Step One: Don't Spare the Melodrama
In the past 10 years, a new genre of film has proliferated on the Web: the 9/11 conspiracy documentary. Aided by the rise of YouTube and some not-so-subtle propaganda techniques, these feature-length films have become the movement's No. 1 recruitment tool, often attracting the devotion of college and high-school students. Their makers use several methods to elicit maximum emotional impact, whether the film is presenting the zaniest possible theories, like the online hit Loose Change, or merely implying that the Bush administration took part in a cover-up of some generic sort, like Michael Moore's record-breaking documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.
First, as dramatic and horrifying as the events of that day were, 9/11 conspiracy documentaries will always attempt to dramatize them further. The 2004 film 911: In Plane Site opens with slow-motion footage of the Twin Towers being hit and coming down over intense orchestral music. Slow-motion disaster shots and melodramatic music are two key components in the agitprop toolbox.
Step Two: Offer a Historical Recap
Because most Americans are disinclined to imagine that the government is capable of perpetrating something like 9/11 on its own people, 9/11 conspiracy documentaries have to convince them that this is indeed a realistic possibility. The history lesson is a standard plot device of such films as the anti-Semitic Missing Links and Alex Jones' 2006 film TerrorStorm. These films usually cite historically revised accounts of what they see as government conspiracies and false-flag attacks. JFK's assassination, the USS Liberty incident, and the claim that FDR knew about Pearl Harbor in advance are three of the most popular narratives, as is the infamous-in-conspiracy-circles Northwoods Memo. For good measure, the films usually throw in widely accepted cases of government deception, such as the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the Reichstag fire. Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup, the fourth edition of Dylan Avery's blockbuster, covers most of these and throws in the alleged fascist plot to overthrow FDR in the 1930s. As an added bonus, Avery is able to tie everything back to the Bush family.
Step Three: Frame Reality
A key claim of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists is that the media are taking part in the cover-up, either maliciously or inadvertently. At the same time, conspiracists rely on mainstream media reporting for most of their clues as to how an inside job possibly occurred. Their films have found a clever way to bridge these contradictions. Both Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup and the lighter conspiracy film 9/11: Press for Truth take mainstream media reports and frame them within television sets. This gives the segments an otherworldly, Big Brother quality when trying to convince the viewer that the mainstream media present nothing but corporate propaganda. At the same time, for news reports that add credibility to the conspiracy theory, the framing device plays to the idea that if it's on TV, then it must be true.
Step Four: Make Bush Look Really Evil
Another key to any good 9/11 conspiracy film is to make George W. Bush and his Cabinet members look as sinister as possible. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is not a conspiracy film, but it does spend the first 45 minutes throwing out a wide net of potential conspiracy theories involving Afghan oil pipelines, a cover-up of Saudi complicity in 9/11, and something about the Carlyle Group. Most conspiracy films ham fistedly make Bush appear evil by juxtaposing shots of the former president with shots of the attacks themselves, but Moore is far subtler. The Fahrenheit 9/11 opening credits depict the Skeletor-like Bushies getting their makeup done over creepy acoustic guitar strings, or "third-world atrocity music," as the Weekly Standard put it. Spooky!
Step Five: Connect the Dots
In his excellent look inside the world of conspiracists, Among the Truthers, Jonathan Kay coined the term "flowchart conspiracism" to describe the phenomenon of conspiracy theorists connecting the dots between disparate ideological elements in a vast web beneath some overarching evil force, like the Illuminati or the reverse vampires. The anti-Semitic film War by Deception spends most of its time connecting the 9/11 attacks back to Israel and Jews in the Bush administration, but this flowchart ties a 9/11 Commission cover-up back to Bush himself. The shaky shots of a flowchart on a chalkboard add to the sense of danger: This information is so explosive that we're nervous even showing it to you.