Fahrenheit 9/11 is a must-see this summer for several reasons. First and foremost is the content. His message is clear: President Bush has got to go, and this war is unnecessary. In an interview with The New York Times, Moore said he hopes this film will help unseat Bush in November by persuading the ever-present pernicious fence sitters to get off the fence and vote for Kerry.
But it is also important for the part it plays in the history of American documentary. With the release of Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore is crossing new boundaries in the genre of documentary and signals the coming together of two very different strands of American nonfiction cinema-propaganda and direct cinema.
American documentary filmmaking has a long history. Well before the rise of Hollywood, groundbreaking moviemakers took their boxy cameras into the streets to simply record the ordinary as it appeared before the lens. The sophistication of documentary filmmaking progressed parallel to the film technology. The more mobile the equipment, the more powerful the filmmaker became who embraced the power of this art form to capture and reveal personal, political or historical "truths" with the images on the screen.
They learned to entertain the viewer with these representations and truths in new ways. Documentary filmmaking in the United States continued to evolve but was quickly commandeered by the federal government. The Worker's Film and Photo League formed in the early "30s with the purpose of making independent documentaries with a politically and socially progressive viewpoint, but was quickly overshadowed when the U.S. government embarked on an ambitious public-relations campaign to keep the American people informed about the New Deal and the necessity of its programs.
American documentarians were also influenced by the work of German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who was commissioned by Adolph Hitler to film the annual Nazi Party rally of 1934. The resulting film, Triumph of the Will, is a landmark both in documentary technique and in the use of film as an astonishingly powerful propaganda medium. In the 1940s, director Frank Capra managed the production of the documentary/ propaganda series Why We Fight, intended to explain the government's policy and wartime goals to America's hastily assembled armed troops. Capra enlisted many Hollywood notables including Walt Disney and his staff, who were responsible for the animated map sequences.
By the 1960s a new breed of filmmakers began to experiment beyond the self-prescribed parameters of cinéma verité and government propaganda. In 1960, Primary was the first film in which the sync-sound motion picture camera was able to move freely with characters throughout a breaking story, following John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary. Primary is widely regarded as the earliest example of American direct cinema, followed by Emile De Antonio's Point of Order (1963), which dealt with the 1954 Senate Army-McCarthy hearings, challenging the presumptions and the working methods of cinéma verité and using documentaries as a form of unabashed leftist polemic.
Oliver Stone is a critical link between the early work of De Antonio and Moore's most recent film. Stone manipulated fiction and nonfiction until we were unable to separate the two and the result had such an impact on American audiences that many accept JFK and Nixon as nothing short of history. Further, Natural Born Killers, Stone's personal commentary on our national addiction to violence, is the most artistic marriage of cinematic fiction and nonfiction to date.
Moore has inherited a very unique cinematic crown by combining direct cinema and propaganda to produce an alternative voice to the sleek media machines of the American communications industry, which are ultimately controlled by an elite that president Bush's takes pride in calling his "base."
Moore's work is not without fault. For those who are informed, there is nothing new here that we haven't suspected or heard before except perhaps John Ashcroft's musical moment (very weird). Moore's greatest gift is the intense gaze of the mechanical eye he controls. Moore's stares, relentlessly, at Bush, to the point of our discomfort. It's like looking someone in the eye long enough to determine if they are lying or not. Moore gives us the chance to look at Bush long enough to make our own determination.