Grade: B

The furor that’s arisen over “Fahrenheit 9/11”–the political and ideological debate, I mean, rather than such silliness as Ray Bradbury’s complaints about the title being too close to “Fahrenheit 451”–is based largely on a fundamental misunderstanding of what a documentary has to be. Critics of Michael Moore, the populist cinematic provocateur already notorious for his earlier “Roger & Me” and “Bowling for Columbine,” as well as his books and public pronouncements, are attacking his new film on the grounds that it isn’t objective–that it’s more polemic than dispassionate presentation, a partisan diatribe instead of a calm, reasoned effort to convey straightforward information. But of course no documentary is truly objective, any more than any work of history is; the idea of perfect objectivity is an illusion in any work of human argument. Non-fiction films, like non-fiction writing, is always interpretive and subjective; the only question is whether their fashioners claim to be balanced or not, and the extent to which they succeed if they do. (The same point can be made about news broadcasts, of course.) A documentary can be as polemical as it wishes without violating the form. In fact, most are polemical; some just hide their point of view a bit better than others. Moore is actually more honest than many documentarians–he makes no bones about where his biases lie, and in this piece, as in his previous ones, he offers a fervent argument colored by his own shambling, rumpled personality and his flippant, smug-sounding delivery, which one may find either ingratiating or insufferable, depending on your own POV.

In a scattershot assault that jumps from point to point without much structure, Moore begins from the premise of the Republicans’ crude theft of the election in 2000 and moves quickly through the first months of the Bush administration, which he sees as a period of simple ineptitude. The tragedy of 9/11 was a turning point that allowed an illegitimate chief executive to portray himself as a strong leader and his administration to undertake policies threatening basic citizen rights even though the actions taken in the so-called war on terrorism were actually tentative and slow, a fact explicable, he alleges, by reason of the Bush family’s close ties to the Saudi regime, financial as well as political. The upshot was a decision to invade Iraq based not on evidence of involvement but on ideology and considerations of profit, and devastating losses for many American families whose sons and daughters were compelled to serve in the war. The argument is a highly personal one in the sense that Moore puts Bush and members of his administration squarely in his cross hairs, adeptly manipulating lots of found footage to make them look as shifty and duplicitous (as well as clueless) as one could possibly want. (Certainly no one will be able to look at Paul Wolfowitz in quite the same way after seeing the idiosyncratic fashion he elects to dampen down his hair for a TV interview.) But it isn’t really partisan, since Democrats are characterized as vapid and blundering, too. It’s fairly easy to pick apart the points Moore makes, citing lapses in logic and strained connections, and some of what he presents as fact would appear to be a good deal more complicated than he implies. But the combination of snidely funny commentary, powerful imagery (the almost surrealistic portrayal of 9/11 itself, combat footage from Iraq), jocular stunts (a contretemps with the secret service outside the Saudi embassy in Washington, a public serenading of Congress with the text of the Patriot Act, accosting members of Congress to ask that their children enlist in the army) and manipulative but still effective moments (a sidebar on unlikely Californians whose peace group was infiltrated by local cops, another depicting the meagre resources applied to “Homeland Security” in Oregon, and especially an interview with a Michigan woman whose son was killed in the war) makes for a consistently intriguing, if somewhat chaotic, diatribe. “Fahrenheit 9/11” doesn’t really offer a lot that’s new–George Bush’s ties to a fellow in the Texas Air National Guard whose name the president’s men later tried to conceal is really the biggest “gotcha” moment offered, and it’s not a terribly large one–but it strings together a great deal of already-known tidbits (and plenty of innuendo) into a sporadically sharp mosaic. And the picture is a continuation of “Columbine” in that it makes a good deal of the government’s policy of keeping Americans constantly frightened in order to justify policies they might otherwise reject out of hand.

It goes without saying that Moore’s film is going to be highly divisive. Viewers who support George Bush and the invasion of Iraq are likely to despise it; those who consider him an unelected president and harbor doubts about his veracity in taking the nation to war will probably embrace it, although even some of them may be either bothered by the filmmaker’s characteristically hectoring style and the manifestly tendentious approach, or disappointed that it doesn’t reveal more new scathing data. But though it’s clearly a hate letter to Bush, it’s a cleverly composed one, and it will succeed in infuriating and satisfying audiences in approximately equal measure. Whatever side you’re on, you’re not likely to leave it feeling blase; and ultimately that’s the sign of a documentary that’s done its job.

Incidentally, the decision of the MPAA to slap “Fahrenheit 9/11” with an R rating is among the most idiotic decisions yet taken by an organization that’s already known for its dumb ones. The idea that the “violent” footage in the picture–the sort of stuff that’s regularly shown on network newscasts and TV “news magazines”–calls for the R rating is nonsensical. That, and the craven decision of the Disney company to prevent its Miramax subsidiary from distributing the picture, go further to bolster Moore’s contention about the creeping encroachment of executive power under the current administration than almost anything in his picture does.