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Fahrenheit 9/11

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Fahrenheit 9/11 promotional poster

Fahrenheit 9/11 is a documentary film released June 25th, 2004 in the United States by American filmmaker Michael Moore.

Like some of Moore's other projects, the film underwent a complicated trip from movie-making to box office before achieving unprecedented commercial success for a documentary. The film was produced by the Miramax film studio, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company. However, Disney refused to distribute the film, forcing Miramax founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein to buy the film rights personally and seek distribution through other channels.

Over the release weekend, the film grossed $21.8 million (final reports raised the total receipts to $23.9 million), beating the entire $21.6 million earning of Bowling for Columbine, which up until then was the highest-earning documentary of all time. The film went on to gross more than $100 million. (This is in spite of the Motion Picture Association of America imposing an R rating on the film which restricts those under 17 years old from seeing the film unless accompanied by an adult. Industry sources cited by USA Today estimate such a classification cuts approximately 20% from sales). [1]

Introduction

Controversial and "hard-hitting," Fahrenheit 9/11 features footage rarely seen in the United States showing the dark side of the Bush administration's "war on terrorism," both domestically and internationally:

  • The opening of the film recites the controversy surrounding Bush's election. It features footage of the joint house sitting in which Bush is sworn in as President in which numerous black members of the House of Representatives sought to formally protest the election results based on widespread election irregularities in communities of color. However for their protests to be formally accepted they required the support of a Senator. No Democrat or Republican members of the Senate were willing to support their motions, even for the purposes of debate.
  • The film incorrectly states that all post-election recounts show that Gore won Florida "under every scenario." A six month study in 2001 by the National Opinion Research Center, commissioned by several news organizations (including The New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN), found that under every scenario in which all ballots across the state were reviewed, Gore would have won. Bush would have won in scenarios in which partial recounts were performed. This is consistent with the movie's statement that "Gore got the most votes in 2000" [2] and [3] (table 1, page 8). As the only recounts that were authorized at the time of the election were partial ones, this means that even if the US Supreme Court had not stopped a statewide recount, Bush still would have won Florida and the election. But the NORC study shows that if all ballots statewide had been reviewed according to the standard set by each county's Canvassing Board (which would appear to be a fair and logical course of action), Gore would have won by 171 votes.
  • In the section about the Florida recount scenarios, the movie apparently shows a headline from the Illinois Pentagraph newspaper that reads "Latest Florida recount shows Gore won election." The phrase did appear in the Pentagraph, but as the title of a reader's letter - not a headline of a news story, and the date shown (Dec 19 instead of Dec 5, 2001) is not. The Pentagraph asked Moore for $1 in compensatory damages, which was refused by Moore's attorneys. [4]
  • Moore states that Bush spent 42 percent of his time in office on vacation during the months prior to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, based on an August 2001 Washington Post analysis by Charles Krauthammer (reproduced in Jewish World Review) [5] [6]. An analysis by CBS Radio White House correspondent Mark Knoller suggests that the President was on vacation 39 percent of the time during this period.
  • The film also shows footage Bush's response during the first seven minutes after he was notified that the World Trade Towers had been attacked. While Bush has said he didn't want to scare the children in the classroom he was visiting, Moore has ridiculed the fact that the President continued to read "My Pet Goat" with the students and suggests in a voice over that maybe he should have spent less time on vacation.
  • Documentary evidence and archival film footage show an alleged close relationship between Bush's inner circle and members of Saudi Arabia's elite, including family members of Osama Bin Laden. Much of this argument is based on Saudi-U.S. connections among the leadership of the Carlyle Group, including former President George H.W. Bush and James Baker.
  • Moore criticizes the Bush administration for allegedly using 9/11 as a pretext to restrict civil liberties through the USA Patriot Act (Patriot Act I) and to launch what Moore sees as an unwarranted war with Iraq.
  • Graphic footage from Iraq depicts the carnage of war, including images of burned Iraqi mothers and their dead children. Iraqi civilians vent grief and anger, and U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq express disillusionment.
  • At a trade conference for U.S. companies seeking reconstruction contracts in Iraq, businesspeople discuss the possibility of making large profits from the war.
  • One of the film's most emotionally moving segments features a woman from Flint, Michigan (Moore's home town), whose son died as a soldier in Iraq.

In addition to the film, Moore has added a section to his website carrying updates on the debate it has sparked and a guide aimed at mobilising U.S. voters. He has also created a section, called the War Room, which contains sources to backup all the claims made in the movie [7].

Ryan Parry, in his May 20, 2004, "10 Reasons Bush Wants to Ban Moore Film ... like it could make him lose the next election", published in the Mirror/UK, wrote that the "film is sending shockwaves through the United States in general and the White House in particular - and it hasn't even been released yet."

