Taking a trip down memory lane Michael C revisits an atypical Cannes winner...
I knew all this politics crap would be brought up," he said. "We all agreed that Fahrenheit 9/11 was the best movie of the competition."
That was Cannes Jury president Quentin Tarantino talking to the BBC back in 2004 -- 10 years ago this very day -- defending his decision to make Michael Moore’s political hand grenade of a movie Fahrenheit 9/11 the first documentary to win the Palme d’Or since The Silent World in 1956. Fahrenheit went on to become and remains, the highest grossing documentary of all time by a significant margin.
"I just whispered in his ear and said, 'I just want you to know it was not because of the politics that you won this award, you won it because we thought it was the best film that we saw.'"
I would sooner stick my head in a bag of scorpions than reopen the toxic debate over the accuracy of Moore’s film. But now, on the 10th anniversary of Fahrenheit’s big Cannes win, I would like to take issue with the above statements. With the safe distance of time, with all the political consequences long since passed, is it safe to admit the plain truth: Tarantino's statements are transparently false...
And not for the obvious reason that it is impossible to imagine a Cannes jury awarding a film that glorified Bush and made the Iraq war look like a swell idea. No, it’s false because Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sloppy example of documentary filmmaking that didn’t deserve to be in the Cannes competition let alone take what is may be the most prestigious prize in all of film. Cannes took the opportunity to send a clear message about the war, but it was at the cost of sending a terrible message about filmmaking.
I can recall countless times that Summer I found myself confronted by frothing mad Republicans who declared that Fahrenheit 9/11 did not qualify as a documentary because it had an agenda. I would explain that all documentaries, even Ken Burns’ Baseball, have an agenda. It’s not that Fahrenheit 9/11 isn’t a documentary. It’s that Fahrenheit 9/11 is a particularly poor documentary. In the year before the founding of YouTube, Moore gave us a preview of the future of political discourse by directing the grandest YouTube comment ever made - sputtering with rage, possessing facts but unable to marshal them into a persuasive argument, and undermining itself at every turn with cheap shots and lame snark, like the tea-partier who insists on emphasizing Barack Obama’s middle name at every opportunity.
Even Moore’s famous political stunts miss the mark in Fahrenheit. He ambushes Congressmen who support the Iraq war to give them the opportunity to sign their kids up for the military and we are invited to revel in their hypocrisy when they decline or flee the cameras. Putting aside the fact that you can’t sign people up for the army without their consent, this is supposed to prove...what exactly? Moore circles ideas but he can’t pin them down and when the thrill of the guerilla tactics dissipates the audience is left hanging onto a kind of nebulous, free-floating outrage.
The last movement of the film is taken up with a purely emotional appeal that focuses on a woman whose son died fighting a war in which he didn’t believe. It is both the most and least effective part of the film. Effective because Moore is able to show us the human cost of war freed from the need to wrestle with factual arguments. You would have to be a gargoyle not to feel for this woman’s unfathomable grief and anger. But for all the pain on screen there was the sinking realization it will persuade exactly no one – that some would probably even see the soldier's death as a reason to press on in the war - and the film verges on the exploitative in the quease-inducing length of time it lingers on a grieving mother’s tears.
Fahrenheit 9/11 does manage to produce a few memorable standalone moments. There is a scene of an Iraqi citizen violently cursing the United States after his family was killed in a bombing that has stayed with me as a horrifying representation of the cycle of violence perpetuating itself. But those few moments aside, watching it in 2014 it’s clear that its biggest legacy is as a time capsule. If Moore does one thing well it’s to capture the boiling rage of Bush’s opposition and for better or worse that furor courses through every inch of Fahrenheit. As an example of cinema its greatest contribution may simply be to demonstrate that even the most sincere outrage doesn’t make a documentary good.