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Why we fight 

Fahrenheit challenges post-9/11 politics

Like The Passion of the Christ, Michael Moore's fiery documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 polarizes audiences even before they've seen it.

Potential movie-goers on the right will envision a two-hour attack against President Bush. Those on the left will expect a combination righteous war-protest op-ed column and "Daily Show" satirical segment. As a passionate polemic, Fahrenheit 9/11 lives up to both descriptions.

While The Passion of the Christ presents one filmmaker's view of an episode that changed the world 2,000 years ago, Fahrenheit 9/11 concerns the most grave and significant events of modern U.S. history, many of which are still going on. Addressing material that Hollywood has taken pains to avoid, Fahrenheit 9/11 lights a fire under its viewers and challenges the sacred cows of 21st-century America.

The title evokes Sept. 11, but Moore shows less interest in the specifics of the attack than its political fallout. The film doesn't even show the oft-repeated footage of the two towers falling, but instead presents a darkened screen with the audio of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, and then cuts to horrified bystanders.

Moore segues to President Bush at a now famous classroom photo op, where he astonishingly remains frozen in his seat for seven minutes after learning of the attacks. During the film's first section, Moore returns to Bush's confused expression and wonders, "What's going through his head?" while summing up the Bush family ties with Saudi Arabia, including the kin of al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.

The film nimbly asserts that at a time when airplanes were grounded across America, the White House allowed 142 Saudis, including more than 20 of bin Laden's relatives, to flee America without being questioned. "What would have happened if Bill Clinton let members of Timothy McVeigh's family leave the country after the Oklahoma City bombing?" Moore asks, before cutting to a clip of an old witch-burning movie.

Shifting to homeland security issues, Moore suggests that the color-coded threat elevation levels and other warnings are intended to cow and control U.S. citizens more than protect the nation. The film avoids post-9/11 anecdotes already done to death in the media, but features profiling nightmares like the mother at an airport checkpoint forced to drink her own bottled breast milk to prove its safety. (But bizarrely, matches and lighters are allowed on flights.)

Moore reserves most of his ire for the Iraq war and devotes much of the film to combat on the ground. Fahrenheit 9/11 presents grisly footage of wounded Iraqis (the primary reason for the film's R rating) and disturbing portraits of U.S. soldiers. We see GIs callously tease an Iraqi prisoner, reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib incident, as well as soldiers who describe listening to heavy metal music during attacks. (The Al-Jazeera documentary Control Room, ironically, shows U.S. troops in a more flattering light.)

As always, Moore returns to his hometown of Flint, Mich., where he looks with despair at military recruitment of impoverished young people. Moore doesn't oppose military service per se, but insists that wars must be justifiable. He finds a kind of heroine in Lila Lipscomb, a flag-flying mother of a daughter who survived the first Gulf War, and a son who died in the Iraq War. Her grief seems bottomless, yet in one of the film's most startling moments, Lipscomb finds herself arguing with a hostile bystander in Washington, D.C., who yells that she should "blame al-Qaeda" for her son's death in Iraq.

Fahrenheit 9/11 avoids the ambiguities of the war on terror and the Iraq War. Saddam Hussein was unquestionably a vicious tyrant, with or without WMDs, but the director doesn't dispute the "right thing for the wrong reason" excuse for his ouster.

Moore may realize that he's becoming, if not his own worst enemy, a distraction from the points he wants to make. He spends more time off-camera here than in his previous films and TV shows "TV Nation" and "The Awful Truth." His sarcastic narration and other ironic flourishes at Bush's expense lack subtlety, and you imagine him looking at a Bush vacation clip and wondering, "Should I play the redneck banjo tune or the 1950s 'Leave it to Beaver' music here?"

Fortunately, he keeps his patented ambush stunts to a minimum. Informed by Rep. John Conyers that members of Congress didn't read the PATRIOT Act before passing it, Moore hires an ice cream truck and reads it through a loudspeaker outside the Capitol building. Late in the film, he asks Congressmen on the street if they'd enlist their own kids in the military to fight in Iraq. But Fahrenheit 9/11 downplays both sequences, as if Moore were aware that the personal anecdotes and muckraking montages serve his arguments more effectively.

Fahrenheit 9/11 proves a fuzzier film than Moore's Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine, where his willingness to go beyond pro- and anti-gun dogma led to intriguing ideas about the source of U.S. gun violence. Fahrenheit 9/11 generates more heat than light, leveling provocative and relevant charges without floating airtight conspiracy theories. You don't have to agree with Moore's politics or even like his persona to acknowledge that Fahrenheit 9/11 asks questions that demand answers.

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