Michael Moore declares war on the Bush administration with Fahrenheit 9/11. Democratic Party leaders don't come off all that well, either, but in what has quickly become the most popular documentary ever, the nation's pre-eminent muckraker leaves no doubt who the real enemy is.
Regular readers of The Progressive Populist might not be surprised by many of Moore's disclosures, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't see the most important film of the year.
Fahrenheit 9/11 not only indicts the Bush administration but also gigs the Democrats who first failed to fight the vote grab in Florida, then submitted to the Republican power grab after 9/11, then once again got rolled in the 2002 election for their troubles. The corporate news media don't get any blue ribbons from Moore, either.
After the US Supreme Court stopped the Florida vote count and declared George W. Bush the winner, Moore reminds us that the Congressional Black Caucus was unable to get a single Democratic senator to lend a signature to its protest of the certification of Bush's victory in 2000. (The Democrats had arranged to capitulate on the election protest in return for some consideration in governing the Senate, which was split 50-50.)
Moore devastatingly depicts Bush in an elementary classroom in Florida the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, pretending to read My Pet Goat for seven minutes after being notified at 9:05 a.m. of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center. The president appears frozen. Moore suggests the president's possible thoughts during those seven minutes: "Should I have vacationed less and worked more? Should I have listened to anti-terrorism experts warning of an al Qaeda attack?" The president's motorcade finally left the school at 9:35 a.m. Bush talked with Vice President Dick Cheney for the first time at 9:45 a.m. While Bush read the children's book, air traffic controllers wondered if the military had been asked to intercept the plane and who had the authority to shoot down planes. By the time the fourth plane crashed into a Pennsylvania field at 10:03 a.m., no one at the FAA had asked the military's help to stop the aircraft, according to the 9/11 panel.
But the situation was clarified when Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador, dined with Bush on Sept. 13, 2001. Soon flights resumed that would carry at least 142 Saudis out of the country, including two dozen members of the extended bin Laden family.
The next thing we know, Bush is sending troops to Afghanistan, where al Qaeda was based -- coincidentally, in the path of a planned oil pipeline. Then, after installing a US-friendly regime and letting al Qaeda leaders escape to Pakistan, Bush diverted US military resources to -- Iraq, which coincidentally has the second-largest oil reserves in the world.
Moore discovered that civilians were among the Iraqis who were killed and wounded by US forces during the invasion, facts that US reporters embedded with the troops seemed to overlook. His crew also found wounded and disillusioned GIs who were willing to talk but were invisible to the commercial networks. He even ran across footage of abuse of Iraqi prisoners independent of the now-notorious disclosures. He also shows scenes of corporate executives at a conference discussing how to cash in on Iraq.
He follows Marine recruiters who pitch the service to blue-collar youths at a down-market Flint, Mich., shopping mall. With manufacturing jobs going overseas, enlistment is the best job many of these young men and women can get. To underscore the point that Bush's policies favor a narrow elite at the expense of working-class Americans, Moore and another Marine unsuccessfully try to convince Congress members to sign up their children for the military.
The most powerful scenes follow a mother in economically depressed Flint, Mich., who at first encouraged her children to enlist in the military because it was the best way to pay for their education. Then she lost her son in a war she no longer can justify.
Cheap shots, Moore's detractors say. Shots that need to be taken, we say.
The movie, which was rated "R" by Hollywood's taste-masters for "violent and disturbing images and for language, started out June 25 on 868 screens and grossed $23.9 million its first weekend, the top film that weekend, for the first time ever by a documentary. It expanded to 1,725 screens and brought in another $21 million the following four-day weekend, bringing the total receipts to $60.1 million (dwarfed by Spider-Man, which opened on 4,152 screens). As we go to press, Fahrenheit was on 2,011 screens with $80 million in sales and bid to break $100 million in receipts.
"My head is spinning," Moore wrote on July 4. "Didn't we just lose our distributor eight weeks ago? Did Karl Rove really fail to stop this? Is Bush packing?"
Moore said the film topped box office charts in every state that voted for Bush in 2000. More people saw Fahrenheit 9/11 in its first weekend than all the people who saw his Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine in nine months in 2002 (and its $21.5 million was the previous record box-office for a documentary). Fahrenheit went to #2 on the all-time list for largest per-theater average ($27,558) for a film in wide release.
Those numbers are important because they might open theaters to other documentaries, such as Control Room, The Corporation, Hunting of the President, OutFoxed, Super Size Me and This Land is Your Land.
Fahrenheit broke records at the Cameo Art House Theatre in Fayetteville, N.C., the hometown of Fort Bragg. It got standing ovations in "red state" places like Greensboro, N.C., and Oklahoma City. Theater managers complained that they were having a hard time clearing the theaters after the showings because people were either stunned or wanted to sit and talk to their neighbors about what they had seen.
Racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. took his crew to see it the day before a big race in Sonoma, Calif. "It's a good thing as an American to go see," Earnhardt reportedly said. "Whoa! NASCAR fans," Moore wrote, "you can't go deeper into George Bush territory than that! White House moving vans -- START YOUR ENGINES!
The Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which books films to be shown on military bases around the world, has contacted Fahrenheit's distributor.
