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In 2004, ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ Became the Mostly Unlikely Summer Blockbuster Ever

Michael Moore didn’t want George W. Bush to win a second presidential term. So he decided to make a documentary about him. It turned into a sensation, but it failed in its mission.

Sadly, we didn’t get a summer movie season this year. But all is not lost. Each Friday, we’re presenting “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, strangest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. Maybe it will be a celebration of an iconic film or actor. Perhaps it will be a ranking of every single Oscar-nominated performance. Or, like today, it will be a look back at a documentary that topped the box office and tried to get President George W. Bush voted out of office.

In September, Showtime will be premiering The Comey Rule, a limited series about the contentious relationship between Donald Trump (Brendan Gleeson) and former FBI director James Comey (Jeff Daniels). But that release date was arrived at only after some tense back-and-forth. Initially, the plan was that the drama would air before the presidential election, but a few months ago, the network announced it would push The Comey Rule to late November, angering writer-director Billy Ray, who wrote a letter apologizing to his cast:

“I know what a disappointment this is to you. It is for me too — because while I’ve made movies about my country before, this was the first time I ever made a movie for my country. We all were hoping to get this story in front of the American people months before the coming election.”

Showtime has since reversed that decision — the series will debut on September 27th — but what’s remarkable is that this is one of the rare times in which a Hollywood production has been undertaken specifically to affect a presidential election. Ray and his cast clearly feel that if enough people see The Comey Rule, Trump will get voted out of office.

Whether or not Ray’s right, The Comey Rule brought to mind the most famous example of a movie whose express purpose was influencing an upcoming election. That it ended up being the highest-grossing documentary of all time — not to mention probably the most unlikely summer blockbuster ever — only adds extra layers of strangeness to the story of Fahrenheit 9/11.

By the early 2000s, Michael Moore was no stranger to celebrity and controversy. Launching onto the scene with 1989’s Roger & Me — an impassioned takedown of General Motors, which had closed plants in his blue-collar hometown of Flint, Michigan, devastating the community — the journalist-turned-documentarian delivered one of the great late-Reagan-era diatribes about a decade of expanding greed and a shrinking middle class. In the process, Moore became a folk hero — a seemingly regular guy with glasses and an omnipresent ballcap who championed the little guy, his personality sometimes a bigger attraction than his subsequent work. 

In fact, it wasn’t until 2002’s Bowling for Columbine, a scattered but passionate examination of American violence and gun control, that he captured the zeitgeist again with such bravado. The film was, by documentary standards, a huge hit, grossing almost $22 million and winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary. When his name was called at the Oscars on March 23, 2003, he had his fellow nominees come up on stage with him. Then he did something that was, at that time, fairly controversial, even in Hollywood: He lambasted the invasion of Iraq, which had begun just a few days before. He also ripped President George W. Bush, who many had felt stole the 2000 election

“We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times,” Moore declared. “We live in a time where we have fictitious election results that elects [sic] a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons.” Some people in the room actually booed Moore. (Longtime Oscar joke writer Bruce Vilanch, who was in attendance, later said that he thought the booing came mostly from “stagehands … because they’re all dyed-in-the-wool red-state guys.”) Regardless, it was incredible television.

Moore’s anger at Bush for his Supreme Court-assisted presidential victory and thoughtless attack of Iraq provided the fuel for his next movie, which was going to tackle both topics. Just a few days after his Oscar speech, Variety ran a story talking about his follow-up project, which (according to the article) would “depict the murky relationship between President Bush’s father and the family of Osama bin Laden. And it will suggest that the bin Laden family was greatly enriched by that association.” 

The movie, called Fahrenheit 911 at that time, was marketed as an exposé built around a year of research Moore had done. “The primary thrust of the new film is what has happened to the country since September 11th, and how the Bush administration used this tragic event to push its agenda,” Moore told Variety. “It certainly does deal with the Bush and bin Laden ties. It asks a number of questions that I don’t have the answers to yet, but which I intend to find out.”

Even then, Moore planned on having his film — whose title was an inelegant reference to Ray Bradbury’s classic book Fahrenheit 451, the temperature at which books supposedly catch on fire — out in time for the 2004 presidential election. And he wanted it to convince voters to throw Bush out of office. “[T]he majority of Americans agree with me, see the economy in the toilet and didn’t vote for George W.,” Moore said in that Variety piece. “People are now realizing you can question your government while still caring about the soldiers. We are all still filled with rage over September 11th and have every right to seek vengeance on the bad guy. But not any old bad guy.”

By early 2004, it seemed a certainty that Bush would lose. His job approval had been dropping steadily, Osama bin Laden had still not been captured, we were still in Iraq — we hadn’t been greeted as liberators after all — and, oh right, Bush had actually lost the popular vote in 2000 to Al Gore. In a lot of our minds, he was an illegitimate president clearly in over his head. Surely John Kerry could defeat him.

