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« Cannes Diary: Three Palme d'Or Contenders and My Pick for "Best Actress" | Main | Tim's Toons: Oz well that ends well »

How Does 'Fahrenheit' Hold Up?

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.

Tarantino continued:

"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. 

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Reader Comments (16)

I re-watched the film as part of my marathon and should have it won the Palme d'Or? NO.

It's a good documentary but a flawed one due to its politics and Michael Moore's presence. There were better films playing in competition that should've won. I would've gone with Oldboy for the Palme d'Or and Nobody Knows for the Grand Jury Prize. Plus, there were some notable films that could've won like Clean, 2046 (despite the fact that it was an unfinished version of the film shown), The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, and The Motorcycle Diaries that could've won that award.

May 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

I should re-watch it. I remember loving it but I was filled with hate back then.

May 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

Like you suggest, Moore's documentaries are maddening for their desire to squeeze emotional reactions. It's especially frustrating when you find yourself a agreeing with an argument, but simultaneously shudder at the tactics. Ambushing and screaming at people is never my favorite thing. I remember in Sicko especially he zoomed in on one woman's tears so quickly, it was hard not to imagine how uncomfortable it would have been to be having genuine pain and emotion, and then someone who claims to be sympathetic to your plight sticking a camera an inch from your face and milking it for all it's worth. So I'm not surprised Fahrenheit doesn't hold up. Glad for Steven's comment though: with the framing of the article being it not deserving it's Cannes' win (an intriguing place to start); it was good to see some discussion of what else was competing. It makes Tarantino's comment seem less like a cop-out/cover up than maybe just a lack of enthusiasm for the other films.

May 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercatbaskets

The jury was headed by QT himself, so I expect nothing less

May 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercraver

I'm sure the movie doesn't look very good now - it was a losing strategy in an election year, ultimately, and no losing strategy looks good ten years down the road. But in the summer of 2004, after 2.5 years of Bush's pro-war propagandizing, it felt *really* good to have Moore come out swinging as hard as he did. I thought it was damned effective propagandizing when it came out - but propaganda is almost always very, very problematic eventually. But propaganda has its place in the world, and I don't think there's anything wrong with Moore winning the Palme d'Or. Was it the best film in the competition? Certainly not. But I'm inclined to say that the jury got it right - Fahrenheit 9/11 was an important film in its moment - politically, socially, cinematically. It is an important film - even if it's important now more for things it did wrong, for all the negative cultural trends it unintentionally helped advance. Importance isn't the be all end all, of course, but it's something to take into account. Film's legacies evolve over time, and that's part of what these awards do - mark certain films as cultural objects worth revisiting and learning from, and giving us all an opportunity to see how we've changed - or not changed - as time marches on.

May 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Moore may be a polarizing figure (well, a hated one by right wing America), but he exposed a lot of incompetence in the Bush administration that went all the way up to the top. Cheney, Rumsfield, Ashcroft, and most shockingly Condoleeza Rice. Oh and Bushie digging in the dirt while on vacation on his ranch in Texas was pretty comical. There were too many factual events that could not be ignored. Rice dismissing the reports of imminent threats from AL-Kaida about to hijack American airliners were and are still shocking And this is the woman who was out shopping for shoes while Katrina was raging. They used the 9/11 tragedy (and I lost friends that day) to numb middle America into supporting an illegal war. WMD's that didn't exist. And the world was against the invasion of Iraq as well.

May 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

From a European perspective, let me just say that it was one of the most celebrated Palme d'Or in years. Michael Moore's flaws are perfectly recognizable and yet I feel like we should be thanking him for pushing the frontiers of the genre. Its popularization would have never happened without him.

May 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Peggy Sue - excellent point, really.

Roark & Sad Man -- thank you for these coments. I was in love with the movie back then and though i haven't revisited it I'm sure that emotions were too high for clear thought (not that I don't support Moore's argument because good god that administration was evil/careless) and, Roark, I do love the recognition of awards as cultural barometers and movies as time pieces. I have always found that that's why the Oscars continue to resonate. Art is too subjective for anyone to be happy with "Best" on a regular basis but proclamations of "Best" are still important, because they are time capsules of what was considered important/ appealing/quality at the moment or what captured the zeitgeist.