"Fahrenheit 9/11," Parry says, "which this week got the longest standing ovation in Cannes Film Festival history, tells what its director Michael Moore sees as the truth behind the war in Iraq and on terror.

"It is said to be so powerful it could tip November's US presidential election against George W. Bush. As Moore says: 'We were able to get film crews embedded with American troops without them knowing it was Michael Moore. They are totally f***ed.'"

Reactions to the movie

The film has been dismissed as "propaganda" by the Republican Party and some Democrats and praised by critics of the Bush administration. Conservative groups have mobilised against the film, seeking to limit its audience reach and potential political impact. The attempts to prevent the screening of the film have succeeded only in fuelling controversy over the film and mainstream media interest in it. While the film has been extensively reviewed, some mainstream commentators have challenged specific claims Moore makes against Bush.

Fahrenheit 9/11 also has its critics on the left. One criticism is that its polemical style appeals to opponents of Bush but does little to open up reasoned public debate with Bush supporters. Another strand of the critique is to challenge Moore's political analysis for focussing too narrowly on Bush. As a result, they argue, Moore's political strategy aims solely at defeating Bush but doing little to address the broader problems of American foreign policy or the Bush-lite version espoused by the Democratic Party.

Claims that Moore is a 'conspiracy theorist'

Many critics have attacked what they claim is Moore's use of conspiracy theories and distortions. For example, some have claimed that the movie says that Bush personally flew the Bin Laden family out of the US while commercial air traffic was grounded following 9/11. In fact, the movie does not claim this directly. It says this: (Moore) "In the days following September 11, all commercial and private airline traffic was grounded... Not even Ricky Martin could fly. But really, who wanted to fly? No one, except the Bin Ladens..." (Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND)) "The White House approved planes to pick up the bin Ladens and numerous other Saudis. At least six private jets and nearly two dozen commercial planes carried the Saudis and the bin Ladens out of the U.S. after September 13th. In all, 142 Saudis, including 24 members of the bin Laden family, were allowed to leave the country." [8] [9]

In March 2004, Clarke said: "I would love to be able to tell you who did it, who brought this proposal to me, but I don't know. The two -- since you press me, the two possibilities that are most likely are either the Department of State or the White House Chief of Staff's Office. But I don't know." [10] But Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar has given an entirely different account of the route by which the request reached Clarke: he claims it was made via the FBI [11]. In May 2004 Richard Clarke, who was at that time counterterrorism chief at the White House, said of the decision to approve the flights: "I take responsibility for it. It didn't get any higher than me ... On 9-11, 9-12 and 9-13, many things didn't get any higher than me. I decided it in consultation with the FBI." [12] Moreover, the route by which the request to approve the flights reached Clarke is less than clear. Another piece of relevant material that came to light too late for inclusion in the movie was confirmation that, on September 13th 2001, Saudi nationals were flown from Tampa to Lexington, KY. The plane appears to have been operating under a false registration. Prior to the June 2004 admission, the White House had long denied the existence of the flight. [13] [14]

Right-wing attacks on the movie, and criticisms of it

Conservative groups have, with limited success to date, adopted a range of strategies attempting to undermine the reach and impact of the film. They were unsuccessful in attempting to dissuade cinemas from screening the film. An attempt to have advertisements promoting the film designated by the Federal Election Commission as political material, and therefore banned 60 days before the November election due to election campaign restrictions, also failed.

Another, but far-fetched strategy advocated by Moorewatch.com, is to promote the downloading of pirated copies of the movie thereby depriving Moore of the box-office sales. As an Australian Financial Review journalist reviewing this strategy dismissivly wrote, "We've been downloading Fahrenheit 9/11 for four hours now, and we've downloaded a whopping 16 megabytes. At this rate it will take us a just 250 hours to steal the movie. Take that! Mr Moore!". [15]

One common rhetorical technique used by opponents of the movie is to cite criticism of Moore's earlier film, Bowling for Columbine, and suggest implicitly that those same criticisms apply to Fahrenheit 9/11. The other is to impugn Moore's patriotism (See "Michael Moore Hates America", below).

In June 2004, the Move America Forward 'campaign' was launched. It was quickly exposed as a front for the GOP-linked political PR firm Russo Marsh & Rogers. It immediately started a campaign to pressure cinema owners into not showing the movie.

