Society teaches us that only blowhards and boors talk politics at the dinner table. In Hollywood, a slimmed-down version of the same dictum applies to filmmakers: Never talk politics. Period.
Leave it to cinematic provocateur Michael Moore ("Roger and Me") to ignore a perfectly good dictum. His Palme d’Or winning documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" quite possibly sets a Hollywood precedent — a mainstream film that makes direct, unveiled attacks against a sitting politician and the ideology that carried him to power.
Employing his usual gate-storming, j’accuse style, Moore draws links between the Bush family and the Bin Laden clan, lambastes President George W. Bush for his prosecution of the Iraq War and calls into question the constitutionality of the Patriot Act and other government-sponsored strategies in the war on terrorism. Commercially and politically, "Fahrenheit 9/11" is a powder keg.
At least one movie studio found Moore’s keg too combustible for comfort. Though Disney financed the movie under its Miramax art-house banner, it refused to market or distribute the film after it was completed (officially, Disney brass deemed it "inappropriate" to release such a divisive movie in an election year).
Undaunted, Miramax chiefs Harvey and Bob Weinstein formed an outside partnership with Lions Gate Films and IFC Films and engineered a fire sale — in essence, a moneylaundering scheme for the parent company. The movie opens nationally on Friday.
Disney’s reluctance to associate itself too closely with a politically troublesome movie is consistent with Hollywood tradition, according to University of California at Los Angeles film professor Jonathan Kuntz: "Typically, the majors don’t want anything too controversial — and when is politics not controversial? They want to reach the masses, so generally they’ll avoid things that are flagrantly skewed one way or the other."
The irony, according to Kuntz, is that politics and controversy aren’t necessarily poison at the box office. The movie industry’s first blockbuster, D.W. Griffith’s "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), was also one its most incendiary. Criticized for its chummy depiction of the Ku Klux Klan, the film was widely boycotted, but also widely seen. So intense was the controversy, then-President Woodrow Wilson himself was moved to comment, "It is like writing history with lightning; my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."
Orson Welles’ "Citizen Kane" — widely considered the greatest American film ever produced — positively stewed in political controversy. Incensed by the unflattering depiction of his life, media magnate William Randolph Hearst did everything in his power to undermine the movie’s success. According to the PBS special "The Battle Over Citizen Kane," Hearst’s defenders used intimidation, blackmail, newspaper smears and FBI investigations to shut the movie down. They succeeded in at least one sense: "Citizen Kane" lost the 1941 Best Picture Oscar to "How Green Was My Valley," one of the most inexplicable snubs in Oscar history.
Sometimes, argumentative political movies have the opposite effect of the one intended, as with Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-laden 1991 thriller "JFK."
"My impression was the debate over JFK turned around after that movie," Kuntz says. "People became less impressed with the multiple gunmen theories. But the movie still did decent box office."
To find a modern film as stridently anti-regime as "Fahrenheit 9/11," filmgoers would traditionally have to go overseas. In Argentina, a film called "Social Genocide" recently ignited a brutal controversy. Directed by Fernando Solanas, the movie indicts by name members of the ruling government for corruption and mismanagement.
Only a short time ago, such a film would have been virtually unthinkable in Hollywood. Which begs the question: Will ‘‘Fahrenheit 9/11’’ have a real and verifiable effect on the upcoming presidential election in November, as those twitchy Disney executives seem to think? It seems possible. At least one conservative action group, Move America Forward, is urging theater chains to boycott Moore’s movie. Headed by former California assemblyman Howard Kaloogian, the organization trumpets its role in the successful campaign to pressure CBS to dump the network’s miniseries about Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
If Moore’s track-record is any indication, "Fahrenheit 9/11" is bound to make waves, but he seems to be ready. According to The New York Times, the filmmaker has hired Chris Lehane, a Democratic Party strategist and veteran of the Wesley Clark and John Kerry presidential campaigns, to set up a politicalstyle "war room" to respond to any attacks on the film’s accuracy.
Moore also has hired outside fact-checkers to vet the film.
When the smoke clears, the status of Hollywood films that talk politics should be in much sharper focus.
• After its official showing at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival last month, the movie was given the longest standing ovation in the history of the festival, an estimated 15 to 25 minutes.
• The film is only the second documentary to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It is the first American documentary to win.