondered if any country other than the US could have anointed someone like George W. Bush its president. In fact, he was convinced there wasn’t another such country. Professor Raychaudhuri was a lucky man: he didn’t live to see Donald J. Trump ensconced in the White House. Indeed, if there was one man beside whom Bush could hope to look ‘presidential’ (to borrow from the American phrase-book), it had to be Trump. Much like a time in the future if Aditynath becomes India’s prime minister, Narendra Damodardas Modi may begin to look like a statesman.
But the Trump presidency lay buried in the middle future yet and Michael Moore didn’t have a crystal ball in his hand when, in June 2004, he released his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. George Bush’s first term in office was drawing to a close, and it seemed a good time to take stock of what Moore doubtless hoped would be a one-shot presidency, like the Senior Bush’s had been in its time. In the event, Bush swept to power once again, and Fahrenheit 9/11 did not prove to be the epitaph on his presidency that the final flourish of the film – “You have fooled me once, and you can fool me never again” – held out the promise of being.
And yet – or perhaps because of this – Michael Moore’s great documentary remains such compelling viewing even today, when Trump’s shenanigans have begun to show even George Bush in a somewhat kindly light. For Fahrenheit 9/11 not only pillories the Bush presidency, it is an indictment of the political economy of post-World War II US, indeed, of the entire system around which American society is organised.
And what a damning indictment it is! A crony of the president loses a Congressional election and is promptly appointed by the president as the country’s attorney general. Next, the AG refuses to be briefed on issues of national security, even though there is credible intelligence of an impending terror attack (which takes place soon after, on 9/11). A vice president relentlessly pursues his private business interests – which are clearly at odds with the country’s – in full public view and at humongous cost to the national exchequer.
The defence secretary lies through his teeth about Saddam Hussein’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’, a myth in which he himself evidently doesn’t believe. The president’s father, a former president himself, insists on regular ‘security’ briefings by the CIA, travels like royalty when on business trips, and makes sure all uncomfortable questions about the Saudi Arabian connection to the September 11 attacks on New York are effectively stymied – for he has solid business links to that country, indeed to also the wealthy bin Laden family itself. And above all, a preening dimwit of a president who loves nothing better than golf, avoids all responsibility, and fumbles for words even at routine public engagements.
Unmasking the system
But as inviting as these character sketches happen to be – and Moore treats us to virtually the who’s who of the mandarins of late-20th century American power – the remarkable thing about the film is that it unmasks the system in which they thrive and prosper. For all his hyperpatriotic rants against ‘America’s enemies’, George Bush avoided the draft and as president, got away with putting out redacted copies of documentation showing his brief tryst with the military. No doubt his father’s excellent contacts in Washington – Bush Senior had been a diplomat, a Congressman, chair of the Republican National Committee, director of the CIA, and vice president for eight years before he became president – smoothed his own passage through the corridors of power.
He cocked a snook at the Securities and Exchange Commission by undertaking massive insider trading in the stock of a company he sat on the board of, and he was never called to account over this crime. He entertained members of the Taliban in Washington DC just a few months before the 9/11 attacks, showing them around the State Department and letting Americans ‘know’ that the Taliban was a trusted ally.
And yet, at the end of the day, no one – not his political opposition, nor even the media – thought of calling him out on his numerous acts of omission and commission. At every twist and turn of public life in the US, Moore suggests, a person of privilege and/or with a deep pocket could have their way anywhere with the minimum of difficulty. The great American system could be so wildly manipulative precisely because manipulation had been written into its very DNA.
Moore speaks witheringly of the American media which played along with Bush’s ‘Either you’re with us, or with the Enemy’ nonsense cheerfully. That there were too many holes in the narrative put out by the president and his lackeys about why 142 members of the extended bin Laden family were safely flown out of the US just two days after the Twin Towers horror (though the FBI wanted to question some of them), was as plain as daylight.
But the great liberal media willingly put their blinkers on and refused to look. Later, when a mendacious, criminally cynical administration invaded Iraq, basing its case on one of the greatest swindles in recent history, the same media played the smarmy patriotic card, proudly declaring its resolve to stand by the government, no matter what. It was, Moore suggests, not even a ‘manufactured consent’. It did not need to be, for the media consented even before it had been asked.
Systemic corruption and deliberate disenfranchisement
The systemic corruption and skulduggery is brought home to the viewer via one of the movie’s early sequences. Bush’s election in 2000 was a very, very close call, with many believing the result was stolen from Al Gore, the Democratic Party candidate. The counting went down to the wire and sizeable black communities in Florida – the state that finally gave Bush the job – had erupted in protest against what they alleged was deliberate disenfranchisement.
In a joint Congress-Senate session called to ratify the president’s election, at least ten representatives to the Congress rose to challenge the final result, citing voter fraud. But, for the debate to proceed, there was a statutory requirement to be met: at least one Senator needed to endorse the Congressmen’s demand – and none was willing. These Congressmen were all men and women of colour, and they made no secret of their disgust at the way their colleagues in the Senate – Democrats included – had torpedoed their cause. But for Moore showing the whole murky episode at length, this great betrayal of the African-American community by the privileged segments of American citizenry would have been buried deep in the official records of the American legislature.