In June 2004, Matthew Felling, the media director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, said: "Of course, this movie is going to be Michael Moore's version of what he thinks President Bush is up to and what he thinks his capabilities are. We already know that he does not think that he is really cut out for the job. So Michael Moore will pick out everything he can to support that argument and we can only hope that Americans are well-versed enough in the successes of the Bush administration that they can balance it out on their own." [16]

On June 29, 2004, four days after the release of Fahrenheit 9/11, a book entitled "Michael Moore is a Big Fat Stupid White Man" by David T. Hardy and Jason Clarke appeared in bookstores. Jason Clarke is the editor of www.moorelies.com, a website similarly dedicated to criticizing Michael Moore (where promotions for the book are seen alongside advertisements for Bush/Cheney bumper stickers and self-proclaimed "right-wing stuff"). The title spoofs Moore's book, "Stupid White Men ...and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation," which came out in 2001. The book includes an open letter to Michael Moore and criticisms of Moore's work. Says Clarke: "...the content of the book is a thorough examination of a career spent in hypocrisy, pseudo-intellectualism, deception, and deceit." [17]

Attempts to ban ads for the movie

The Hill's Alexander Bolton writes on June 24, 2004, that "Michael Moore may be prevented from advertising his controversial new movie, Fahrenheit 9/11, on television or radio after July 30 if the Federal Election Commission (FEC) today accepts the legal advice of its general counsel.

"At the same time," Citizens United, "a Republican-allied" 527 committee "soft money group is preparing to file a complaint against Moore’s film with the FEC for violating campaign-finance law." David N. Bossie, president of Citizens United, "plans to allege that Fahrenheit 9/11 violates federal election law, arguing that 'Moore has publicly indicated his goal is to impact this election season.'"

"The FEC counsel’s draft advisory opinion responded to a request for guidance from David Hardy, a documentary film producer with the Bill of Rights Educational Foundation. Hardy asked whether he could air broadcast ads that refer to congressional officeholders who appear in his documentary.

"At issue in the FEC’s opinion is whether documentary films qualify for a 'media exemption', which allows members of the press to discuss political candidates freely in the days before an election."

In early August, the FEC unanimously decided to reject Citizens United's complaint, saying that it "cannot entertain complaints based upon mere speculation that someone might violate the law" [18].

Attempted counterblast to the movie

Moore is himself now the target of a politically motivated documentary - Michael Moore Hates America (movie 2004). It is directed by a young independent film maker, Michael Wilson, and has recently been bailed out by Bush donor Brian R. Cartmell, an Internet entrepreneur with a background in Internet porn.

Bill Berkowitz, writing for Alternet, argues that while the right wing attacks on Moore's film are likely to be unsuccessful, their purpose is to help keep their grassroots base mobilised. "For years right-wing organizations have kept their constituents mobilized by trumpeting the liberal threat to traditional family values and their lack of patriotism. These campaigns -- whether against same-sex marriage, a silly miniseries about the Reagans, or now, against Michael Moore's pointed critique of President Bush's war against terrorism and War on Iraq -- are aimed at keeping its constituents on a permanent war footing. Move America Forward will not succeed in taking down Fahrenheit 9/11. It will, however, keep Team Bush's right wing base vigilant, agitated and mobilized," he wrote. [19]

Other reactions to the movie

Professor Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan describes "Fahrenheit 9/11" an "inspired polemic" despite "some serious flaws of argumentation."

"I thought the best parts were where Moore just let the footage speak for itself. It struck me during the second half how seldom one sees in mainstream US media any extended interviews with Iraqis who vehemently oppose the US occupation. Since these are probably by now a solid majority, according to polls, it is odd that we never hear from that point of view. ... The film has an affecting scene of a woman screaming that her innocent, civilian relatives had been killed, and calling down curses on the US (yikhrib buyuthum, may God demolish their houses). Given the thousands of Iraqis killed in the past 14 months, there must be a lot of persons who feel that way. Moore is the only one showing them to us, to my knowledge."

Likewise, "the point that Bush spent a lot of time away from Washington in his first 8 months in office was well made, and dovetails with the revelations of former anti-terrorism czar Richard Clarke about Bush's unconcern with the terrorism threat. The way in which the Iraq war was a manipulated get-up job was also graphically and well portrayed."

However, Cole thought "the bit connecting Bush to the Saudis was full of illogic. Wealthy people in the oil business are going to have relations with the Saudis, who at their best rates can produce 11 million of the 76 million barrels of oil pumped daily in the world. ... The Saudi bashing in the Moore film makes no sense. It is true that some of the hijackers were Saudis, but that is only because Bin Laden hand-picked some Saudi muscle at the last minute to help the brains of the operation, who were Egyptians, Lebanese, Yemenis, etc. Bin Laden did that deliberately, in hopes of souring US/Saudi relations so that he could the better overthrow the Saudi government." [20]

Columnist Christopher Hitchens wrote a scathing review of the film titled, Unfairenheit 9/11. "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," Hitchens wrote.

Reactions on the left

Boston Globe columnist, Ellen Goodman, while opposing Bush expresses her unease about some of the content of the film. "There were a few too many cheap shots among the direct hits, conspiracy theories among the solid facts, and tidbits of propaganda in the documentary. Going for the jugular, he sometimes went over the top," she wrote.

