2004: ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ and a Country at War With Itself


The last time the country was at war with itself, Michael Moore made a movie people were mad at, too. It opened at the end of June, 16 years ago. The parent-company that released it didn’t even want to. But after weeks of controversy, the Palme d’Or at Cannes and a very good trailer, Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” had become a thing, such a thing that there was no not seeing it or, since we’re talking about scorched-earth culture combat, having feelings about its right to exist even if you hadn’t. By June 27, his documentary howl against the Iraq war earned him the No. 1 movie in North America.

And the reason to bring it up now is that we’re back there again, in conflagration. Only, the war is civil, and the casualties include the unjustly Black dead. As yet, no work of popular culture has arrived that crystallizes, totalizes and polarizes the way Moore’s movie did. Excuse me, no new work. What seemed called for in 2004 was a reckoning over a government waging war in our name. Moore’s was among the opening salvos. What feels called for now is an interrogation of government, monuments and entertainment. Down go the statues. Away with the films. One watchword back then was “freedom” — “freedom fries,” “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Three presidencies later it’s “systemic” — a term that knows the psychic, bureaucratic undergirding designed to keep certain people’s freedom curtailed. The movies had been around for about a century. They couldn’t help but perpetuate the old harms. A steward of the system never wants to hear about “systemic.” To the steward, the system is simply life.

This was not a great week at the box office. Right behind Moore were the Wayans brothers at, for them, a low ebb with “White Chicks,” in which Detectives Marlon and Shawn disguise themselves as a couple of socialite blondes in order to fight crime. At No. 5, in its second week, was Tom Hanks unbridled and unsinkable in Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal.” Two movies were about cats — estranged tiger siblings in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s live-action “Two Brothers” and Bill Murray lazing his way through his voice work as Garfield in a partially animated version of the comic strip.

“Shrek 2” continued to clean up in its second month. The week’s only love story was “The Notebook,” which had the relative newbies Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. And Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn merged their respective hot streaks for “Dodgeball,” which managed to do more with Stiller’s macho mania and Vaughn’s quiet sad-sackery than something called “Dodgeball” should. So, no, not a mountaintop for the movies. If, however, you crave a title that doubles as plot synopsis or if you’d prefer a window on the sort of movie ripe for the current national reckoning, this is your week.

Moore’s landing on top was traffic-jamming. Here was a two-hour documentary opening between a third Harry Potter movie and a Spider-Man sequel, on many fewer screens than the nine other movies but with more seats sold. The United States had invaded Iraq the previous year, and a presidential election was five months away. People were looking for somebody to offer some kind of framework for dismay. Television had Jon Stewart. The multiplex had this.

The movie opens with Moore musing that maybe President George W. Bush’s win in 2000 over Al Gore was a dream. And then, a dolorous spree of televised memories: a montage of Bush golfing scored to the Go-Go’s’ “Vacation,” a montage of the administration’s major figures (Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice) getting camera-ready before television interviews as Bush himself sits behind the Resolute Desk, before the announcement of the invasion, in seeming pursuit of a facial expression that says “resolve.”

In between is a movingly comic sequence in which the Congressional Black Caucus attempts, in January of 2001, to protest the president’s certification because they felt that the contested Florida vote tally had been tainted. As vice president, Gore oversees the proceedings and, as a formality, has to rule each lawmaker out of order. Moore lets this passage go on just long enough to feel too inhumane to bear. The banging of Gore’s gavel weakens with every dissent. His constitutional duties won’t let him empathize with the mutiny being waged in his name. This staggering passage concludes with the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, which starts with a black screen and culminates in ashen slow-motion.

It’s the most effective stretch in the film, ending with the notorious tale of President Bush receiving word of the second attack then continuing to read children a book at a school in Florida. And something about the way Moore presents this bit, as an aftershock of this electoral cataclysm, forced me to rewind just because I really had to think about what I would’ve done in that moment. According to Moore, the president just sits in the classroom for seven minutes.

What follows is mixed-bag agitprop. Moore manages to wrap in the Bushes’ cozy business relationship with the Bin Laden family; the American industrialization of fear and paranoia and xenophobia; the constriction of privacy; the toll of the war on Iraqi civilians, American troops, the administration and their families; a climactic bid to get congressional lawmakers to enlist their own children in the war; and the recruitment of a grieving Michigander named Lila Lipscomb to perform the mourning of her slain son along the National Mall.

It’s all too much. And I don’t mean it’s morally or ethically too much — although as a tactician Moore has as much in common with David Blaine as he does “Frontline.” I mean that the first 70 minutes are still masterly. But the aw-shucks acuity that guides it is unsustainable because Moore lets the fire hose of enragements turn his movie into a polemical wet T-shirt contest.

He began as the disillusioned farceur of “Roger & Me,” in 1989. By the 2000s, he’d become a political assassin. (His firearms opus, “Bowling for Columbine,” won an Oscar in 2003.) The achievement of “Fahrenheit 9/11” is that Moore could see clearly enough to make any movie at all. Woe to the filmmaker who would dare to play Michael Moore in 2020. That isn’t a wish for a director not to. It’s a dare. Or is that work already upon us, something like Arthur Jafa’s video “Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death” (2016), Black America tragically, triumphantly compressed into an epochal, all-purpose seven-and-half minutes? Still: What medium would even currently suit the scope of the task? A month of premium television, predawn tweet storm, or seismic 8-minute-and-46-second video? Moore was among the very last American nonfiction filmmakers with access to the megaplex and our undivided attention.

Which isn’t to say that the climes of 2004 didn’t make their way into this week’s more fantastical entries. Down at No. 5 and a smash after four weeks is that third Harry Potter movie, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” which Alfonso Cuarón directed. It remains the best of the lot because Cuarón found a way to puncture J.K. Rowling’s hermetic sealing and let in some doomy international mood. This is the one in which Hogwarts is provided a new, not entirely welcome security force — the Dementors — that winds up restricting civil liberties in the same way that the Patriot Act infuriates Moore. Cuarón just tolerates abusive bureaucracy as an inevitable dark art.

Bureaucracy is brighter and more yielding in “The Terminal.” That’s what’s wrong with it. Hanks is playing a schmo rendered stateless after his made-up Eastern European nation (Krakozhia!) undergoes a coup. He’s just landed at a New York airport, is denied entry to the United States and can’t exit until his country gets its act together. In the meantime, he’s got the run of the place. There’s a way to watch this movie where Hanks’s impersonation of a Slavic St. Bernard leaves you delighted to be covered in his slobber. He’s an impossible comic marvel of excess and complexity.

But another way to watch “The Terminal” is interrogatively. Hanks spends the movie being helped out by a Mexican (Diego Luna), an African-American (Chi McBride) and an Indian (Kumar Pallana) who all do support work around the airport. How long would this movie be if Spielberg, working from a script credited to Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, had somehow made it about one of them? Or, in 2004, an Iraqi? It’s just to say that his wonder here is all wrong. I cracked up every time somebody slips on the floors that Pallana, whose tangy performance is still the best thing in the film, has purposely over-mopped. This movie is a good time, and the last 25 minutes are absurdly moving. It just doesn’t want to get near the truly emotionally, logistically harrowing business of national limbo.

Instead, it makes Hanks a Christ figure, performing minor miracles of ingenuity like turning abandoned luggage carts into quarters and quarters into Whoppers. (Catherine Zeta-Jones, as a pitifully lovelorn flight attendant, gets turned into Meg Ryan.) Hanks even does carpentry and handiwork. Stanley Tucci’s customs director is our Pontius Pilate; and Luna, McBride and Pallana apostles. It’s a fable of what somebody heard Christianity was supposed to be — cute. The sulfuric churning — the torture and terror and ambivalence and uncertainty — of faith, or Catholicism in the work of Scorsese and Abel Ferrara always gets sunnily allegorical with Spielberg. You’re at the movies. You’re also at Sunday school.

I wish I could say that “White Chicks” was in on some joke. Well, I wish I could report that the joke it’s in on was funny for 100-plus minutes. Watched a generation removed from its original targets (the Hilton sisters and the Hamptons), the movie still feels loosely ripe for the micro-age of the Becky and the Karen. (The white-girl makeup isn’t as nauseating as I remembered, either.) It’s just too busy chasing gross-out bits to reap much durable satire.

Six people wrote this movie and Keenen Ivory Wayans directed it. They leave so much gold in the hills. The biggest nugget is Terry Crews, who slides through his scenes on the hunt for white women, fixating on the sister that Marlon’s disguised as. Here, the comedy has somewhere to go — to old screwballs, for one thing; to centuries of erotic interracial paranoia for another. Crews’s reaction when his character discovers what’s going on is better than the movie deserves. The Wayanses had made a bunch of “Scary Movie” parodies (the first two of which are brilliant about whatever we mean about “the white gaze”); they will find a way to surprise you at least once. This isn’t a movie about the freedom found in white womanhood. It makes sure we know that Marlon and Shawn hate almost every minute of this. So did I.