Such an atmosphere is important to remember in order to appreciate the anticipation surrounding Moore’s film, what was eventually retitled Fahrenheit 9/11. Few documentaries generate the sort of buzz that’s usually associated with Star Wars sequels. Indeed, Moore’s film was being positioned as one of America’s most controversial directors laying waste to a corrupt president once and for all. In the spring of 2004, Fahrenheit 9/11 was selected to be part of the official competition at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, an honor afforded to very few nonfiction films. Lots of movies come out, but sight unseen, Fahrenheit 9/11 just seemed different. It seemed important. 

Right before Cannes got underway that May, however, the movie hit a weird snag: Miramax, the celebrated arthouse label that was planning on distributing Fahrenheit 9/11 that summer, was told by its Disney bosses that it couldn’t release the film. The assumption was that the family-friendly studio didn’t want anything to do with something so potentially controversial, although Disney reps insisted that they’d made it clear a year earlier they wouldn’t be putting out Fahrenheit 9/11. (“In May 2003, the Walt Disney Company communicated to Miramax and Mr. Moore’s representatives that Miramax would not be the distributor of his film,” a Disney spokeswoman said in early May of 2004. “Contrary to his assertions, Mr. Moore has had and continues to have every opportunity to either find another distributor or distribute the film himself.”) 

Regardless, that news on the eve of Cannes made Fahrenheit 9/11 a cause célèbre — a readymade illustration (if one sought such a thing) of how evil corporations cave to political pressure and suppress Truth and Art. And because Moore is an excellent self-promoter, he knew exactly how to spin the story to his advantage. “Some people may be afraid of this movie because of what it will show,” he wrote in a blog post. “But there’s nothing they can do about it now because it’s done, it’s awesome, and if I have anything to say about it, you’ll see it this summer — because, after all, this is a free country.”

The attention directed toward Fahrenheit 9/11 made Moore one of the belles of that year’s Cannes, and he ended up walking away with the Palme d’Or as the competition’s best film as voted on by a jury headed by Quentin Tarantino. It was easy to be cynical and accuse Tarantino of influencing his fellow jury members to vote for Moore — basically the outspoken filmmaker doing a solid for his old pal Harvey Weinstein, then the head of Miramax — but when the Pulp Fiction auteur saw Moore at the awards ceremony, he reportedly whispered, “I just want you to know it was not because of the politics that you won this award. You won it because we thought it was the best film that we saw.”

Only one of three American films to have won the Palme this century, Fahrenheit 9/11 (which also took home Cannes’ FIPRESCI critics prize) landed a new distributor and the kind of publicity any low-budget director would kill for. (Speaking to The Washington Post, an unnamed studio rival predicted that the film “has money written all over it.”) A month later, on June 25th, the movie debuted in about 870 theaters, an incredibly large amount of screens for a documentary. (Most times, four or five theaters for your opening weekend is considered a high-profile rollout.) Take it from someone who saw the film on its opening weekend in a big, sold-out venue in L.A.: Fahrenheit 9/11 was, in its own way, an event movie akin to a new Avengers installment. It had that kind of electricity in the theater. (Sure, this was the liberal haven of L.A., but still, it felt momentous.)

Before the world finally got to see Fahrenheit 9/11, there was an expectation that Moore would be front and center in it. After all, that had been the case since Roger & Me, which very much focused on the “me” in the title: the affable, morally outraged Michael Moore who served as our surrogate. Moore’s regular-joe routine quickly became a heavy influence on documentary filmmaking. Alongside fellow in-front-of-the-camera auteur Nick Broomfield, he inspired younger directors like Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) to combine investigative work with first-person commentary. But when Moore was in the midst of his Cannes triumph, he claimed he wasn’t that interested in being the center of attention.

“I didn’t set out to be a celebrity,” he said. “I have never really been comfortable with being well-known. I’ve felt that a little bit of me goes a long way — I don’t want to dominate the subject matter.”

Which might explain why Fahrenheit 9/11, for all its strengths and weaknesses, is so startling precisely because of how little Moore is in it. Unlike the initial speculation, the documentary wasn’t so much about the Bushes’ connection to bin Laden’s family. Rather, it was a more sweeping — and, because it’s a Michael Moore documentary, a little disjointed — exploration of the Bush administration’s failures, the Patriot Act, the Iraq War and the general sense that the country had entered a nightmare state since Dubya stole the 2000 election. 

Roger & Me remains his triumph — it’s back when Moore didn’t find his shtick so adorable — but Fahrenheit 9/11 felt like an honest, anguished reflection of what a lot of us felt about America at that time. And unlike Bowling for Columbine, where Moore’s cutesiness constantly undermines his arguments, this new film felt appropriately sober and angry. Moore’s relative absence from the screen spoke to the seriousness of the subject matter, letting other people — especially heartbroken mother Lila Lipscomb, whose soldier son was killed in the Iraq War, forever changing her view of that conflict — speak more eloquently than he could. Fahrenheit 9/11 was one of the rare times in a Moore film where he didn’t seem like the star.

