When President Bush called on Americans to "finish the work of the fallen" in Iraq, he did not expect that filmmaker Michael Moore would answer.
Moore has more than answered. He has responded with a vengeance in "Fahrenheit 9/11," a blistering documentary that charges the administration with aiding war profiteers in Iraq while failing its soldiers and was reportedly conceived expressly to drive Bush from the White House.
No, no, that wasn't the main objective, corrects Moore by phone from New York, where he's readying "Fahrenheit" for its national rollout Friday.
"The primary goal was to make a good movie," explains the director, whose documentary won top honors at the Cannes Film Festival last month.
"The secondary goal: the complete and entire removal of the Bush family and their associates from Washington come November."
Its salvos at the president and at his father-suggesting that the links between the Bush family and the Saudi royal family have put oil politics ahead of human rights-make "Fahrenheit" compulsory viewing for those on either side of the war in Iraq. But it's the undecideds whom Moore is courting.
"I've shown it to people of various political stripes, and those on the fence when they walk in are off the fence when they walk out," says the confrontational filmmaker, whose "Bowling for Columbine," a look at America's gun-crazy culture, won an Oscar in 2003 for best documentary.
The White House and the Republican National Committee have taken a "no comment" approach to Moore's film.
As of Wednesday, the film's distributor reported that "Fahrenheit" would open on more than 500 screens. The distributor has said that it hopes the movie will eventually reach 1,000 screens, a record number for a documentary.
Between the number of screens and the enormous level of publicity, some suggest that "Fahrenheit" could surpass "Columbine's" $22 million gross to become the most commercially successful documentary ever.
Whatever the public response to "Fahrenheit 9/11," the buzz surrounding the release is fascinating, says Tejaswini Ganti, who teaches anthropology of mass media at Connecticut College.
"What's interesting about Michael Moore is his personality, that he's able to attract this kind of attention," she says. "Other people are saying the same kind of thing. But he does it with humor."
Given government restrictions on the media covering the war, it was a challenge for Moore to assemble his material.
"Some footage was foreign-shot and shown on foreign television, but not on U.S. outlets," he begins. "Some footage was shot by U.S. television and not shown here, but obtained through people of conscience. Some of it was from freelancers, some from soldiers," Moore says.
"From day one, my attitude was [that] I would not be deterred, I was not going to let the military stage-manage the war, I was not going to participate in the ruse of being `embedded.' The media weren't embedded, they were `in bed with,'" Moore says.
"The media were cheerleaders for this war. No one asked the serious questions. It was disgraceful. So I figured out how to do end-runs around the system."
Moore's motivations in making "Fahrenheit" go back to his childhood in Michigan, where he saw how the media in different nations portray world affairs differently. "I grew up near the Canadian border and watched the Canadian reports about the Vietnam War, and it wasn't what Americans saw.... So the American audience, when they see this film, they've been kept in the dark. They're not showing these things on TV in America."
Perhaps the most upsetting sequences in "Fahrenheit" show American soldiers near Samarra in December, taunting caged and hooded Iraqi detainees in a holding tank.
Those shocked by recently released images of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison might wonder why Moore didn't come forward with these images earlier.
"There's no one I'd have entrusted that footage to," he says, his tone uncharacteristically subdued. "I wanted to present it in my film, in my context, in a way that wasn't mind-numbing and tabloidish."
Moore also withheld a 20-minute interview his crew had with Nicholas Berg, the 26-year-old telecom worker whose videotaped beheading in Iraq stunned the world in May. None of the exchange, conducted at a U.S. job fair in December, was included in the final cut. When the news came of his death, Moore gave copies of the video to Berg's family.
"The media begged for it, offered to pay a lot of money for it," Moore says. "But we thought the Berg family should have its privacy."
A Michael Moore filmography
'Roger and Me' (1989)
Synopsis: Moore tries to get an interview with General Motors CEO Roger Smith to confront him about the destitute state of Moore's hometown of Flint, Mich. General Motors shut down its plant in Flint, resulting in the loss of 30,000 jobs. Moore never gets the interview but does get ushered out of more than a few corporate offices, which proved just as effective in the context of the film.
Controversy: "Roger and Me" proved a huge commercial success, but critics-most notably Pauline Kael in The New Yorker-accused him of rearranging facts and ordering them in a way that best proved his point. It's a charge that has been leveled against Moore after each of his films. Moore only says that the facts he presents in his movies are real.
'The Big One' (1997)
Synopsis: On tour to promote his book, "Downsize This," Moore engages more of corporate America in a rambling documentary that slaps together scenes with Moore's trademark wit. At one point, Moore sends political donations to each of the major candidates in the 1996 presidential elections from groups with names like "Satan Worshippers for Dole" and happily reports that each campaign cashed his check without question. And he tries, without much success, to ambush CEOs at companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Nike and PayDay.
Controversy: "The Big One" didn't achieve the notoriety of "Roger and Me," and so criticism of the film was much more muted. Instead, Moore stepped into the cross hairs, as the self-proclaimed everyman filmmaker was revealed to have moved from Flint to posh new digs in Manhattan after "Roger and Me" became a hit.
'Bowling for Columbine' (2002)
Synopsis: Moore takes aim at America's gun lobby in his Oscar-winning documentary, choosing the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado as his focus. Moore argues that America, unlike other industrialized countries, has fostered a gun-crazy culture. The movie climaxes with an interview between Moore and actor Charlton Heston, the face of the National Rifle Association. Needless to say, the interview is not a very flattering one.
Controversy: By now Moore's critics were ready to dissect his work scene by scene. Not only is "Bowling for Columbine" biased, they argue, but it deliberately distorts facts and deceives the audience. As with "Roger and Me," Moore is skewered for robbing TV and film footage of any context unless it augments his claims.
'Fahrenheit 9/11' (2004)
Synopsis: Moore ups the ante even higher in his examination of both Bush administrations, their ties to Saudi Arabia and this reported relationship's effect on President Bush's response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The film will likely be Moore's most-seen, and its most-scrutinized.
Controversy: Former President George H. W. Bush has already labeled the film as a personal attack on his son. Moore's objectivity as a documentary filmmaker will certainly be called into question, especially after his tirade against the current President Bush while accepting his Oscar for "Bowling for Columbine."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun