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[Editor's Note: This is the fifth in The Dissenter's weekly series on 9/11 and its impact on cinema, which is published as a companion to our series, "Twenty Years In A Security State."]
Millions of protesters around the world demonstrated against plans to invade Iraq, which were led by the United States. But massive global opposition was not reflected in coverage of the war.
As Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting documented, viewers of U.S. network newscasts “were more than six times as likely to see a pro-war source as one who was anti-war; with U.S. guests alone, the ratio [increased] to 25 to 1.”
The Pentagon, as David Barstow exposed for the New York Times, conducted an influence operation that utilized approved “military analysts” as “message force multipliers.” The effort began with the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and continued into 2008.
“Most of the analysts [had] ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they [were] asked to assess on air,” according to Barstow. “Those business relationships [were] hardly ever disclosed to the viewers, and sometimes not even to the networks themselves.”
Collectively, these "analysts" represented over 150 military contractors as lobbyists, senior executives, board members, or consultants.
On March 23, 2003, around three days after President George W. Bush launched the Iraq War, Michael Moore won the Academy Award for his 2002 film, “Bowling for Columbine.” He walked to the stage during the Oscars and was joined by his fellow documentary nominees.
“We like nonfiction, and we live in fictitious times. We live in a time when we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president,” Moore declared. “We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons.”
The booing grew so loud that Moore could barely hear himself. He started shouting, “Shame on you, Mr. Bush!” The microphone lowered, and the orchestra cut him off. The awards show producers prevented him from finishing his acceptance speech. This showed how well the Pentagon's propaganda campaign was working.
“Fahrenheit 9/11” was Moore's response to the squelching of dissent before and during the invasion.
After a screening in 2004, Nancy Lessin, whose son was deployed with Marines in Iraq, said, “It gives this country permission to talk about things that this administration doesn’t want us to talk about. It gives us all permission to at least ask the questions and have a dialogue.”
It made over $100 million after only a few weeks in theatres and became the first documentary in the history of cinema to achieve that milestone. It is still the highest grossing documentary of all time.
In retrospect, it could be argued the film showed industry executives audiences were hungry for films that offered them answers in a world, where government officials were claiming more and more power to exercise their authority in secret and without accountability. It opened the market to other filmmakers to sell their political documentaries.
But within the industry and among the media class implicated in “Fahrenheit 9/11,” there was an effort to suppress the film, smear Moore as a “polemicist,” and tarnish his work as “controversial” so it did not have the impact desired.
The film is a time capsule that grows more unnerving with the passage of time. No one was ever held accountable for lying the United States into a war against Iraq, which left anywhere from a quarter million to a million Iraqis dead.
Moore begins by showing U.S. representatives in the Congressional Black Caucus, which at the time was far more willing to take strong political stands within the Democratic Party than in 2021. They object to how the U.S. Supreme Court helped Bush steal the 2000 election, but not a single U.S. senator will stand with them so that their objections against certifying the results are registered on Capitol Hill.
Vice President Al Gore, who had the presidency taken from him and was also the president of the Senate, pounds the gavel to cut off Black representatives as they complain about the hundreds of thousands of Black voters who were disenfranchised. (Many of them probably tried to vote for Gore.)
Moore recounts the first eight months of the Bush administration, where Bush was on vacation 42 percent of the time. He spent August 2001 at his ranch. Then a montage of Bush administration officials plays for the opening credits. We see Bush officials, including the president, having their makeup applied before they go on television to sell the Iraq War.
Following footage of the aftermath of the hijacked planes flying into the World Trade Center on 9/11, Moore takes viewers to a school, where Bush was reading My Pet Goat to children. Bush is informed of the attack and sits there. It is possibly the most iconic scene of the film.
“Was he wondering if maybe he should have shown up to work more often?” Moore asks. “Should have held at least one meeting since taking office to discuss the threat of terrorism? Or maybe Mr. Bush was wondering why he had cut terrorism funding from the FBI? Or perhaps he just should have read the security briefing, which said that [Osama] Bin Laden was determined to attack America by hijacking airplanes?”
Moore briefly examines the close ties between the Bush White House and oligarchs in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He raises alarm over the members of the Bin Laden family and other Saudis, who were flown out of the U.S. in the days after the 9/11 attacks by the Bush administration. The FBI did not question any of these individuals.
He outlines some of the energy corporations and military contractors, including Vice President Dick Cheney’s Halliburton, which were eager to make huge profits following 9/11. Attorney General Ashcroft pushed through the PATRIOT Act with overwhelming support in Congress. They spread fear among the population, and then they took that fear and invaded Iraq.
The latter part of the documentary puts the focus on the “poverty draft” and the teenagers and young adults, who deployed to fight the war. Moore introduces the audience to former Marine Corporal Abdul Henderson, who refused to redeploy to Iraq after one tour of duty in 2003. In uniform, risking retaliation, he approaches senators and representatives asking if they would send their kid to Iraq. None were willing, and at least one politician took off running when asked.
Next, we meet Lila Lipscomb, a mother from Flint, Michigan, who fully supports the war in Iraq and her son joining the military so he can go to college after his deployment to Iraq. Lipscomb’s son dies in a Black Hawk helicopter crash in Baghdad. The unbearable pain from grieving transforms her. She goes to the White House, expresses how she's turned against the war, and pledges to direct her anger at the Bush administration.
“George Orwell once wrote that it's not a matter of whether the war is not real, or if it is. Victory is not possible. The war is not meant to be won. It is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance,” Moore concludes.
“This new version is the past and no different past can ever have existed. In principle, the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects, and its object is not the victory over either Eurasia or East Asia but to keep the very structure of society intact."