Michael Moore and Lila Lipscomb

Moore’s film opened the same weekend as White Chicks and The Notebook, besting them to land at No. 1 at the box office, even though it was on far fewer screens than its competition. In its second weekend, Fahrenheit 9/11 was in about twice as many theaters and ended up No. 2, tailing behind the debut of Spider-Man 2, the sort of blockbuster you normally see dominating the multiplex in the summertime. During its widest release, Fahrenheit 9/11 was on a little more than 2,000 screens, ultimately grossing about $119 million. No other nonfiction film has ever made more than $80 million in the U.S. (It earned another $103 million overseas.) Those are remarkable totals for a documentary that existed chiefly as a campaign ad. “The primary goal was to make a good movie,” Moore said. “The secondary goal: the complete and entire removal of the Bush family and their associates from Washington come November.” 

Conservatives didn’t take too kindly to Moore’s assault. David Bossie, head of the right-leaning Citizens United, argued that Moore had violated federal election laws because he “publicly indicated his goal is to impact this election.” Scott Stanzel, a Bush campaign spokesman, told the Los Angeles Times, “Voters know fact from fiction coming from Hollywood. It’s designed to entertain. American voters want fact, not fiction, when determining their vote. And everyone knows where Michael Moore is coming from.”

As popular as Fahrenheit 9/11 was, stirring up anti-Bush sentiment and poking plenty of fun at his gaffes and dopiest moments, it couldn’t entirely distract from the fact that Moore wasn’t actually the biggest Kerry supporter — or a fan of the Democrats in general. As Emily Schultz points out in her Michael Moore biography, the filmmaker had voted for Ralph Nader in that contentious 2000 election. Plus, prior to Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, Moore had described the Vietnam vet and U.S. senator as “a billionaire who wants to buy the presidency.” In her book, Schultz notes, “A senior advisor for the Kerry campaign stated that they shouldn’t even acknowledge the film’s existence lest they ‘get stuck with all that Michael Moore baggage.’” 

The snub seemed to irk Moore. “I have not publicly endorsed Kerry,” he said that summer. “I don’t want them to [ask me to help with the campaign]. I haven’t reached out to them either. I don’t want to. It’s not my job. My job is to inform the American people about what this president has done to this country.”

As you no doubt know, whatever impact Fahrenheit 9/11 had, it didn’t succeed in ushering Kerry into the White House. Bush won reelection — this time he got more overall votes than his opponent as well — and by next year’s Oscars, host Chris Rock was making jokes about Moore’s movie. “I saw Fahrenheit 9/11,” he said in his opening monologue. “I think Bush is a genius. … Bush basically reapplied for his job this year. Now could you imagine applying for a job and while you’re applying for that job there’s a movie in every theater in the country that shows how much you suck at that job?”

It was a good bit with a bitter aftertaste: Fahrenheit 9/11 was essentially right about Bush, and it hadn’t made a difference. 

To my mind, Moore has never made anything so focused or accomplished since. Especially in recent years, he seems to have retreated within himself, churning out documentaries that feel less inspired and more intellectually dodgy. (It’s not like Fahrenheit 9/11 wasn’t hit with complaints about factual inaccuracy, either.) These days, Moore feels more like a caricature than the passionate muckraker he used to be. That was never clearer than with 2018’s Fahrenheit 11/9, which was meant to be a comparable assault on our current Republican president. The movie, feeble and familiar, sank at the box office without a trace. If in 2004 Moore was riding the crest of his popularity and a cultural moment, 14 years later it was clear that moment was long over.

In 2015, A.V. Club critic A.A. Dowd pondered Fahrenheit 9/11’s legacy: “Love it or hate it, Fahrenheit 9/11 really was a movie of the moment — a transmission from the cultural front lines, a call to action with real political stakes.” It’s actually hard to find the movie streaming today. (As of this writing, it’s available only as part of a Showtime or DirectTV subscription.) But that’s weirdly fitting: At a time when so many in this country are inexplicably revising their impression of George W. Bush — too readily painting him as a sweet, simple man who’s not nearly as bad as Trump — we’re forgetting what a ruinous president he was and how the pain he inflicted on this country (and the world) still affects us. (Trump is a horrible human being, but he didn’t start two wars.) 

Fahrenheit 9/11 is a deeply imperfect movie, but it stands as a reminder of what a lot of us felt back in 2004 about Bush and the frightening direction this country was heading in. Few summer blockbusters more bluntly speak to their times. Moore may have been a flawed spokesman for the cause, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong.