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Moore defends incendiary film

"Fahrenheit 9/11" doesn't have any big stars or high-tech effects, but it's likely to be the most explosive movie of the summer. Critics say it's unfair, that it's a smear campaign. NBC's Matt Lauer talks to filmmaker Michael Moore.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

Matt Lauer: "The White House communications director said of your film, it is so outrageously false it's not even worth commenting. The 41st President of the United States, the president's father, called you, I think you probably heard this, a slime ball."

Michael Moore: "Have they seen it? Have they seen the film? No. Of course they haven't. I will tell you they haven't seen it. These are un-credible reviews from people who haven't even seen the movie."

The film is "Fahrenheit 9/11," and as the title suggests, it's meant to be incendiary. Filmmaker Michael Moore serves up a scathing critique of President Bush and his foreign policy. Moore has made a career of taking on the powerful, setting his sights on corporate America in "Roger and Me" and the gun lobby in "Bowling for Columbine."

But this time, the stakes are even higher. After all, it's no coincidence that it's an election year. Variety called "Fahrenheit 9/11," "a blatant cinematic 2004 campaign pamphlet." But Moore insists that was not his intention.

Lauer: "You accepted the Palm D'Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival. It's a huge honor, especially for a film like this. And you said, I think the quote was, ‘I did not set out to make a political film. The art of this, the cinema, comes before the politics.’"

Moore: "That's right. That's absolutely right."

Lauer: "I'm amazed you said it with a straight face."

Moore: "Why is that, why?"

Lauer: "Because I think there is politics in every single frame of this movie."

Moore: "Oh, of course there is. Don't misunderstand me. There's politics right now in this discussion. There's politics in all aspects of our daily lives."

Lauer: "But you didn't set out to poke a sharp stick in the eye of the Bush administration and the Bush family?"

Moore: "That's part of what I'm doing. But most importantly, listen, if I just wanted to -- if it was just about the politics, if that was my primary motivation, politics, I would, you know, suspend what I'm doing right now and get out on a campaign trail."

Lauer: "Some people say that's what you've done."

Moore: "Or maybe I should be running for office this year. I mean if politics was my main motivation I would be doing politics. But I'm a filmmaker. First and foremost the art has to come before the politics otherwise, you don't get -- the politics don't work."

Moore may downplay the politics, but the political nature of the film almost derailed it. Because of the content, the Walt Disney Co. refused to release it, suddenly leaving Moore without a distributor.

Lauer: "Disney decided they didn't want to distribute it. And basically, you accused them of censorship. Why?"

Moore: "Well, because they had made this movie. I mean for a year they sent me a check every month so I could make this film. And this was all with the intent of, you know, this film's going to be distributed. To find out just weeks before it's supposed to come out, after Disney sends an executive here to New York, sits in my office, watches the movie and he's like, 'whoa,' you know, and then reports back. Then they have a board meeting the next week, and they say, you know, 'No. There's no way we're going to distribute this.'"

Lauer: "It's their right, though. They're a distribution company."

Moore: "That's right."

Lauer: "You know what? They paid you? The checks cleared and they can look at it and say, you know what? This is not the kind of movie we want to distribute right now. Maybe it's too political. Maybe it won't attract a wide enough audience. It's their right."

Moore: "It's their right. Except here's the difference. It's not government censorship. It's censorship by a corporation. And we're at a point now, Matt, where we have fewer and fewer companies owning all our media. I mean here we are at NBC, which just bought Universal, which is owned by GE. As you have fewer and fewer voices in a democracy, in a free society, it's not good to limit the number of voices."

Disney defends 'business decision'
Disney's CEO, Michael Eisner denied the censorship charges, saying that it was a business decision that, "In the case of ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ we chose a path that was right for the company and its stakeholders."

Disney agreed to sell the rights to "Fahrenheit 9/11" to Miramax co-founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who found two distributors willing to release it in theatres.

Lauer: "The Weinstein brothers of Miramax bought the film back. And now Harvey Weinstein is a Democratic organizer. He does fund-raisers for John Kerry."

Moore: "Yeah."

Lauer: "And you've hired a couple of seasoned Clinton politicos to handle publicity and marketing for the film. So at this stage on, will you concede, it is now a sharply political movie with a very definitive point of view."

Moore: "It definitely has a point of view, that's absolutely correct. But I'm not a member of the Democratic Party. If you know anything about me, anybody who's followed me, I'm the anti-Democrat. I have railed against the Democrats for a long time. They have been a weak-kneed, wimpy party that hasn't stood up to the Republicans. They let the working people down across this country. I rallied against Clinton when he was in office. I didn't vote for him in ‘96. I didn't vote for Gore in 2000. This is not a partisan issue with me, this is not me trying to –"

Lauer: "Not a personal attack on the Bush family."

Moore: "Oh yeah. It's that. If you'd asked the question that way."

Not against Democrats or Republicans, just Bush family
Yes, the attack is personal and Moore doesn't hold back, criticizing President Bush's work habits in the months leading up to September 11. Moore also questions the Bush family's relationship with the Saudis, suggesting that because of close business and personal ties, special treatment was given to members of the bin Laden family after the September 11 attacks. In his film, Moore claims that those bin Laden relatives living in the United States were allowed to leave the country without being properly interviewed by authorities.

