Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11: How one film divided a nation

Robert Brent Toplin,
Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11: How one film divided a nation.
University of Kansas Press, 2006.
ISBN: 0 7006 1452 4
US$34.95 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Kansas Press)

Robert Brent Toplin’s Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11: How one film divided a nation marshals numerous sources and considerable evidence in the service of a plodding and specious argument. Toplin has read scores, perhaps hundreds, of reviews and critiques of Moore’s film, and he quotes many of them. And some of the evidence he cites regarding Moore’s methods and general accuracy is compelling. The trouble is, Toplin uses his material not to address the topic that seems clearly stated in his book’s title but rather to construct a gratingly tendentious apologia for Moore’s film.

The title, which implies that an undivided nation saw Fahrenheit 9/11 and then coalesced into two separate political camps, hints of problems to come. By Toplin’s own evidence, the nation was already divided. If Toplin meant rather that the nation was divided in its response the film – and that’s all that his book ultimately documents – then he is attempting to demonstrate a point of no compelling interest. Almost any major cultural-political production elicits a divided response. That’s usually one of the things that makes it major.

This misleading title, at worst a small offense in itself, turns out to be of a piece with the overall deceptive thrust of the book. In his introduction, Toplin presents himself as a somewhat detached, fair-minded referee who is going to look at both sides of the responses to Moore’s film and then issue some rulings, so to speak, i.e., clarify various issues in dispute. But he tips his hand early and often, sometimes in ways that are both annoying and amusing.

Tip number one, early on, is that, despite a few disclaimers here and there, he characterizes criticism of the film as politically motivated and therefore suspect. He rarely, if ever, suggests pejoratively that praise for the film might be politically motivated or that the film itself – gasp! – might be politically motivated and therefore suspect. For Toplin, it is only criticism of the film that is undermined by political motivation.

Soon, too, the reader begins to notice stylistic differences between Toplin’s accounts of criticism and his accounts of the film or its supporters. Often, in a relatively brief passage summarizing a critical response, he inserts variations on the phrase ‘they said’ after each paraphrasing sentence, as if to remind the reader to interpret the summarized critical view skeptically. When quoting Moore or his defenders, he uses phrases such as ‘Moore explained’, ‘he argued’, someone ‘pointed out’. When quoting critics, Toplin ranges more widely in his thesaurus: critics ‘blasted’, ‘berated’, ‘lashed out’, ‘denounced’, ‘slammed’, ‘badgered’, ‘savagely attacked’, issued ‘scathing indictments’, launched ‘an onslaught of hostile reactions’, and wrote ‘especially nasty’ reviews. In at least three different chapters, he laments that the attacks on the film influenced its impact negatively – as if only ineffectual criticism is legitimate. Even when ostensibly criticizing Moore, he turns it to Moore’s advantage, as in this case of praising with faint damnation: “Moore could not resist the temptation to make pointed suggestions, however, and he paid a price for his audacity” (98). Michael Moore as victim.

In debunking Moore’s critics, Toplin’s main argument is that the critics attacked the film from the “old broadcast standard” that political arguments should be balanced. He reaches back but superficially into documentary tradition to point out that documentary evolved largely as a medium for partisan argument. Thus Moore had no obligation to be balanced. Here again, as in his choice of words to describe the tone of responses to the film, Toplin skews the argument. When discussing the film’s critics, he faults them for lacking balance in their criticism. Thus it is fine with Toplin that Moore’s film lacks balance, but wrong that Moore’s critics lack balance.

Had Toplin assailed critics for hypocrisy, his argument would have consistency on that point. But it wouldn’t have been much stronger, because Toplin uses criticism based on the “old broadcast standard” as a straw dog. The trenchant critiques of Fahrenheit 9/11 cared not about the film’s lack of balance but rather its lack of fairness, a far different thing. Although Toplin acknowledges and occasionally cites criticisms of the film from the left, he avoids direct engagement with charges that the film is mean-spirited, dishonest, mocking, trivializing, sophistic, insinuating.

Toplin’s case for Fahrenheit 9/11 is marred by two other, probably related, pervasive flaws. One is that he can be patronizing. After quoting a student reviewer’s definition of documentary as objective, he parenthetically adds that the student “admitted that he had a limited understanding of documentary.” To ensure that the rest of us are adequately sophisticated in our understanding of documentary, Toplin gives us lessons in documentary tradition, mentioning John Grierson once and a few other well-known names in documentary. All he comes up with is that documentary historically has been partisan. When discussing the 1989 Roger & me(USA), he credits Moore for inventing the on-camera provocateur approach to filmmaking, even though Moore himself has said that he got the idea from Michael Rubbo’s 1974 Waiting for Fidel (Canada). What he misses is that the best of the documentarians, including Rubbo, and Grierson himself, adhered to a conception of the committed documentary that is far richer than Toplin’s limited understanding of documentary. Compare Waiting for Fidel or Sad Song of Yellow Skin (Canada, 1970) with Roger & me or Fahrenheit 9/11.

And Toplin seems oblivious to the obvious, in matters small and large. He thinks it comic that in Fahrenheit 9/11, a film he presumably has watched a few times, Paul Wolfowitz “carefully combs his hair in preparation for an on-camera appearance.” What most people found comic about that scene was that Wolfowitz first runs his comb through his teeth and lips a couple of times to load it with saliva. Elsewhere, Toplin wonders why there have not been mass demonstrations by young people against the Iraq War comparable to those in the late 1960s against the Vietnam War. Could the answer be that there was a military draft then? On the last page of the book, he cites Senator Robert Byrd to drive home the revelation that war results in death as if that fact alone is enough to validate Moore’s film. And, finally, he seems not to have noticed his own title and argument. His concluding sentence says that Fahrenheit 9/11 “will emerge as a significant source in American political history” because it showed that documentary film had the power “to engage the American people in lively discussions about important matters” – which to my mind does not sound divisive. Sunnis and Shiites murdering each others’ families sounds divisive. Discussing important matters sounds a bit more benign than that. It sounds like the behavior of a healthy democracy.

Just as Fahrenheit 9/11’s partisanship is not what’s wrong with it, the problem with Toplin’s book is not that it is partisan. I would have loved to read a passionate, straightforward defense of the film that challenged my aversion to it. The book’s problem is that it is timid and coy, masquerading as a fair-minded examination of the film and its reception. Toplin could have shed the pretense and just made his case for the film.

D.B. Jones,
Drexel University, USA.

Created on: Saturday, 2 June 2007

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →