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The Temperature at which Reason Burns?

As a longtime movie critic, watching the media’s ever-expanding obsession with the box office performance of each week’s new releases has been depressing. In my conspiracy- theorist heart, I assumed it was because the mass media had been absorbed by the same conglomerates that own the movie studios. That was until National Public Radio starting reporting film grosses too. Ain’t that America: Show us the money, and we’ll know which film is cool.

So it’s funny to see Michael Moore’s anti-Bush epic, Fahrenheit 9/11, become a blockbuster worthy of mention on Access Hollywood and—think of Mary Hart and say it with reverence—the venerable Entertainment Tonight. Since the film opened, the media have breathlessly followed the snarky flick’s box-office triumphs. It opened at No. 1, instantly becoming the highest-grossing non-Imax documentary ever. It held its own against the Spider-Man 2 onslaught, taking in almost as much money the second week as the first. Fahrenheit 9/11 has become this summer’s hot ticket. Moore is so hot, if Friends were still on he’d probably get a guest slot as somebody’s goofy uncle.

And the money is impressive: a $16 million diatribe (production costs plus marketing) against George W. Bush has grossed, as of July 7, approximately $64 million. And it hasn’t even opened in the rest of the world, where folks really hate George W. Bush. As for those nasty conglomerates—those “useful idiots”—it looks like Sony is going to outbid GE-owned NBC Universal for the home-video rights. (Again, Lenin is proved right.)

This has clearly flummoxed the pundits. The red-meat right-wing crowd is apoplectic; Ann Coulter titled a recent column: “Saddam in Custody—Moore, Soros, Dean Still at Large.” (I get Moore and George Soros, but poor Howard Dean—doesn’t she know Kerry’s the nominee?)

Liberals wring their hands over inaccuracies. Washington Post columnist and Iraq-war-supporter-turned-critic Richard Cohen was clearly tearing his hair out in his July 1 column: “. . . the stunning box-office success of Fahrenheit 9/11 is not, as proclaimed, a sure sign that Bush is on his way out but is instead a warning to the Democrats to keep the loony left at a safe distance.”

Cohen was disturbed at Moore’s connect-the-dots, conspiracy-minded view of the 2000 election. In fact, that was all he could sputter about; Cohen did not engage any of the other points Moore raised.

“Speaking just for myself,” Cohen continued, “not only was I dismayed by how prosaic and boring the movie was—nothing new and utterly predictable—but I recoiled from Moore’s methodology, if it can be called that.”

Call Moore’s film what you want; it ain’t boring. (Boring doesn’t make $60 million in two weeks.) Cohen seems to be suffering from that peculiar inside-the-Beltway delusion that most Americans pay attention to the news. Moore’s rant is fresh info to a lot of folks.

Paul Krugman, who was a lone voice against the Iraq adventure back when it wasn’t cool, took his colleagues like Cohen to task in his July 2 column in The New York Times.

“There has been much tut-tutting by pundits who complain that the movie, though it has yet to be caught in any major factual errors, uses association and innuendo to create false impressions,” Krugman noted. “Many of these same pundits consider it bad form to make a big fuss about the Bush administration’s use of association and innuendo to link the Iraq war with 9/11,” he dryly pointed out, adding “why hold a self-proclaimed polemicist to a higher standard than you hold the president of the United States?”

Then there’s the heartland. High-school student Hunter Thieme, writing a guest op-ed piece in the Springfield, Mo. News-Leader on July 7, expressed his dissatisfaction with Fahrenheit 9/11, and let the filmmaker have it with both barrels: “The definition of terrorist in my mind is someone who attacks the innocent and causes fear in the minds of many. Odd, it seems Mr. Moore fits nicely under this category.”

And, there are some exhibitors still unwilling to book the film. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Iowa-based theater-chain President R.L. Fridley sent this e-mail message to his employees, explaining why he wouldn’t book the film: “Our country is in a war against an enemy who would destroy our way of life, our culture and kill our people. These barbarians have shown [through Sept. 11] and the recent beheadings that they will stop at nothing. I believe this film emboldens them and divides our country even more.”

In point of fact, however, the film is doing well in the Midwest.

Moore supporters aren’t backing down, either. Embedded journalist Urban Hamid filmed the Iraq sequences that appear in Fahrenheit 9/11. On July 6, he related this story to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!: “I remember one of the last conversations I had was in January, and a sergeant was basically telling his fellow soldiers that, you know, I understand why the Iraqis hate us. He said that . . . we have all been duped, and we know that, and . . . we should not be here in the first place. And the interesting thing was that he was talking to about four or five other soldiers, and they did not disagree. They were all listening to him.”

If nothing else, the continuing controversy guarantees that Fahrenheit 9/11 will be in theaters for the rest of the summer. And just wait for the great October surprise, when the DVDs flood the malls.

—Shawn Stone

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