May 23, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Fahrenheit 9/11 isn't a great documentary, but it isn't a documentary. It's propaganda, and easily the best propaganda film in decades. After my first viewing of it (when I was singing its praises almost solely because its throbbing rage matched my own), I've always looked at it that way, and it's far more enjoyable. Along with most of Moore's films, even the good ones, it's too messy and problematic to be a good documentary, but it's still a pretty thrilling propaganda piece, and at the time, it was even more so. Should it have won the Palme d'Or? Probably not. But you could say that about A LOT of films that won the Palme d'Or.

May 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

I remember loving the film when I saw it in the theater upon its release and recommended it -- which is the only time I've ever seen it -- not so much as an endorsement of Moore's politics per se (not that I disagreed), but as a compliment to his ability to make a persuasive argument. To me there's some futility in constantly discussing whether something or someone in a subjective field deserved to win anything, but as Nathaniel said, addressing the historical or sociocultural context remains worth dissecting, if only to give us a window into the tenor of the times. For instance, I was an ardent supporter of "American Beauty" when I viewed it in 1999, but when I saw it on TV exactly ten years later, it seemed like a bad movie that was more superficial and less edgy than I recalled.

May 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

I always felt like people are judging Fahrenheit as a research paper when it was meant to be a persuasive essay. Anyways, I found myself really missing Moore's films honestly. There are always a lot of fascinating stuff.

May 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterkin

I'm happy to hear you say that isn't a well-made documentary and the fact that you point out how exploitative the scene with grieving mother is is the perfect example of why Fahrenheit 9/11 isn't a good doc. This was the moment I realized the power of Moore as filmmaker and as a manipulator. Even as a liberal, I had to turn my head and say that this movie was exactly how not to make a serious documentary. In one spot, he makes fun of the other countries who joined the United States in a coalition to fight the war in Iraq. I remember that his image for Romania was that of Nosferatu. If that's the first thing that comes to mind when Moore thinks of Romania, then isn't he just as ignorant as the imbeciles who think Africa is a country and not a continent? I was shocked that Bush won in 2004 because this movie is persuasive, but it's persuasive for all the wrong reasons. Comparing it to all five of the documentaries nominated at the Oscars, it can't hold a candle, even to 20 feet from Stardom (which doesn't really have a goal but is so very entertaining) or Cutie and the Boxer (which is a love story). If The Act of Killing sheds light on atrocities committed by men and makes those same men fall down and weep for what they've done. The Square gives us a point of view of those fighting for a revolution in Egypt. Neither one undermines their subjects with humor like the way Michael Moore does and I think that's why they're better. They just present their subjects and let them do the talking. Even Dirty Wars, which indicts the Obama administration, lets the victims of drones speak for themselves. You're right that it was completely about politics in 2004 and that's a shame.

May 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSean Troutman

I watched the film with a group of high schoolers traveling through the South discussing racial and economic disparities (you can imagine the group's political make-up) and I remember being furious with my fellow travelers over how wonderful they thought it was, even though I agreed with the film's fundamental argument.

The two shots I remember most from this film are the opening, where Moore pokes fun at the Bush administration putting on makeup before a televised speech, and the emphasis on how Bush didn't immediately rush out of the room upon hearing the news. Both were such low blows, not to mention distractions from the film's argument, even to me as an 18-year-old watching the film.

May 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Also: is it just me or is Fahrenheit 9/11 a nonsensical title?

May 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

I think the 2004 Cannes Official Competition presented many abnormally: a documentary, 2 animations, 2 Korean films (first time ever happened) and the overall of 6 Asian films (2 Japanese, 2 Korean, 1 Hong Kong, 1 Thai, even Clean featured Asian leading role). Compare it to this year (1 Asian film, 0 animation or documentary) and Tarantino as jury president and u can see that 2004 was indeed a rare-beast.

May 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commentertombeet

I started reading this post with confusion... Then I went back to the top and saw that this wasn't written by Nathaniel.

If you're going to argue that a film is sloppy, maybe don't write about it in a sloppy manner?

May 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJon

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