New York Times
MICHAEL MOORE is not coy about his hopes for "Fahrenheit
9/11," his blistering documentary attack on
"And it's not just a hope," the Oscar-winning filmmaker said in a phone interview last week, describing focus groups in Michigan in April at which, after seeing the movie, previously undecided voters expressed eagerness to defeat Mr. Bush. "We found that if you entered the theater on the fence, you fell off it somewhere during those two hours," he said. "It ignites a fire in people who had given up."
The movie's indictment of the president is nothing if not sprawling. Mr. Moore suggests that Mr. Bush and his administration jeopardized national security in an effort to placate Bush family cronies in Saudi Arabia, that the White House helped members of Mr. bin Laden's family to flee the United States after Sept. 11 and that the administration manipulated terrorism alert levels in order to scare Americans into supporting the invasion of Iraq.
Mr. Moore's previous films generated a cottage industry of conservative commentators eager to prove sloppiness and exaggeration in his films; a handful of mainstream critics have also found flaws. But if "Fahrenheit 9/11" attracts the audience Mr. Moore and his distributors are predicting, Mr. Moore may face an onslaught of fact-checking unlike anything he — or any other documentary filmmaker — has ever experienced. After all, White House officials and the Bush family began impugning the film even before any of them had seen it.
"Outrageously false," said Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, last month when told about the film's assertion of a sinister connection between Mr. Bush and the family of Osama bin Laden. The former president George H. W. Bush was quoted in The New York Daily News calling Mr. Moore a "slime ball" and describing the documentary as "a vicious personal attack on our son."
So how will Mr. Moore's movie stand up under close examination? Is the film's depiction of Mr. Bush as a lazy and duplicitous leader, blinded by his family's financial ties to Arab moneymen and the Saudi Arabian royal family, true to fact?
Mr. Moore and his distributors have refused to circulate copies of the film and its script before the film's release this Friday; his production team said that as of last Wednesday, there was no final script because the film was still undergoing minor editing — for clarity, they said, not accuracy.
After a year spent covering the federal commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, I was recently allowed to attend a Hollywood screening. Based on that single viewing, and after separating out what is clearly presented as Mr. Moore's opinion from what is stated as fact, it seems safe to say that central assertions of fact in "Fahrenheit 9/11" are supported by the public record (indeed, many of them will be familiar to those who have closely followed Mr. Bush's political career).
Mr. Moore is on firm ground in arguing that the Bushes, like many prominent Texas families with oil interests, have profited handsomely from their relationships with prominent Saudis, including members of the royal family and of the large and fabulously wealthy bin Laden clan, which has insisted it long ago disowned Osama. Mr. Moore spends several minutes in the film documenting ties between the president and James R. Bath, a financial advisor to a prominent member of the bin Laden family who was an original investor in Mr. Bush's Arbusto energy company and who served with the future president in the Air National Guard in the early 1970's. The Bath friendship, which indirectly links Mr. Bush to the family of the world's most notorious terrorist, has received less attention from national news organization than it has from reporters in Texas, but it has been well documented.
Mr. Moore charges that President Bush and his aides paid too little attention to warnings in the summer of 2001 that Al Qaeda was about to attack, including a detailed Aug. 6, 2001, C.I.A. briefing that warned of terrorism within the country's borders. In its final report next month, the Sept. 11 commission can be expected to offer support to this assertion. Mr. Moore says that instead of focusing on Al Qaeda, the president spent 42 percent of his first eight months in office on vacation; the figure came not from a conspiracy-hungry Web site but from a calculation by The Washington Post.
The most valid criticisms of the film are likely to involve the artful way that Mr. Moore connects the facts, and whether he has left out others that might undermine his scalding attack. A great many statistics fly by in the movie — such as assertions that 6 percent to 7 percent of the United States is owned by Saudi Arabians, and that Saudi companies have paid more than $1.4 billion to Bush family interests. But Mr. Moore doesn't explain how he arrived at them, or what these vague interests comprise. Mr. Moore and his team say they have news reports and other evidence to back up the numbers and that it will be posted on his Web site (www.michaelmoore.com) after the film's release.
Mr. Moore may also be criticized for the way he portrays the evacuation of the extended bin Laden family from the United States after Sept. 11. As the Sept. 11 commission has found, the Saudi government was able to pull strings at senior levels of the Bush administration to help the bin Ladens leave the United States. But while the film clearly suggests that the flights occurred at a time when all air traffic was grounded immediately after the attacks ("Even Ricky Martin couldn't fly," Mr. Moore says over video of the singer wandering in an airport lobby), the Sept. 11 commission said in a report this April that there was "no credible evidence that any chartered flights of Saudi Arabian nationals departed the United States before the reopening of national airspace" and that the F.B.I. had concluded that no one aboard the flights was involved in Sept. 11.
In conversation, Mr. Moore defended the scene, saying his goal was to show how the White House was eager to bend and break the rules for Saudi friends — in this case, the extended family of the terrorist who had just brought down the twin towers and attacked the Pentagon. And as reporters have found, the White House still refuses to document fully how the flights were arranged.
"I don't want to get lost in the forest because of a single tree," Mr. Moore said. "The main point I want people to go away with is that these people got special treatment because they were bin Ladens or Saudi royals, and you and I would never have been given that treatment."
Mr. Moore may also have to defend his portrayal of Mr. Bush's presidency as sinking prior to Sept. 11, citing an inability to win support for his legislation. But he fails to mention that in May, Congress agreed to Mr. Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut, the centerpiece of his legislative agenda. Mr. Moore said that his review of news coverage before Sept. 11 shows that, with or without the tax cut, the Bush presidency was floundering before the terrorist attacks. Mr. Moore said, "I've read what other people wrote and said at the time, and he was definitely on the ropes."
MR. MOORE usually revels in his role as the target of conservative attacks, and his delight in playing the mischievous, little-guy bomb-thrower has brought him fame, wealth and the devotion of fans more interested in rhetorical force than precision. But with "Fahrenheit" he has taken on his biggest and best-defended target yet, and his production staff says that on his orders they have taken no chances in checking and double-checking the film, knowing Bush supporters would pounce on factual mistakes.
Mr. Moore is readying for a conservative counterattack, saying he has created a political-style "war room" to offer an instant response to any assault on the film's credibility. He has retained Chris Lehane, a Democratic Party strategist known as a master of the black art of "oppo," or opposition research, used to discredit detractors. He also hired outside fact-checkers, led by a former general counsel of The New Yorker and a veteran member of that magazine's legendary fact-checking team, to vet the film. And he is threatening to go one step further, saying he has consulted with lawyers who can bring defamation suits against anyone who maligns the film or damages his reputation.
"We want the word out," says Mr. Moore, who says he should have responded more quickly to allegations of inaccuracy in his Oscar-winning 2002 anti-gun documentary, "Bowling for Columbine." "Any attempts to libel me will be met by force," he said, not an ounce of humor in his familiar voice. "The most important thing we have is truth on our side. If they persist in telling lies, knowingly telling a lie with malice, then I'll take them to court."
As proof of its scrupulousness, the Moore team cites adjustments it made to the film's portrayal of Attorney General John Ashcroft. The film is brutal to Mr. Ashcroft, depicting him as a glassy-eyed architect of efforts to shred the Constitution, who became Attorney General only after he proved himself so unpopular in his home state of Missouri that he lost a Senate race to a former Democratic governor who died in a plane crash a month before election day. "Voters preferred the dead guy," Mr. Moore deadpans in the film, a line that drew belly laughs at recent preview screenings. (In reality, voters knew they were in effect casting ballots for the governor's widow).
An earlier version of the film, however, included a reference to a widely circulated charge, broadcast by CBS News in July 2001, that Mr. Ashcroft had received warning of threats and stopped flying on commercial airlines. Tia Lessin, supervising producer of "Fahrenheit 9/11," said the reference to the CBS report was cut after Mr. Moore's fact-checking team found evidence that Mr. Ashcroft had flown commercially at least twice that summer.
"We have gone through every single word of this film — literally every word — and verified its accuracy," said Joanne Doroshow, a public interest lawyer and filmmaker who shared in a 1993 Oscar for documentaries and who joined the fact-checking effort last month. Ms. Doroshow is responsible for preparing what she calls a "fact-checking bible," with material ranging from newspaper and magazine articles to copies of the Federal Register, that will allow the film's lawyers and publicists to provide backup for its allegations.
That said, Mr. Moore's fact-checkers does not view the film as straight reportage. "This is an Op-Ed piece, it's not a news report," said Dev Chatillon, the former general counsel for The New Yorker. "This is not The New York Times, it's not a network news report. The facts have to be right, yes, but this is an individual's view of current events. And I'm a very firm believer that it is within everybody's right to examine the actions of their government."
Besides, it may turn out that the most talked-about moments in the film are the least impeachable. Mr. Moore makes extensive use of obscure footage from White House and network-news video archives, including long scenes that capture President Bush at his least articulate. For the White House, the most devastating segment of "Fahrenheit 9/11" may be the video of a befuddled-looking President Bush staying put for nearly seven minutes at a Florida elementary school on the morning of Sept. 11, continuing to read a copy of "My Pet Goat" to schoolchildren even after an aide has told him that a second plane has struck the twin towers. Mr. Bush's slow, hesitant reaction to the disastrous news has never been a secret. But seeing the actual footage, with the minutes ticking by, may prove more damaging to the White House than all the statistics in the world.