The liberal political action committee MoveOn.org used Fahrenheit 9/11 to organize more than 4,000 house parties. There 50,000 partygoers celebrated the movie and listened to a nationwide conference call with Moore, who urged supporters to "adopt five non-voters and bring them to the polls."
The film's success came despite the reluctance or hostility of theater owners. One Iowa-based chain refused to book it at all. R.L. Fridley, the Des Moines owner of 34 theaters across Iowa and Nebraska, won't book Fahrenheit, citing a policy that his chain will not "play political propaganda films from either the right or the left," according to the Associated Press. Another Midwest chain, GKC Theaters, booked the film on just one of its 268 screens, which are mainly in Michigan and Illinois, Variety reported. Georgia Theatre Co., which operates 26 theaters in the state, started the film in two suburban Atlanta markets the first weekend, then opened it in Athens the second weekend, limiting the film to Democratic-leaning areas. In Utah, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, "Moviegoers at the Jordan Landing Cinemark movies in West Jordan received a unique greeting Monday from the ticket taker if they purchased tickets to Fahrenheit 9/11. To each patron, he called out: 'Vote for Bush.' When queried, he said he was following instructions from management." A Cinemark vice president was surprised by the news and said lobbying customers for Bush was not a company policy.
The newspaper added that the Redstone 8 Cinemas at Kimball Junction placed a disclaimer under its Fahrenheit 9/11 listings that stated: "The playing of Fahrenheit 9/11 does not necessarily represent the views of ownership or management."
For residents of towns whose theater owners are determined to keep them unsullied by liberal polemics, the DVD is expected to be released in late September by Sony.
Meanwhile, a Disney documentary, America's Heart and Soul, which celebrates American patriotism and was supposed to counter Moore's critique of the war, opened with just $173,000 from 98 theaters the July 4 four-day weekend. But The Hunting of the President, a documentary of the Whitewater investigation co-directed by Clinton friend Harry Thomason, went from 30 screens to 125 as its distributor put the film's trailer on many screens showing Fahrenheit 9/11.
Moore made his first film, Roger and Me, in 1989 for $250,000. It was bought by Warner Brothers for $3 million and earned nearly $7 million at the box office. He produced two TV series, TV Nation in 1994 and The Awful Truth in 1999, as well as a 1995 comedy, Canadian Bacon, and The Big One, which was critical of Big Business, in 1997. Accepting the Academy Award for Bowling for Columbine, he broke the tacit agreement not to bring up politics and split the hall when he said, ""We live in fictitious times. We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons ... Shame on you, Mr. Bush. Shame on you." His celebrity helped put Stupid White Men and Dude, Where's My Country on the bestseller lists but it also made him a target. Right-wingers already are preparing a book titled Michael Moore is a Big Fat Stupid White Man and a movie entitled Michael Moore Hates America.
Right-wingers also have set up websites to distribute unauthorized copies of the film, but Moore said he was not bothered by the appearance on the Internet of pirated copies of his film. "I don't agree with the copyright laws and I don't have a problem with people downloading the movie and sharing it with people as long as they're not trying to make a profit off my labor. I would oppose that," he told Scotland's Sunday Herald. "I do well enough already and I made this film because I want the world, to change. The more people who see it the better, so I'm happy this is happening."
Bush supporters claimed Fahrenheit 9/11 contained falsehoods, but they were unable to refute many points beyond hair-splitting quibbles and claimed sins of omission. For example, Dave Kopel reports at National Review Online, "Fahrenheit 911 states, 'In his first eight months in office before September 11th, George W. Bush was on vacation, according to the Washington Post, 42% of the time.' Shortly before 9/11, the Post calculated that Bush had spent 42% of his presidency at vacation spots or en route, including all or part of 54 days at his ranch. That calculation, however, includes weekends, which Moore failed to mention."
Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett said the movie was "outrageously false" -- even though he admitted he hadn't seen the movie. He later told CNN, "This is a film that doesn't require us to actually view it to know that it's filled with factual inaccuracies." Moore replied, "At least they're consistent. They never needed to see a single weapon of mass destruction before sending our kids off to die."
Moore said he was not surprised that many news shows bought the White House spin. "After all, that is a big part of what Fahrenheit is about -- how the lazy, compliant media bought all the lies from the Bush administration about the need to invade Iraq. They took the Kool-Aid offered by the White House and rarely, if ever, did our media ask the hard questions that needed to be asked before the war started."
The New York Times' Paul Krugman got it about right when he wrote, "for all its flaws, Fahrenheit 9/11 performs an essential service. It would be a better movie if it didn't promote a few unproven conspiracy theories, but those theories aren't the reason why millions of people who aren't die-hard Bush-haters are flocking to see it. These people see the film to learn true stories they should have heard elsewhere, but didn't. Mr. Moore may not be considered respectable, but his film is a hit because the respectable media haven't been doing their job."
Moore told Time magazine he didn't like the film being reduced to "Bush vs. Kerry." "When Clinton was president, I went after him. And if Kerry's president, on Day Two I'll be on him."
See Moore's website, including reactions to the film from people around the country, at www.michaelmoore.com.