A few years ago, Michael Moore spoke with then-Governor George W. Bush, who told the muckraker: "Behave yourself, will ya? Go find real work." Moore has made trouble for so many powerful people he has become a media power of his own. He can even make celebrities of mere movie reviewers: When his latest cinematic incendiary device, "Fahrenheit 9/11," had its first press screening Monday morning, American critics emerging from the theater were besieged by a convoy of TV and radio crews from networks around the world who wanted to know what they thought of Moore's blast at the Bush Administration.
Disney, for one, was not impressed. Earlier this month, the company ordered its subsidiary, Miramax Films, not to release the film. Moore says that his lawyer was told by Disney CEO Michael Eisner that distributing it would harm the company's negotiations for favorable treatment for its Florida theme parks from that state's governor, one Jeb Bush. Harvey Weinstein, co-chair of Miramax, is now trying to buy the film back from Disney and to fashion his own coalition of the willing other distributors happy to profit from Disney's timidity. The result of this internal agita will be to raise the profile and, most likely, the profitability of Moore's film, which he still hopes will open on the July 4th weekend.
So much for the controversy. How is it as a movie? Fahrenheit 9/11 the title is a play on the Ray Bradbury novel (and Francois Truffaut film) Fahrenheit 451, about a future totalitarian state where reading, and thus independent thinking, has been outlawed has news value beyond its financing and distribution tangles. The movie, a brisk and entertaining indictment of the Bush Administration's middle East policies before and after September 11, 2001, features new footage of abuse by U.S. soldiers: a Christmas Eve 2003 sortie in which Iraqi captives are publicly humiliated.
Though made over the past two years, the film has scenes that seem ripped from recent headlines. Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Iraq and, to the cheers of his military audience, defiantly called himself "a survivor" (a word traditionally reserved for those who have lived through the Holocaust or cancer, not for someone enduring political difficulties). In the film, a soldier tells Moore's field team: "If Donald Rumsfeld was here, I'd ask for his resignation."
Moore's perennial grudge is against what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex: the collusion of big corporations and bad government to exploit the working class, here and abroad, for their own gain and in the process deprive citizens of their liberties. The Bush Administration's Iraq policy is handmade for Moore's grievances. Bush and his father have enjoyed a long and profitable relationship with the ruling families of Saudi Arabia, including the bin Ladens. The best-seller "House of Bush, House of Saud" by Craig Unger, whom Moore interviews, estimates that the Saudis have enriched the Bushes and their closest cronies by $1.4 billion.
Politicians reward their biggest contributors, and the Bushes are no exceptions. Fifteen of the 19 September 11th hijackers were Saudis; but when Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador who is close to the First Family, dined with the President in the White House two days after the attacks, the mood was collegial, not angry. In the Iraqi ramp-up and occupation, the Administration has rewarded its Saudi and Texas supporters with billions in rebuilding contracts. As Blaine Ober, president of an armored vehicle company, tells Moore: the Iraqi adventure is "good for business, bad for the people."
Bad for the people of Iraq, Ober means. But, Moore argues, bad for Americans as well. As he sees it, 9/11 was a tragedy for America, a career move for Bush. The attacks allowed the President to push through Congress restrictive laws that would have been defeated in any climate but the "war on terror" chill. Fahrenheit 9/11 shows some tragicomic effects of the Patriot Act: a man quizzed by the FBI for casually mentioning at his health club that he thought Bush was an "asshole"; a benign peace group in Fresno, Cal., infiltrated by an undercover police agent.
Two Bush quotes in the film indicate the Administration's quandary in selling repression to the American people. One: "A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier, no doubt about it." The other: "They're not happy they're occupied. I wouldn't be happy if I were occupied either." Moore's argument is that the U.S. is currently being occupied by a hostile, un-American force: the quintet of Bush, Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft and Paul Wolfowitz.
Moore is usually the front-and-center star of his own films. Here, his presence is mostly that of narrator and guiding force, though he does make a few piquant appearances. While chatting with Unger across the street from the Saudi embassy in Washington, he is approached and quizzed by Secret Service agents. Hearing from Rep. John Conyers that no member of Congress had read the complete Patriot Act before voting for it, he hires a Mister Softee truck and patrols downtown D.C. reading the act to members of Congress over a loudspeaker. Toward the end, he tries to get Congressmen to enlist their sons in the military. Surprise: no volunteers.
The film has its longueurs. The interviews with young blacks and a grieving mother in Moore's home town of Flint, Michigan, are relevant and poignant, but they lack the propulsive force and homespun indignance of the rest of the film. Fahrenheit 9/11 is at its best when it provides talking points for the emerging majority of those opposed to the Iraq incursion. In sum, it's an appalling, enthralling primer of what Moore sees as the Bush Administration's crimes and misdemeanors.
Fahrenheit 9/11 may be seen as another example of the liberal media preaching to its own choir. But Moore is such a clever assembler of huge accusations and minor peccadillos (as with a shot of Wolfowitz sticking his pocket comb in his mouth and sucking on it to slick down his hair before a TV interview) that the film should engage audiences of all political persuasions.
In one sense, Michael Moore took George W. Bush's advice. He found "real work" deconstructing the President's Iraq mistakes. Fahrenheit 9/11 is Moore's own War on Error.
Mary Corliss has covered the Cannes Film Festival for Film Comment and other publications since 1974. This year she is reporting for TIME.com.