Film and Election Politics Cross in ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’

Times Staff Writer

There are movie campaigns and there are presidential campaigns, and usually you can tell the difference. One features a red carpet, the other a war room.

But “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Michael Moore’s scathing new documentary about President Bush, has both.

Its release later this month appears to mark the first time that a film slamming a major presidential candidate has opened on screens across the nation in the final months of a campaign. At the same time, the movie is producing a global publicity extravaganza for Moore and Miramax Film founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who bought the film after Walt Disney Co. refused to let Miramax release it.

The scramble to bring the dark, often satirical film to U.S. movie screens is blending Hollywood and presidential politics in ways never seen in a race for the White House. While the filmmakers deny any overt effort to promote the candidacy of the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, their efforts fall clearly in sync with the campaign to unseat Bush.

To anticipate and fend off the criticism that already is brewing, Moore has set up a “war room” populated by former Clinton White House operatives plotting swift counterattacks on Bush supporters who question the film’s credibility.


To lead the effort, Moore has hired Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani, former political advisors to Bill Clinton and Al Gore. “Employing the Clinton strategy of ’92, we will allow no attack on this film to go without a response immediately,” Moore said Thursday. “And we will go after anyone who slanders me or my work, and we will do it without mercy. And when you think ‘without mercy,’ you think Chris Lehane.”

Moore also said he planned to use the film to register thousands of voters, and will stage screenings to benefit antiwar groups set up by families of U.S. troops in Iraq and victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

So far, the Bush reelection campaign has played down concerns about the film’s effect.

“Voters know fact from fiction coming from Hollywood,” said Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel. “It’s designed to entertain. American voters want fact, not fiction, when determining their vote. And everyone knows where Michael Moore is coming from.”

Others have been more aggressive in trying to discredit Moore, who attacked Bush from the Oscar podium when he won the feature documentary prize for his “Bowling for Columbine.”

Former President George H.W. Bush called Moore a “slimeball” last month, dismissing the upcoming film as “a vicious attack on our son,” according to the New York Daily News.

Joining Moore as chief promoter of the film is Harvey Weinstein, a top Democratic donor widely seen as the foremost strategist in Hollywood’s annual campaigns -- for Academy Awards. Over the last decade, Weinstein and Miramax have transformed the Oscar balloting into a bare-knuckle brawl resembling a political campaign, with costly ads and accusations of negative attacks dominating the race.

In the case of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the mounting publicity has followed a dream script. It grabbed the media spotlight last month with a New York Times story revealing that Disney was blocking its Miramax division from distributing Moore’s film. Moore’s agent, Ari Emanuel (whose brother, an Illinois congressman, is another former Clinton White House operative), charged in that story that Disney was concerned that releasing the movie would imperil tax breaks for the company’s ventures in Florida, where Bush’s brother is governor. Disney denied it, and said it had informed Miramax a year ago that it would be barred from releasing the film because of its partisan nature.

The story broke just before the Cannes Film Festival, where the documentary was a media and critical darling. It went on to win the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, and several weeks later, the Weinsteins purchased the movie themselves and lined up new distributors.

The film’s high profile has been rising ever since. To promote “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the producers are screening it in New York and Washington next week for opinion makers in media and politics. Television advertising begins this weekend on national cable, along with posters and trailers before such big-studio releases as “The Stepford Wives,” starring Nicole Kidman, and “The Chronicles of Riddick,” with Vin Diesel.

Larry Noble, former chief counsel of the Federal Election Commission, said the film’s ads, which are apt to paint Bush unfavorably, risked drawing complaints that campaign spending restrictions should apply to the movie’s promotion. But unless the ads run in the final 60 days of the campaign and specifically call for Bush’s defeat or the election of Kerry, he said, the commission is apt to reject the complaints.

“We’re not campaigning for or against any political candidates; we’re marketing a movie,” said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Releasing, which is distributing the movie with IFC Films.

Because the Weinstein brothers own the movie, they stand to make a windfall if the film is a commercial success. The film’s distributors will collect a fee based on its performance, but all profits will ultimately flow to the Weinsteins and Moore. The brothers purchased the film for about $6 million -- roughly what the documentary cost to make.

For Harvey Weinstein, the film offers a chance to profit while enhancing both his Hollywood standing and political clout. But he denies any overt political agenda.

“This is not about electing a candidate,” he said.

Praising the film’s artistic value, Weinstein said he had “shown the movie to people diametrically opposed to its politics who walked away questioning things.”

“I think it will have a huge influence on people’s minds,” said Weinstein, who also is a producer of upcoming Los Angeles and New York concerts to raise money for Kerry.

“Fahrenheit 9/11" casts a deeply unfavorable light on Bush’s handling of the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war, ridiculing him and his top advisors with footage that catches them in embarrassing moments clearly not intended for public viewing. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz uses spit to comb his hair; Bush jovially asks news crews to watch him swing a golf club seconds after sternly calling on the world’s nations “to do everything they can to stop terrorist killers.”

Moore, who closes the film with the message “Do Something,” is unabashed about his hope that the film will help dislodge Bush as president.

“I hope this country will be back in our hands in a very short period of time,” he told hundreds of invited guests at a celebrity-jammed Beverly Hills screening of the film on Tuesday. The screening was part of an ambitious and unusually fast rollout to get the movie into at least 650 theaters on June 25--and possibly several hundred more.

“Are we conducting this like a campaign? Yes, we are,” Moore said Thursday. “But it’s not a campaign for Kerry.”

How much influence the film might have is a matter of dispute. Bill Carrick, a Democratic campaign consultant, said its effect would be negligible. He likened it to the talk radio shows of Rush Limbaugh and other hosts whose listeners hold firm, unyielding opinions on Bush.

“I don’t think it’s a place where you’re going to persuade anybody -- a Michael Moore movie,” Carrick said. “The audience is too small. It’s a self-selecting group of people.”

But in an election where turning out core constituencies could be crucial to both Kerry and Bush, others see the film as a potent tool for motivating Democrats -- especially since Republicans are typically more reliable for showing up at the polls.

“Feeling motivated, to the extent you make that extra effort to vote on your way home from work -- that matters,” said Thomas Hollihan, a communications professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

That potential is not lost on Moore, who plans to offer ticket discounts and prizes to newly registered voters who see the film or visit his Web site. “If it can encourage the people who belong to the largest political party in America, the non-voter party, to leave that party behind and do the very minimum of what every citizen should do on Nov. 2, then I hope that will be seen as a significant contribution to this country,” he said.

A main target of the film is younger voters, who tend to turn out in low numbers. Studies have shown that younger voters increasingly get election information from non-traditional campaign media, such as late-night television comedy shows and the Internet.

“For younger people, who may or may not be all that interested in politics, these entertainment formats are a key way to bring them into the political discussion,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at Mary Washington College in Virginia.

Staff writer John Horn contributed to this report.