Fahrenheit 9/11 has several more similarly potent visuals which hit home with such force that even the voiceover – handled to great effect throughout – seems altogether redundant. One is the quite eerie episode showing Bush and senior members of his administration ‘rehearsing’ their facial expressions before they went live on a broadcast to the nation about 9/11.
Another foregrounds Bush’s reaction – or the lack of it – to the planes ramming into the World Trade Centre. Bush was visiting Florida and was scheduled to drop in at an elementary school in the morning of 9/11. On his way to the school, he heard of the first plane crashing, but went ahead ‘with his photo-op nevertheless’, as Moore helpfully reminds us. Then, as the president sat inside a classroom reading aloud from My Pet Goat to the kids, a member of his entourage entered to whisper into his ear the news of the second plane. Incredibly, Bush did not react even then. For seven whole minutes after terrorists had staged the biggest attack ever on American mainland, the American president sat with tiny tots reading about the exploits of a goat, and this though he fully knew what had happened. This is surreal, and Moore makes fabulous use of the footage.
A third clip shows Bush addressing an after-dinner get-together, presumably of his donors in Washington. Suitably expansive after an excellent meal, Bush glides from one killing witticism to another. “Some people”, he says to the worthies, “call you the elite. I call you my base.” The speaker guffaws and his guests respond with uproarious laughter.
Weaponising a whole range of humour
Michael Moore has weaponised the whole range of humour here, from acid sarcasm to straight-faced needling to gentle chafing. His snarky voiceover negotiates this range with wonderful felicity. And yet, when convinced he needs to plunge into the action himself, he does so with his poker face and his somewhat grimy coat.
Confronted with the 342-page-long legislative monstrosity called the USA PATRIOT Act (acronym, incredibly, for Uniting and Strengthening Americans by Providing Appropriate Tools for Restricting, Intercepting and Obstructing Terrorism Act, 2001) which Bush signed into law a mere 45 days after 9/11, Moore tries to find out how many US law-makers had studied the Act before signing off on it. When he realises that perhaps not even one Congressman or Senator had taken the trouble, Moore commandeers an ice-cream truck standing near Capitol Hill and begins reading out the Act on a loudspeaker for the legislators’ benefit.
Another time, accompanied by a US Marine who had refused to do military duty because he believed he was being pushed into an unjust war, Moore stands near the Hill, collars lawmakers who happen to pass by, and tries inducing them to send their children to the ‘patriotic war’ in Iraq, a war they delivered rousing speeches about on a daily basis. Scandalised or plain incredulous, the lawmakers wave Moore off with alacrity.
But Fahrenheit 9/11 doesn’t only nail the government’s lies or expose an inept and essentially corrupt presidency; it also unveils the horror, the pathos of a macabre war which was as illegitimate as it was immoral. We see graphic images of bodies mutilated, limbs torn off civilians, poor people’s houses blown into smithereens, prisoners tortured, body bags piling up on sidewalks even as the world’s most powerful killing machine – the US army – wreaks havoc on Iraq, a country that had neither attacked the US, nor even harboured the terrorists who had.
At the same time, Moore shows how raw recruits from the poorest, most disadvantaged communities in the smaller US towns filled the military’s ranks simply because they had no sensible livelihood options open to them. Also how, even as Bush gushed over ‘our heroes in uniform’, he systematically cut back on disability pension and healthcare support for war returnees. In one case, the administration had docked five days’ wages off a dead soldier’s monthly salary because he had died in action in Iraq on May 26, 2003.
Moore repeatedly juxtaposes facts on the ground with the administration’s/ military’s claims – lies, more often than not – about something at issue, an exceptionally useful fact-checking method in the circumstances. In the film’s last few minutes, there is an extended quote from George Orwell about why and how wars must be waged by hierarchical, exploitative societies so that the privileges and prosperity of those societies’ ruling classes are never threatened or undermined.
A lot of water has flown under the bridge since the presidency of George W Bush. Moore himself, in 2018, crafted a kind of sequel to Fahrenheit 9/11 around the presidency of Donald Trump. Called Fahrenheit 11/9 (the American notation of the date in 2016 on which Trump was declared the winner of the presidential race), it traces what Moore believes is the US’s path of self-destruction and the hollowing-out of the ‘American dream’.
But substantively the issues underlying the Bush presidency have been carried over into Trump’s tenure. Carried over, it is true, with sharper edges and shriller proclamations, but essentially the same contradictions, the same conflicts of interest and the same faultlines that racked the American body politic in 2004 continue to harrow it in 2020 also. And a better visual guide than Fahrenheit 9/11 to these contradictions and these conflicts, to their genesis and their ripening, does not exist yet. No wonder it won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2004, or that it remains, to this day, the highest-grossing documentary film made anywhere.
Anjan Basu can be reached at email@example.com.