Rex Reed’s Review of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11”

by | Jul 1, 2004

Michael Moore’s “documentary” Fahrenheit 9/11, having won the French Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier in the month, opened on June 25th in some 800 American theaters. In its first weekend, it led the box office with a $21.8 million gross, according to ABC World News, a precedent for a purported documentary in […]

Michael Moore’s “documentary” Fahrenheit 9/11, having won the French Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier in the month, opened on June 25th in some 800 American theaters. In its first weekend, it led the box office with a $21.8 million gross, according to ABC World News, a precedent for a purported documentary in the American market. Doubtless the film owes that record–and its jubilant reception at Cannes–to its anti-Bush political message, and not to any artistic merit as a film.

Because of its message in a presidential election year, it has been the subject of unusual attention in the news media. Yet the three major networks have reluctantly conceded that, as a documentary, it is not entirely what it has been cracked up to be. NBC, ABC, and CBS all expressed subtlety put reservations about the film’s accuracy concerning President Bush’s actions and motives, but fell short of calling the film a cheap shot or pure fabrication. No news anchor was brave (or perceptive) enough to call Moore’s film an extended ad hominem, a propagandistic editorial in the guise of a serious documentary. Several religious conservative groups announced plans to urge a boycott of Moore’s film and to picket theaters that show it. And while Fahrenheit 9/11 will likely be buried by the summer avalanche of Hollywood releases, a lawyer for the Federal Election Committee has already posted misgivings about its status as “political speech.”

However, the news commentators reveal a shocking inability to distinguish between the value of the film as a documentary and its transparent identity as an editorial. Fahrenheit 9/11 has been too often judged, not in terms of its value as a film, but rather in terms of the political views of a reviewer. In film criticism, the overriding theme has been: If you hate Bush, you’ll love this film.

Some commentators and critics sensed a curious parallel in the reception of both Moore’s film and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ earlier this year, but lacked the clarity of mind to identify it. Briefly put, many conservatives and Christians declared their adulation for Gibson’s film before it was shown in theaters, basing their enthusiasm on reports from individuals who had attended private, pre-release screenings. The inverse was true for the Moore film; those who oppose Bush “loved” it before they had any specific knowledge of its contents.

So it was for the prominent critic Rex Reed, who praised Fahrenheit 9/11 for its factual accuracy, in which the evidence spoke for itself, and at the same time proclaimed Moore’s artistry in transposing and splicing scenes to create impressions that supported his allegations and opinions. Some critics recognized that technique by either by either qualifying their acclaim of the film or suggesting that Fahrenheit 9/11 is a largish bolt of whole cloth–but Rex Reed was not one of them.

Some critics recognized Fahrenheit 9/11 for what it is — a vitriolic, snide campaign ad whose frank purpose is to portray President Bush. In it, the president is a Hitlerian figure somehow too dumb to occupy the White House, but at the same time smart enough to manipulate the entire nation and world events in order to acquire power and line his pockets. It is a measure of their surviving political and intellectual honesty. However, this contradictory portrayal of the man is overlooked by most critics. And it is overlooked by Reed, who cares little to find the contradictions and factual distortions that are rife in the film, and which should have been his first task to detect and expose. But, he either does not detect them, or he has detected them, and has chosen not to flag them.

Reed’s review of Fahrenheit 9/11 in The New York Observer of June 28th, entitled “Moore’s Magic: 9/11 Electrifies,” is a classic instance of a thoughtless, emotionalist review. “The result is undeniably galvanizing, immensely watchable and damned good filmmaking,” he concludes. He might have said that about good fiction, about, say, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and have been justified in saying it. But, this is not how a documentary ought to be evaluated.

Reed hates George Bush, perhaps as much as does Michael Moore–and this is why he loves the film. So, anything goes, and never mind reality or the ethics of factual reporting. “If it convinces one nonvoter to think, it will serve a purpose,” writes Reed. Regardless of its veracity, it is imperative to him that Fahrenheit 9/11 influence the upcoming election and help to oust Bush. Moore’s purpose is to ignite blind mass hysteria. Reed shares this purpose, and assists Moore in every way he can.


Before dissecting Reed’s review, it would be fair to begin by making distinctions between several categories of the written word, chiefly editorials and documentaries, between facts and fabrication, and how they apply or do not apply to Michael Moore’s film.