There are only two movies in this batch with anything interesting for a white woman to do. One is act like robot. The other is launch herself onto Ryan Gosling. The robot movie loses. That’s “The Stepford Wives,” which was at No. 10 and not not a hit in its third week. I don’t know why another version of Ira Levin’s novel was necessary, since the life feels strangled from Paul Rudnick’s script. The one-liners suddenly dry up, and the big thought never gets completed. This version, which Frank Oz directed, brasses up a gender satire for Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, Roger Bart and Glenn Close. But you can tell nobody could agree on how to get wherever it was Rudnick wanted to go.

Kidman is fired from a television executive job (the early scenes of her and her lineup being drooled over at a convention are still a riot) and moves to Connecticut with her husband (Matthew Broderick). But the movie doesn’t know what to do with most of these people. So it lets Close spend the last minutes doing her best impression of Sissy Spacek’s house at the end of “Carrie.” The movie feels like it’s on to something about the brain-deadening homogeneity of suburban whiteness, especially with Midler on the prowl. I wonder if what’s missing from it now is simply more 2020, the introduction of a Terry Crews or Wayans brother to stimulate the paranoid carnality lurking within these mechanical Donna Reeds.

The final shot of the movie — Close sputtering alongside Christopher Walken’s sparking head (long story) — matches the sad dismount in “The Notebook,” one of the most strangely structured love stories I’ve ever seen. You spend the movie being pulled between a romance in the 1940s — where Gosling is a handy soldier who comes from nothing and McAdams is a Dixie belle who’s got it all — and a marriage story in the present with James Garner and Gena Rowlands. What’s happening in the now turns grim enough to get this thing shelved as “horror.” At first, all Garner is doing is reading Rowlands a romance handwritten in a notebook. Things then take a turn that makes the attachment of the two halves more formally cumbersome than emotionally tragic.

We couldn’t quite have known it in 2004, but this sort of sudsy romance was on its deathbed. So now when McAdams sprints toward Gosling, leaps onto him and wraps her limbs around him, my heart sped up. Nobody’s that hungry for anything in the movies now, certainly not for love. The director Nick Cassavetes, working with an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, carves out lots of space for these two to get to talk to each other, like the gorgeous seven-minute walk they take early on. I believe this movie more today than I previously did. It’s still thin. The big question is when are these two going to be on the same page to get married and live in the bigass house he practically rebuilds for her? But there’s something about McAdams flinging herself into all this thinness that fills the movie out. I don’t know that “reacts to charm” is a teachable skill. But McAdams has about seven faces for it.

The movie’s set during Jim Crow-era South Carolina. So what a moment to drop by McAdams’s character’s family estate. Her father spends the movie in white, 25-piece suits and a dastard’s dark mustache, like he’s starring in the first half of “The Colonel Sanders Story.” As maybe a table full of white people dine outside, under a tent, a Black staff stands behind them, at the ready, a completely different sort of monument to the Confederacy. There’s a whole separate essay to be written about how race functions in movies like this, where the only Black folks with speaking lines are all in uniforms taking care of white people like Garner and Rowlands in their nursing home; where James Marsden arrives as a toothsome suitor who “comes from old Southern money”; where McAdams never asks Gosling about the Negroes integrating hoedowns on his daddy’s front porch. You don’t have to jump to any conclusions about what’s what because the implication concludes itself. The Black people in “The Notebook” dance and serve and band-lead. They seem happy enough. Why dig even a little further? The South in a Sparks movie has been so racially disinfected you could eat off its floors.

It’s not until the film’s almost over that you realize: that notebook contains a kind of fairy tale of reality more conspiratorial than anything Michael Moore contrived. All we know about the people in it is that their hearts beat for each other. And that, for a romantic, is that. There’s a way to pay attention only to the heartbeats and not to the uniformed statues, for it has always been thus, from before the era of Bette Davis’s conniptions to the explosions of ardor in the shrewdly self-aware post-bellum North of Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.”

A Black backdrop is just a system being systemic. So perhaps “The Notebook” is guilty only of a benign awareness that a system once existed. Of course, hiring actors to embody the “old” system prolongs the system all the same. The movie isn’t about the problem, merely a luscious vestige of it. And so what’s to be done with such vestiges? Now seems like the moment to yank them down and roll them into the sea. Or perhaps to permit these statues of compliance to stand as part of an enduring monument to an industry’s contempt.

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