How will Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" stand up under close examination? Is the film's depiction of 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?
Moore and his distributors have refused to circulate copies of the film and its script before the film's release 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, not accuracy.
After a year spent covering the federal commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, I was recently allowed to attend a Hollywood screening. Based on that single viewing, and after separating out what is clearly presented as 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 Bush's political career).
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.
Moore charges that Bush and his aides paid too little attention to warnings in summer 2001 that Al Qaeda was about to attack, including a detailed Aug. 6, 2001, CIA 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 for this assertion. 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 The Washington Post.
The most valid criticisms of the film are likely to involve the artful way Moore connects the facts, and whether he has left out others that might undermine his scalding attack.
Lots of statistics
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 Moore doesn't explain how he arrived at them, or what these vague interests comprise. Moore and his team say they have news reports and other evidence to back up the numbers, and that they will be posted on his Web site (www.michaelmoore.com) after the film's release.
Moore also may be criticized for the way he portrays the evacuation of the extended bin Laden family from the U.S. 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 U.S. 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," 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 FBI had concluded that no one aboard the flights was involved in Sept. 11.
In conversation, 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.
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.
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 Moore, who says he should have responded more quickly to allegations of inaccuracy in his Oscar-winning 2002 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 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," 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 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 Moore's fact-checking team found evidence that 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. 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 support its allegations.