Burning Down the House 

Michael Moore’s hilarious rage against the Bush machine.

As one network likes to boast, more Americans get their news from television than from any other source. The most exhilarating aspect of Moore’s jangling, bomb-throwing style is the way he processes the rot and folly that end up on the networks’ cutting room floors. During the recent invasion of Iraq, while embedded correspondents reveled in their combat gear, cameramen were quietly slipping Moore footage. Moore shows us severed arteries, shell-shocked soldiers and American infantrymen jocularly prodding the post-mortem erection of a fallen Iraqi, and snapping pictures of each other taunting their hooded captives.

And then there’s Moore himself, shambling about the corridors of power with his baseball cap and his gut. He’s the welcome antithesis of crisply tailored broadcasters whose nightly pronouncements coat even the most horrendous news with numbing reassurance and manly resolve. Flawlessly playing the good-hearted rube, Moore feigns astonishment upon learning that legislators rarely read the mammoth documents they turn into laws. The Patriot Act? They didn’t read it, Moore reveals. Helpful as always, he mounts an ice-cream truck with a megaphone to broadcast its contents to congressmen who might be in the vicinity.

Moore is a past master at tearing down other people’s explanations and excuses. When he’s offering his version of events, however, his bracing skepticism deserts him, and his voice stiffens with unshakable faith in his Big Ideas.

The first dire implication is that the Bush family is a bought and paid for tool of the Saudis. The second is that the Bush Administration is cynically exaggerating the menace of terrorism in order to get Americans behind the Iraq operation. The Saudi connection largely disappears from the second half of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and with good reason: A post-Saddam Iraq means a flood of “liberated” Iraqi oil, which the Saudis will greet about as enthusiastically as General Motors welcomed Honda to these shores. Have the Bushes turned on their former masters? Moore doesn’t say.

In a hallucinatory procession, innuendoes become certainties, which are in turn forgotten and replaced by more apparently damning facts that point in a dozen different directions. One minute we’re supposed to dismiss the threat of further terrorist attacks as an overblown farce, the next we’re supposed to gasp in horror at how thinly the Oregon coastline is patrolled. It’s all meant to whip us into a fury, but just when we’re exhausted by the conspiracies Moore sees everywhere, he lurches into jester mode, uproariously mocking, the high-falutin’ phraseology nations use to gussy up their dirty work (think “Coalition of the Willing”).

If we want to take “Fahrenheit 9/11” as a serious diagnosis of our predicaments, we have to hold it to the standards of good journalism, and by those standards the movie fails. But even the best movies aren’t very good at proving theories. They don’t have footnotes, and you can’t ask the projectionist to go back so you can see if what you were told fifteen minutes earlier lines up with what just appeared on screen.

“Fahrenheit 9/11” doesn’t offer a comprehensive diagnosis. But it’s a slickly-realized, powerfully disconcerting symptom of this decade, registering rage and longing for the kind of clarity that has become increasingly elusive in our national affairs. In the showing I attended, the theater thundered with applause when a man in the film observed that Osama bin Laden is bad, but George W. Bush is worse. That’s enough to indicate that the answers we want will come at a cooler hour. ***1/2 S

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