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U.S.: 'Fahrenheit 9/11' Fans Political Controversy

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The U.S. presidential campaign is set to heat up today as a controversial new documentary by director Michael Moore opens in cinemas across America. "Fahrenheit 9/11" has been described as a scathing but funny critique of the Bush administration's war on terrorism and in Iraq. And after winning the top prize at the recent Cannes Film Festival in France, it is also emerged at the heart of a debate over propaganda and censorship ahead of this November's U.S. presidential elections.

Prague, 25 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Depending on whom you ask, Michael Moore's film is either an honest portrayal of the facts behind the Bush administration's foreign policy or a smear campaign to hasten Bush's departure from the White House.

"Fahrenheit 9/11" is generating major controversy as Americans decide whether to vote for Bush or Democratic rival John Kerry in November elections. It opens today in 700 cinemas across America -- an unprecedented number for a documentary.

Using stock footage, interviews, and commentary, the two-hour movie depicts Bush as lazy and oblivious to warnings ahead of the 11 September 2001 attacks on America that Al-Qaeda was ready to strike. A similar allegation was made recently by Richard Clarke, Bush's former counterterrorism chief, and denied by White House officials.
"In the same way as a newspaper columnist works, I think he unashamedly puts across a partisan argument. I believe 'Fahrenheit 9/11' has a kind of 'Trojan horse' agenda to get to audiences who don't read broadsheet newspapers."

Mixing such serious charges with slapstick comedy, Moore presents his thesis in the following clip from the film. After Moore's opening comments, the clip shows Bush making solemn remarks about the war on terror while engaged in the less-than-solemn act of playing golf.

Moore says wryly, "With everything going wrong, [U.S. President George W. Bush] did what any of us would do. He went on vacation."

The song "Vacation," by the band the Go-Gos, plays while video shows President Bush on vacation.

Bush is seen standing on a golf course, talking to journalists. "We must stop the terror,” Bush says. “I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive."

The Iraq war takes up a good portion of the film, which takes its name from a famous novel about a horrific future, "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury, and "9/11," the common abbreviation for the 11 September attacks. Moore told U.S. television this week the film shows growing U.S. dissatisfaction with the war on terror and the Iraq campaign.

"And you'll see this when you see the movie -- soldier after soldier [in Iraq] saying that they're disillusioned, they're dissatisfied, they're opposed to the war, they won't go back -- even if it means going to jail, they won't go back. That's what this movie says. I turned my film over to our soldiers, so that they could speak for the first time to the American people, so that the American people can hear them," Moore said.

The film also makes what several critics call spurious allegations of Bush family ties to prominent Saudis, including the family of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.

Bush supporters say it's blatantly aimed at discrediting the president ahead of the elections. They are seeking to pressure cinemas not to run the film and to get ads for it banned from TV under a law that restricts political ads during election campaigns.

One such group, Move America Forward, says the film is better suited to show at Al-Qaeda training camps than U.S. cinemas. It also alleges that the militant group Hizbullah has endorsed the film.

Others say Moore twists some facts and leaves out others in order to support his thesis.

But film critic Stephen Dalton of "The Times" in London says no one should expect objectivity from Moore -- "heavily slanted argument" is one of his trademarks.

"In the same way as a newspaper columnist works, I think he unashamedly puts across a partisan argument. I believe 'Fahrenheit 9/11' has a kind of 'Trojan horse' agenda to get to audiences who don't read broadsheet newspapers, don't go to see high-brow documentaries. He wants to reach the swing voters, the blue-collar workers, the potential Bush voters who might be turned away from Bush. It's quite a well-designed product in that way. So objectivity -- in the sense that maybe a more serious journalist would understand it -- is not high on his agenda," Dalton said.

The film's supporters accuse its critics of seeking to censor the basic American right to free speech.

And a host of opposition Democrats praised the film after previewing it this week in Washington. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa said it's important for Americans to see the movie to get an "unvarnished presentation" of the facts behind the policies of the Bush White House.

While that is debatable, Moore acknowledges that the controversy surrounding the film is only making people more interested in seeing it.

"The right-wing says, 'Not only are we not going to see it, we're going to try and prevent people in all of these little towns across America from seeing it, too.' And you know, that is so anti-American. It's so repulsive to the way most Americans think and feel and they've only done this film a huge favor. I can't thank them enough because the publicity it's given the film -- I couldn't even put a dollar amount on it," Moore said.

But cinemas in New York City can. In a preview this week, two major cinemas each said it made tens of thousands of dollars -- breaking single-day records for both movie houses.

(RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Moore contributed to this report.)