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Our film columnist Thomas Wartenberg laughs and cheers this year’s most controversial satire, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.
Why do we laugh? What do we laugh at? Who is doing the laughing? Who is the object of laughter? These are the sorts of questions that philosophers have asked when they think about humor. Although laughter seems the most natural of things, as with most philosophic topics, it becomes clear after a little reflection that there is more to humor than meets the eye. For although humor might appear to be just in fun, it turns out that it can serve more serious purposes. In particular, political satire can be an effective tool in undermining the appeal of a leader or an idea.
These reflections come to mind in response to Michael Moore’s recent film, Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore’s film concerns the second Bush Administration and the War in Iraq to which it has committed the United States. As the War appears to more Americans as the disaster so many had predicted, and as the election campaign moves into high gear, the film comes at a highly charged time. Moore’s distinctive style of documentary filmmaking and his unconcealed antagonism to Bush have made this film into a major cultural and political event.
Fahrenheit 9/11 first reached public consciousness when it won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Many of those familiar with Moore’s previous films – Roger and Me and Bowling for Columbine – were surprised that Moore’s film had won this prize from a festival known for its embrace of the art film. To many, Moore’s films seemed more like political provocations than exercises in the fine art of filmmaking. Still, the film’s achievement of this award made people curious about why it had won.
I have been a fan of Moore’s work since Roger and Me. Sharing much of his politics, I had enjoyed his humor and irreverence. The documentary has generally been a rather serious and somber film genre, often seeking to expose injustices and mobilize public opinion. Moore’s conscious inversion of the norms of documentary film pleased me enough that I dubbed his form of filmmaking the ‘mocumentary.’ I chose that word to signal that Moore had adopted a new filmmaking strategy in which the deceptions of those in power were exposed by direct confrontations. Indeed, much of the pleasure we got from those films was derived from Moore’s willingness to breach norms of decorum in order to expose the pretenses of power. What he showed, I believe, is that the presence of humor in a documentary film need detract neither from its seriousness of purpose nor from its political effectiveness.
Fahrenheit 9/11 promised to continue this tradition of filmmaking, so I was intrigued when the film next made the news: Disney, the owner of the film’s distributor, Miramax, ordered its subsidiary not to distribute the film because it would be bad for business, especially in Florida, home of Disneyworld as well as the site of George W. Bush’s electoral shenanigans. Many, myself included, thought that the film’s politics were more likely the cause of Disney’s decision than any real worry about its financial impact. And, in any case, it seemed to guarantee the film would become a huge hit.
When the film finally did hit U.S. theaters a couple of weeks before I wrote this review, the stage had been set and the film’s reception did not disappoint. It was the first documentary to hit #1 on its opening weekend and it has continued to pack houses. In my own home of Northampton, Massachusetts, lines extended around the block as people rushed to seen the film that itself had become news.
At the same time, the press has been having a field day with the film. Aside from the cover story on Time magazine, virtually every columnist and political pundit has weighed in to discuss the film. Of course, the conservative press has rushed to challenge Moore by arguing that his film departs from all responsible norms of journalism and documentary. More surprisingly, many liberals have joined the anti-Moore chorus, wringing their chagrined hands about the film’s lack of balance.
To my mind, these criticisms miss the mark. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a profoundly affecting film. Although its explicit target is George W. Bush and his commitment to war in Iraq, for me the film’s power stems from what it shows us about the course of the war and, indeed, the Bush Presidency. What I find particularly praiseworthy about the film is the range of different issues and techniques it uses to demonstrate the moral bankruptcy of this Administration and the hypocrisy of its leaders.
As in his earlier films, Moore keeps humor in the forefront of this film almost to the end. The target of Moore’s swipes is primarily George W., but it extends to all of the major players of his Administration: Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, and others. Here, Moore is most liable to the charge of taking easy pot shots, as when he shows all of the principals preening before the make-up camera. While it’s true that everyone gets made-up before appearing on television, I don’t accept the charge that Moore is off base here. Yes, he’s parodying our political leaders, but such parody can be effective and it’s part of Moore’s strategy to see these men – and lone woman – through different eyes than the ones they hope we will use.
The film is on surer ground with some of its revelations, not all of which aim at Bush. While we watch with a sense of grim amusement Moore’s revelation that, prior to 9/11, George W. spent more than half his time on vacation, there are other, even more telling disclosures. It’s hard to watch Bush sitting in front of a grade-school class, reading a picture book, after he has been told that the country is under attack and two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center. Moore’s question, “What is he thinking?” is a good one, as we wonder why the so called Leader of the Free World can’t figure out how to respond to one of the most serious disasters the United States has experienced on its own soil.
But we feel no better watching Al Gore cooperating in his own electoral defeat. After the debacle of Florida, members of the Congressional Black Caucus did not want to confirm Bush’s victory since so many blacks and other minorities had been illegally denied their right to vote. In order for their petitions to be heard, a U.S. Senator had to sign on, but none would. So we are treated to the spectacle of the unsuccessful candidate for President of the United States, ruling out of order one after another minority U.S. Representative as they try to deny Bush the victory that they feel he had not rightfully won.
While this story is not widely known – and therefore packs a real punch – other, more generally shared knowledge still acquires new impact when placed in the broader context that Moore creates. So the fact that many members of the Bin Laden family were secretly flown out of the U.S. becomes something we need to know more about when it is placed in the context of the Bush family’s business ties to the Saudis.
But the part of the film that moved me most was Moore’s investigation of those who bore the real cost of the Iraq War. First, he talks to young black men in Flint, Michigan, his hometown. We witness the pressure being put on them to enlist in the armed forces and the economic desperation that makes them liable to do so. With his typical confrontational style, Moore then goes to D.C. in order to confront members of Congress by asking them to get their children to enlist, especially since they are the ones who have committed this country to the War. When one Congressman looks at Moore with stark incredulity – as if to say, “My son? In Iraq? You can’t be serious!” – the significance of hierarchy and the inequities of class come home to us. And only Moore’s confrontational style allows this perception to emerge through a mixture of humor and seriousness.
Many critics have emphasized the segment of the film in which Moore interviews Lila Lipscomb, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq. And they are right to emphasize how moving it is to see a mother express the void that a son’s death has left in her life, especially when neither her son nor herself understand the reason he had to die. But equally moving is a segment in which an Iraqi mother speaks to the camera of her loss, moments after a bomb has destroyed her home. When she shrieks with pain, asking Allah to wreck vengeance upon those who have caused her loss, we understand as perhaps never before why the waging of this war has not resulted in the joyful embraces Bush and Co. promised.
Fahrenheit 9/11, then, is a powerful work of political cinema. I applaud its use of humor as a tool for social critique. It is not just the dissemination of new and troubling facts that subverts the hold of received opinion, although these are certainly important. As Bergson and Freud both recognized early in the twentieth century, humor is a powerful tool for undermining the hold of established authority. In Fahrenheit 9/11, while Michael Moore uses this tool to good effect, he does not let it get in the way of a more straightforward documentary technique: letting people speak for themselves. When he lets this happen, he adds an important technique to his mocumentary style that allows Fahrenheit 9/11 to emerge as a brilliant and effective film that seeks to expose Americans to the political realities their foreign policy has created. It deserves to be seen by everyone.
© THOMAS E. WARTENBERG 2004
Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview) and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.