Like Moore said on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, "You were never supposed to see this film."
On May 5, 2004, just before Moore’s film was scheduled to screen at the Cannes film festival, the New York Times reported that Disney blocked Miramax from distributing “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
Ari Emanuel, who was Moore's agent, claimed that Disney chief executive Michael Eisner asked him in the spring to “pull out of the deal.” Eisner was particularly concerned “that it would endanger tax breaks” Disney received for its theme park, hotels, and other ventures in Florida.” (At the time, Jeb Bush, George’s brother, was the state’s governor.)
Refusing to be named, a senior Disney executive argued the company had a right to halt distribution if it was “against the interests of the company.” The executive added, “Disney caters to families of all political stripes and believes Mr. Moore's film, which does not have a release date, could alienate many.”
Moore responded, “At some point the question has to be asked, 'Should this be happening in a free and open society where the monied interests essentially call the shots regarding the information that the public is allowed to see?'''
At the Cannes film festival on May 22, “Fahrenheit 9/11” earned a 15-minute standing ovation. Director Quentin Tarantino, who was jury president, said it was the the best film the jury saw, and the jury awarded the film the Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest prize.
Like Moore said while accepting the award, this assured an American audience would see the film. Bob and Harvey Weinstein negotiated with Disney to buy back rights and distribute the film.
Lions Gate Films and IFC Films distributed “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and it was the highest-grossing film for Lions Gate until “The Hunger Games”in 2012.
However, in early June, Moore learned the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) slapped an “R” rating on the film because of “violent and disturbing images and for language.” The Associated Press noted, “The images include an Iraqi man tossing a dead baby into a truckload of bodies, Iraqis burned by napalm, and a public beheading in Saudi Arabia.”
“It is sadly very possible that many 15- and 16-year-olds will be asked and recruited to serve in Iraq in the next couple of years," Moore reacted. “If they are old enough to be recruited and capable of being in combat and risking their lives, they certainly deserve the right to see what is going on in Iraq.”
Moore appealed the rating, but the MPAA refused to alter their decision. MPAA chief Jack Valenti, who previously met with Bush senior adviser Karl Rove to discuss how the film industry could support the “war on terrorism,” proclaimed, “Today was a classic example of how the ratings system works to benefit parents, for whom the ratings system was designed.”
The first two reviews appeared in trade publications and trashed the film. Kirk Honeycutt of the Hollywood Reporter wrote, “There is no debate, no analysis of facts or search for historical context. Moore simply wants to blame one man and his family for the situation in Iraq the United States now finds itself in.”
“When the movie devolves into problems of veteran benefits, harassment of peace groups, or the grief of one family over a killed son, Moore simply loses his focus. These are worthy topics but have nothing to do with why the United States is in Iraq,” Honeycutt simplistically contended.
Todd McCarthy for Variety argued the film failed to “provide any hard facts or make any incriminating connections that a reasonably informed person doesn’t already know about.”
Fortunately, for Moore, this did not become the consensus among film critics. The vast majority found aspects of the film to laud, even if they adopted the right-wing narrative that Moore was not a fair and balanced filmmaker.
Moore’s appearances on network television reflected the extent to which the military industrial-complex had gone to ensure antiwar perspectives were not featured during broadcasts.
He went on NBC’s “Dateline” and the daily morning news program, “Today,” ahead of the June 25 release date and tried to promote the film.
Matt Lauer defended Disney’s censorship during the “Dateline” interview on June 18. “It’s their right, though. They’re a distribution company,” and, “They paid you, the checks cleared.”
“And then they can look at it and say, 'You know what? This is not the kind of movie we want to distribute right now. Maybe it's too political, maybe it won't attract a wide enough audience.' It's their right,” Lauer maintained.
“Here's the difference,” Moore replied. “It's not government censorship. It's censorship by a corporation. And we're at a point now, Matt, where we have fewer and fewer companies owning all of our media. I mean, here we are at NBC, which just bought Universal, which is owned by [General Electric]. And as you have fewer and fewer voices in a democracy, in a free society, it's not good to limit the number of voices.” (NBC is now owned by Comcast.)
During the “Today” show, co-anchor Katie Couric parroted all the talking points of Moore’s most vocal bashers. “You’ve been called a polemicist,” which is “one who engages in the art of controversy and attacks the principles of another.”
“This has an extremely, to say the least, strong anti-Bush point of view. Do you think you might have been more effective if the movie had been less smug, perhaps, less snarky, and as one critic said, 'If you'd been less heavy-handed with the sledgehammer'? In other words, do you think that your message might be drowning in vitriol?” Couric asked.
Couric also mentioned the images that Moore shows of Iraq before the invasion. He showed children playing on playgrounds and people eating at outdoor cafés. But Iraq President Saddam Hussein was a “tyrannical despot, who killed people for absolutely no reason.”
She asked, “Wouldn’t your movie have been better balanced if you had at least included some about Saddam Hussein's own reputation?”
“You guys did such a good job of telling us how tyrannical and horrible he was. You already did that,” Moore said.
“The question really should be posed to NBC News and all of the other news agencies: Why didn't you show us that the people that we're going to bomb in a few days are these people, human beings who are living normal lives, kids flying kites, people just trying to get by in their daily existence,” Moore added. “And as the New York Times pointed out last week, out of the 50 air strikes in those initial days, we were zero for 50 hitting the target. We killed civilians and we don't know how many thousands of civilians that we killed. And nobody covered that."
So for two hours, out of four years of all this propaganda, Moore said he chose to give an audience the other side of the story.
Finally, the public had a film that amplified the feelings of opposition and resentment that U.S. military members and their families harbored during the Iraq War, granting them permission to go out into the world and speak their truth.