(R) 3 1/2 starsEd Johnson-Ott

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush was at an elementary school with a group of children as part of some public relations event. He was informed when the first plane struck the World Trade Center before entering the school, but preceded with the photo op. Bush settled into a story circle and was reading to the little ones when he was told, very quietly, that a second plane had rammed into the World Trade Center. For nearly seven minutes after being told, Bush sat and continued reading.

Early in the anti-Bush polemic, Fahrenheit 9/11, writer/producer/director Michael Moore shows footage of Bush and the children and marvels at the inactivity of the president under such circumstances. I wasn't surprised. Bush was part of a presidential entourage and it takes some time for an entourage to get moving, even in an emergency. I suspect Bush, who surely was as staggered by the news as anyone else, decided the best thing to do was to act calm and read to the kids until the entourage was prepared to leave.

Seems reasonable to me.

Please understand, I am no Bush apologist. I was repulsed by his smirking frat boy persona prior to Sept. 11, and terrified by what he turned into shortly after the attacks. I still remember him facing the camera and announcing that America was going to war against terrorism and that the war would not end until we "vanquished all of the evildoers." Those words sent shivers down my spine as I realized that the highest office in our land was in the hands of a religious zealot who believed he was acting on a mandate from God. I recalled the scene in The Dead Zone where President Greg Stillson, with an insane gleam in his eye, set off World War III while intoning, "His will be done."

The idea that we had a real life Greg Stillson in the Oval Office scared me silly. The feeling just got worse over the next few weeks as the focus of the war on terrorism somehow shifted from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein and the Bush Administration began making their case for a preemptive strike on Iraq.

But you know all that. More and more Americans believe it is now imperative that Bush and his team be removed from office, even if that results in the election of an old school Democrat windbag like John Kerry.

So, will Fahrenheit 9/11 help the cause?

Give Michael Moore credit for wearing his politics on his sleeve. It is much easier to evaluate a documentary when you know the agenda of the filmmaker. After trying to make a brouhaha out of the Sept. 11 reading-to-the-children business, he wastes a few minutes rehashing the 2000 presidential election controversy.

Then Moore gets into the meaty stuff. He notes that, during the post-attack period when every flight in America was grounded, members of the bin Laden family - potential witnesses on the character and behavior of Osama - were allowed to leave the country by air. He shows a long association and huge financial ties between the Bush and bin Laden families. It appears he is headed into conspiracy theory land, but Moore does not follow through.

Instead, he hops around. There is footage of U.S. soldiers humiliating Iraqi prisoners (one captive has a visible erection through his blanket, which becomes the subject of numerous remarks from our soldiers, one of whom touches it). He makes a case that the administration may be using the alert colors to frighten the public into continuing to support the war. He mocks the extensive vacation time taken by Bush and captures some funny/scary footage of the president making a quick transition from pro-war oratory to a golf swing.

Moore does one set of his tiresome ambush interviews, chasing pro-war members of Congress and trying to get them to sign up their young adult children for military service in Iraq (only one member of Congress has a child over there). And he follows the mother of a soldier and shows the effect of the war on her.

Wisely, Moore spends less time on camera than he did in his previous films and his jokes are fewer and more subdued (and less funny). His Oscar Award-winning Bowling for Columbine is a better movie - it raises challenging questions, while Fahrenheit 9/11 offers pre-cooked answers. Still, if the film reaches enough people in theaters and when released on DVD prior to the election, it may help save a lot of lives.