An editorial is a short, cogent, argued opinion or appraisal of a person, thing or public event. Its purpose is to present to a reader a particular standpoint or view, and to solicit agreement with it. It supplies little in-depth material, but offers suggestions for the reader to investigate the subject further. An editorialist’s opinion or appraisal may be rooted in fact or fancy; it may be objective and true to reality, or subjective and governed by emotion or sloppy thinking, or by no thought at all. The test of the validity of any editorial, regardless of its bias, is its adherence to the truth, or to reality.

A documentary is a film that discusses the facts of an event, and provides in-depth material that the reader or viewer can use to understand the event in more detail. A true documentary can be informative, enlightening, and even entertaining, but it must also report facts about its subject. If a documentary maker elects to insert his or an interviewee’s opinion or appraisal of his subject, he must clearly inform his audience that that is what it is, an opinion or appraisal. If he represents his or an interviewee’s unsubstantiated or unqualified opinions as facts, he is defrauding his audience.

A review is a critical evaluation of a book’s or movie’s strengths and faults, virtues and vices, value or worthlessness. Reviewing a documentary demands that one be aware of the facts, whereas in reviewing fiction, the question is one of distinguishing between good storytelling and bad. Reed praises Moore’s film because it is good storytelling, hardly a legitimate plaudit if the storytelling distorts the facts, which Moore’s film does.


If Reed’s review is any guide, Fahrenheit 9/11 is not a documentary, but an editorial, and as an editorial, it fails the truth criterion. If a film could be given a lie detector test, Moore’s film would short out the machine. It indulges in character assassination, falsifies visual images and news footage with contrived voice-over narrations of events, employs mockery and satire instead of argumentation, and gratuitously caricatures the president, his actions, and his policies. Woody Allen pioneered this cinematic technique in his 1984 comedy, Zelig. Ten years later director Robert Zemeckis used it in Forrest Gump. However, the difference between these films and Moore’s is that Allen and Zemeckis did not intend their fiction to be accepted as fact, whereas Moore does.

In the name of exactitude, it would be fair to call Fahrenheit 9/11 propaganda. But even propaganda, which appeals to emotions, needn’t misrepresent facts. Moore does not feel constrained by this limitation, either. His purpose is to stir up a national hornets’ nest of rage and anger against President Bush, never mind the facts. Sergeant Joe Friday, he is not. And Perry Mason would have grilled him in court on a libel charge.

Rex Reed’s review is the spiritual and esthetic companion of Fahrenheit 9/11; that is, while Moore’s film is a nonstop litany of malicious gossip, Reed’s review is an emotionalist stew of uncritical adulation that does not once question the veracity or truthfulness that gossip. Throughout the entire article, one encounters an enervating, cynical sneer whose object is President Bush, not the film (but this is Reed’s style in all his reviews, whether he is praising or panning a film; for evidence, see his review of Master and Commander in the online edition of the Observe, 11/17/03). If one did not know that Reed was 66 years old and a veteran critic, one would conclude that the piece was composed by a psychopathic juvenile. Cases in point:

“Mr. Moore is armed with facts, and he presents them accurately and succinctly.” But Moore’s “facts” are presented with contrived voice-overs and unconnected words and scenes arbitrarily strung together in sequence. That technique disposes of the attributes of accuracy and succinctness. For example, President Bush is shown dining with the Saudis with the Pentagon burning in the background. No such tableau ever occurred in reality.

Dismissing the film as part of a “left-wing conspiracy” — after all, he contends, it was a “right-wing conspiracy” that disgraced the last president and forced him to commit perjury — Reed urges, “Whatever it is, everyone should see Fahrenheit 9/11 first — before debating the issues.” But, why does Reed regard Moore as such an authority that we cannot even discuss the issues without reference to Moore? Reed’s advice serves merely to feed Moore’s megalomania and incidentally fatten his wallet. Moore has earned no such stature.

“Mr. Moore, who has tackled corporate greed (Roger & Me) and gun control (Bowling for Columbine), now feels driven and obligated to strip the fa

Edward Cline is a novelist who has written on the revolutionary war period and is a guest writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, California. He is author of the Sparrowhawk series of novels set in England and Virginia in the Revolutionary period, the detective novel First Prize, the suspense novel Whisper the Guns, and of numerous published articles, book reviews and essays. Visit his website at

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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