The White House preemptively gave the movie two thumbs down: "Outrageously false," said communications director Dan Bartlett, when he was asked about some of its allegations.
Sizzling! countered Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), who plans a teach-in at a Seattle theater to tap into the "anger brewing against this administration."
The director, Michael Moore, predicted half his audience for his new documentary will be nonvoters and 20 percent Republican, and that those on the fence will be off it and on his side when the last credits roll. A group called Move America Forward has begun a letter-writing campaign asking theaters not to show "Michael Moore's horrible anti-American movie."
All this before "Fahrenheit 9/11" has even officially opened.
"I can't think of any precedent for it in a presidential campaign," says Frances Lee, a political science professor at Case Western Reserve University. "As a marketing phenomenon it seems to echo 'The Passion [of the Christ]': intense enthusiasm, organized groups buying tickets with proselytizing zeal, the sense that one is getting something that corporate America wanted to stifle."
Then-candidate Bill Clinton's scolding of rapper Sister Souljah in 1992 also interjected a cultural moment into the race for president. But when "Fahrenheit 9/11" opens tomorrow in 900 theaters nationwide -- a record for a documentary film release -- it will represent a far more powerful collision of culture and politics: a major film aimed directly at President Bush and his policies on terrorism and Iraq.
"I did not set out to make a political film," Moore has said in several TV interviews. "The art of this, the cinema, comes before the politics."
"It's not a personal attack on the Bush family?" asked NBC's Matt Lauer last week.
"Oh yeah, it's that. If you'd have asked the question that way," replied Moore.
Moore, whose previous films took on General Motors and corporate America and the firearms industry, has borrowed all the techniques of modern political campaigns to promote this one. He hired master political operative Chris Lehane, a former adviser to Al Gore and Wesley Clark, to do publicity for the movie. He's lined up the equivalent of endorsements, from former New York governor Mario Cuomo, who says he'll do "anything possible to get this picture advanced," to labor activists, who "are anticipating the release of this movie as eagerly as evangelicals were anticipating the release of Mel Gibson's movie," says a spokesman for the California Labor Federation.
Last night's U.S. premiere at the Uptown in Cleveland Park brought Moore and his wife, Kathleen Glynn, Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, the movie's distributor, and the city's liberal establishment, including a dozen senators and a large contingent from the Congressional Black Caucus.
So strong is the appearance of a campaign that David Bossie, president of Citizens United, accuses Moore of violating federal elections laws. A movie? Violating election laws? "Moore has publicly indicated his goal is to impact this election," Bossie said.
'Fact and fiction'
Since Bartlett made his comments about the movie in an interview with the New York Times last month, the White House and Bush campaign spokesmen have said little about the film, conscious in hindsight that they gave former counterterrorism official Richard A. Clarke publicity a publisher couldn't buy when they attacked his book, "Against All Enemies," this spring.
"The American people can tell the difference between fact and fiction," says campaign spokesman Terry Holt. "This election is about serious issues, and I don't think most American voters consider Michael Moore a serious analyst of American politics."
Privately, however, some White House officials say they are in a bind about how to respond. Americans have always formed impressions of public figures from the movies; think Oliver Stone's "JFK," Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," Charlton Heston's portrayal of Moses. This time is different because the subject is living, unfolding history, four months before an election.
The documentary includes endless shots of Bush golfing, taking vacations and shaking hands with Saudi oil tycoons at fancy hotels. Moore revives the old pre-Iraq war stereotype of Bush as a hapless, inarticulate bungler but with a twist; Bush is portrayed as lazy, a failure of will and not genes.
"It's so easy to say that Bush is an idiot," Moore said in an interview yesterday. "But I don't say it. You just let his own words and his own pictures do it."
In one already infamous scene, the president is shown on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, just after an aide whispers to him that a second plane has hit the World Trade Center. He's sitting before an elementary school class, reading "My Pet Goat." He continues to sit with the children as seven minutes tick by, his expression tense but inscrutable.
"Was he wondering if maybe he should have showed up to work more often?" Moore's voice-over asks.
'This little filmmaker guy'
This may be a cheap shot, exaggerated, distorted, taken out of context, as the president's defenders argue. But even so, an image like this can stick. For just those reasons, one faction within the Bush camp argued for the Richard Clarke treatment -- blitzing the airwaves with administration officials to offer repetitive, factual-sounding point-by-point rebuttals.
But that faction lost. If a reporter asks President Bush about the movie, he plans to respond jokingly, one of his strategists said. "To take it on would give it too much credibility," the strategist said. "He's not going to get into a debate himself with this little filmmaker guy."
Moore doesn't think the strategy will work. "There's nothing the White House can do about it now," he said. "They're not going to be able to ignore it, because there's going to be too much conversation about it."
For their part, neither Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, nor anyone in his campaign has said anything about the movie out of concern that "we will get stuck with all that Michael Moore baggage," said one senior adviser.
At any rate, Moore hardly spares mainstream Democrats. He calls the party "weak-kneed and wimpy," and the movie shows Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who was at the Uptown last night, and former presidential candidate Richard Gephardt sitting on stools voicing their approval for the war.
"The movie poses a conundrum for John Kerry," Moore said. "You can't watch the last hour of this movie and leave the theater and not at least pose the question to him: How could you have voted for this war?"
In this latest movie Moore has been praised for having matured as a filmmaker, but his worldview hasn't changed much since "Roger and Me" -- history can be explained by tracing connections between rich people and their friends.
Much of the factual squabbling so far between Bush and Moore supporters involve the movie's portrayal of business relationships between the Bush and bin Laden families. Issues include whether Bush approved planes to carry Saudis, including bin Ladens, out of the country right after Sept. 11, 2001, before they could be interviewed and whether Salem bin Laden invested in Bush's Texas oil company. With his rapid editing, racing from fact to fact, Moore leaves the impression that Bush and his cronies stood to benefit not just from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but from Sept. 11.
But both Clarke and the 9/11 Commission have said investigators did nothing wrong by chartering those flights. And as for the oil investment: "Even if it happened, its significance is nothing," says Peter Bergen, author of "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden." "Salem couldn't be more different than Osama bin Laden. He loved the U.S. He spent a lot of time in Houston. He played guitar. He is the mirror image of Osama."
Another controversy arose over the portrayal of Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.) in the trailer, and later in the movie. In a throwback to his "Roger and Me" days, Moore went to Capitol Hill and stuck a microphone in the face of various congressmen to ask them whether they would help sign up their children to fight in Iraq. Most knew to duck Moore, but Kennedy was polite enough to stop.
In the movie Kennedy is shown seemingly trapped and afraid. In reality he explained to Moore that he has a nephew serving in Afghanistan and he would like to help in the recruiting effort, particularly for those congressmen who supported the war.
Portrayal of U.S. troops
When Kennedy complained about his portrayal, Moore responded with his trademark combination of literal-mindedness and aggression. On his Web site Moore prints the exchange between him and Kennedy but still says the film's portrayal is factually accurate. He then badgers Kennedy for failing to live up to his promise and actually ask members of Congress to sign up their kin.
A controversy that hasn't yet erupted is over Moore's portrayal of U.S. troops. In the movie they badger civilians, women and children included. They taunt prisoners. They listen to a heavy metal song, "Fire Water Burn," as Iraq burns behind them.
Paul Rieckhoff fought in Iraq for a year and came back to start "Operation Truth" to tell Americans that war is not some video game. MoveOn touted him as a spokesman because he admires Moore and wanted to see the movie.
"It's thought-provoking. Sensational. Will really energize conversation," he said after he saw it. "It's obviously slanted in one way, so if you take it as your only source of information that would be pretty narrow. But some people will love it, some will hate it."
But, he added, "I'm ticked off at the way he portrays soldiers. It really makes them look stupid, like these testosterone-enraged mindless killers, like a bunch of barbarians. I'm going to tell him that."
To the young veterans of the Howard Dean campaign, graduates of Rock the Vote and an older generation of Bush haters who are well aware of his flaws, Moore still carries the hope of reaching out to a larger audience.
Moore is not a registered Democrat; he styles himself as more of a populist. Although he lives on New York's Upper West Side now, his heart is in Flint, Mich., he always says, where he grew up as the son of an autoworker.
"Yes, he's a celebrity of the left, but he can also reach up and appeal to a broad cross section of Americans," says Adam Ruben, field director for MoveOn PAC, which is organizing voter registration drives around theaters showing the movie. "That's what makes this film more important."
But Moore said he doesn't mind preaching to the choir.
"I'm very happy to speak to them because that choir has been asleep," Moore says. "Many of them have turned into cynics who have just decided to sit on the sidelines. If I can give them a song to sing as they leave the theater and become active once again, that's a good thing."
And even if he is preaching to his choir "the timing is exquisite," says presidential historian Robert Dallek. "He's catching Bush right when he's on the defensive, when Bush is stumbling badly in Iraq."