Moore: "They were asked for their passports. They were asked a couple of questions and that's it."

Lauer: "The 9/11 Commission perhaps disputes that."

Moore: "No they don't."

Lauer: "They say 22 of 26 people on those flights were interviewed."

Moore: "They have not issued a final report on that."

Lauer: "It's not final, but let me read you what it says: ‘The Saudi flights were screened by law enforcement officials, primarily the FBI, to ensure that people on these flights did not pose a threat to national security.’ It goes on to say 22 of the 26 people on the bin Laden flight were interviewed. This information was released in April. Your final cut of the movie doesn't have that in it."

Moore: "Well, just they way you just edited that. Why don't you read there were over 140 Saudis that were allowed to leave the country in these days after 9/11 and of the 140, only 30 were interviewed? They got special help. They were put first in line because of this relationship between the Bush family and the Saudi royal family and I wish somebody would just say that."

How accurate is Moore's information?
But the bipartisan 9/11 Commission supports the FBI's conclusion that, "Nobody was allowed to depart on these six flights who the FBI wanted to interview in connection with the 9/11 attacks, or who the FBI later concluded had any involvement in those attacks." The Commission report states that: "To date we have uncovered no evidence to contradict this conclusion."

And former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke, one of President Bush's most outspoken critics, says authorizing the Saudi flights was the right decision, and it came from him.

Lauer: "He's quoted as saying, 'I take responsibility for it. I don't think it was a mistake and I'd do it again.' He called the furor over the flights a tempest in a teapot."

Moore: "That's his position."

Lauer: "OK, but you didn't put those comments in the movie."

Moore: "Well, he didn't say that. He wrote that in his book."

Lauer: "Well, that has been out for a couple of months."

Moore: "Look, he took the word of the FBI. He took the word of the FBI in those days after 9/11. And he thinks he didn't make a mistake is what he said."

But much of the movie focuses on what happened after 9/11. The film accuses the president of using the attacks to wage war on Iraq, and contains graphic combat footage that hasn't been seen on American television.

Lauer: "There's a disturbing sequence in the film that shows U.S. soldiers, casualties, it has interviews with U.S. soldiers in battle. How did you get that footage?"

Moore: "From a variety of sources. I also made arrangements with freelancers who were already embedded. I made arrangements."

Lauer: "I mean, knowing how hard it was to get embedding privileges prior to the war, under what circumstances did you gain those privileges? Did you misrepresent?"

Moore: "I'm not going to say how we got in there."

Lauer: "Do you think that the soldiers thought they were talking to a film crew that was working with –"

Moore: "Some of them did and some of them didn't."

Lauer: "Do you think that's fair?"

Moore: "Well, I think it's fair that the American people know what's going on."

Decision not to release abuse footage
Yet Moore himself willingly held back a critical piece of his own footage.

Lauer: "There some images in your movie of an American soldier taunting and I guess sexually humiliating a detainee. Tell me how you got the footage, and when you got the footage."

Moore: "It was shot on December 12, outside of Basra by a freelance journalist. This is out in the field, now. This is not in the prison."

Lauer: "So you had your hands on this before the images from Abu Ghraib were made public."

Moore: "That's correct."

Lauer: "There's a decision to make there, on your part."

Moore: "I know. It was a really tough decision. And we're putting the film together and we're trying to decide what should we do here?"

Lauer: "But a critic would say, hey, send it to the right person a couple of months before these other photos go out and maybe –"

Moore: "Who's the right person?"

Lauer: "Send it to the Department of Defense, send it to someone and say, look I’ve got this, you guys better know about this."

Moore: "I'm at a point where I don't trust the mainstream media. I'm like most Americans at this point. We don't trust."

Lauer: "But you're setting yourself up for a cynic to take an immediate shot."

Moore: "I know."

Lauer: "And say hey, he held on to this because he wanted to promote a movie."

Moore: "Had I released it before we went to Cannes, this is what you guys would have said: Oh, he's just doing this as a publicity stunt. Look at this."

Lauer: "It would have all been in the tone."

Moore says it's the mainstream media that should be questioned, accusing some members of the press of being cheerleaders for the war.

Moore: "You know I've been sitting here for like the last 20 minutes thinking, man, if he would have only asked Bush administration officials these kind of hard questions in the weeks leading up to the war, and then when the war started, maybe there wouldn't be a war. Because the American people, once given the truth, you know the old saying from Abraham Lincoln, give the people the facts and the Republic will be safe."

"Fahrenheit 9/11" opens nationwide June 25, released in between 500 and 1,000 theaters, making it one of the biggest openings ever for a documentary. However, Moore says it's not about the box office, but the Oval Office, and provoking debate in this election year.

Lauer: "There is so much political animosity in this country right now, such a deep divide, black and white. And you know the expression, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem? With a movie like this, do you see yourself as part of the solution?"

Moore: "Oh, I hope so. If I can just -- if I do nothing else but just get people out to vote, regardless who they vote for, if I can get that 50 percent, or part of that 50 percent out that has chosen not to vote, to engage and to come back in and care about what's going on, then I will feel like I've done something important."