She also wrote of her wariness about a reflexive defense of Moore's film by those on the left. "If the right is after him, does the choir have to sing the filmmaker's praises as our own cuddly and amusing pit bull?," she asked.

While noting the enthusiasm amongst many Bush opponents for the film, Goodman wondered whether matching the right's style of politics would in fact be counter-productive for those supporting reasoned debate. "In the election between Bush and Anybody But Bush, reason and civility are now designated for wimps. But what happens to the country when the left only meets the right at the American jugular?," she asked. [21]

Fahrenheit 9/11 has other critics on the left too. Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas, while supporting ousting Bush argues that that alone is not enough. "I don't believe that will be meaningful unless there emerges in the United States a significant anti-empire movement. In other words, if we beat Bush and go back to "normal," we're all in trouble. Normal is empire building. Normal is U.S. domination, economic and military, and the suffering that vulnerable people around the world experience as a result," he wrote in Counterpunch. [22]

"This doesn't mean voters can't judge one particular empire-building politician more dangerous than another. It doesn't mean we shouldn't sometimes make strategic choices to vote for one over the other. It simply means we should make such choices with eyes open and no illusions. This seems particularly important when the likely Democratic presidential candidate tries to out-hawk Bush on support for Israel, pledges to continue the occupation of Iraq, and says nothing about reversing the basic trends in foreign policy," he wrote.

Former Democratic Mayor of New York City Ed Koch wrote "Moore's propaganda film cheapens debate, polarizes nation.... The movie's diatribes, sometimes amusing and sometimes manifestly unfair, will not change any views. They will simply cheapen the national debate and reinforce the opinions on both sides."

Audience reaction

Moore's film was both a critical and commercial success. In May 2004, it won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and grossed $23.9 million in ticket sales in its first weekend, making it the top-rated film in the country even though it only opened in 868 theatres, compared to the more than 2,500 theatres that featured expected summer blockbusters such as "Dodgeball" and "White Chicks." Its receipts during the first weekend alone made it the highest-grossing documentary film in history. [23]

Its success, combined with the success of Moore's previous films, has been credited with building a larger market for documentary filmmaking in the United States. "I think (Moore) may have started a trend where people believe that if you have a point of view, you can make a documentary and air the argument -- (and) if you make it in a way that also includes entertainment, you may even get further," says Howard Cohen, the president of Roadside Attractions, a documentary production company. [24]

It is also considered the the sucess of F9/11 will also increase the pool of funding available for documentary makers. But Jerry Cobb, writing for MSNBC noted that after Disney refused to distribute the film "don't expect the major studios to jump into this genre. It's still too hot for their corporate parents. [25]

In conjunction with the film's release, the MoveOn website urged its more than 2 million members to pledge that they would see Fahrenheit 9/11 as early as possible. More than 110,000 members signed the pledge, and according to MoveOn's Eli Pariser, its influence on moviegoer turnout may be even larger than that number suggests. "When I went to Waterville, Maine and asked how many people from MoveOn were there, probably three-quarters of the people there said yes," Pariser told Variety.

MoveOn also organized nearly 3,000 "Turn Up the Heat" house parties on the Monday following its first weekend in theaters. Attendees listened via Internet hookup to a 30-minute talk by Moore and MoveOn organizers, and then signed up to participate in voter-registration drives and other activities aimed at unseating Bush and other Republicans in the November 2004 U.S. elections. "I've never been politically active before. I've never opened my mouth. We need to come together and open our mouths," said Katie Call, who attended a house party in Palm Beach County, Florida. [26]

Turnout across the country mirrored the situation in southern Florida, where according to one reporter, "Screenings in Palm Beach County routinely sold out all weekend. In the usually desultory early afternoon of a Monday, the only open seats at the theater at Atlantic Avenue and Hagen Ranch Road were in the first two rows. Anita Lovitt tried to buy tickets for that showing, but couldn't. 'I saw people rushing up to the theater and lining up around the corner, like it was a Beatles movie,' she said." Howard noted that "Moore is a polemicist. He doesn't try to give you all the facts - just those that support his argument. ... Yet the movie is powerful because the facts Moore emphasizes are not often seen on the TV news: the many financial ties between the Saudis and the Bush family, outtakes of the 'war president' that make him look buffoonish when he thinks he's off-camera. Moore's thesis makes the so-called liberal media seem timid, indeed." [27]

International reaction to F9/11

In the United Kingdom, Fahrenheit 9/11 broke the opening weekend record for a documentary grossing over £1.3m. Moore's own Bowling for Columbine was the previous record holder, which grossed £157,898 in the first weekend. [28]

In Sydney, Australia, mid-July advance screenings ahead of the official commencement of its screening have broken box-office records. F9/11 ticket sales grossed $A760,000 well ahead of both The Real Cancun and Super Size Me which grossed $A562,000 and $353,000 respectively on their opening weekend. [29]

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