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Docu-Trauma

For Political Films, the Box Office Is More Bombo Than Boffo

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2004; Page C01

LOS ANGELES

FLASH FORWARD: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the 77th Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards! Funnyman Chris Rock has just introduced Susan Sarandon and Ron Silver to present the nominees for Best Political Propaganda, Documentary category, of 2004.

CUT TO: Audience with unnaturally white teeth. ZOOM IN: On nervous, tuxedoed directors of "Bush's Brain" and "Michael Moore Hates America" and "George W. Bush: Faith in the White House."


An anchorwoman with the al-Jazeera satellite news network in a scene from the documentary "Control Room," left, and Fox network owner Rupert Murdoch in "Outfoxed." (Magnolia Pictures Via AP)

And the winner is . . . Uh, anybody?

At last count, more than two dozen political documentaries have been released during the campaign season, a burst of polemic filmmaking -- from left bank to right flank -- that is unprecedented for American movie audiences, or at least those who might not be familiar with the Nuremburg stylings of Leni Riefenstahl or our own Frank Capra's World War II newsreels.

But despite all the hoopla, and with one big, fat notable exception, the political documentaries of 2004 have fizzled at the box office.

The partisan audiences at special screenings and house parties eat them up. But the films have been greeted by lukewarm applause to outright derision by the traditional movie critics, if they have been reviewed at all. (Notable exceptions: The critics loved Jehane Noujaim's "Control Room," about al-Jazeera, and George Butler's "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry.")

Yet as art, as entertainment, as revelations into the human condition and heirs to the long history of well-built American documentaries, these political documentaries tend toward the obvious.

Think: film as homework.

Feel guilty that on Election Day you still haven't sat through "Celsius 41.11" or "The Hunting of the President"? Relax, virtually nobody else has, either!

"It seems like people might be talking about these movies more than seeing them," says Robert Stone, the filmmaker behind the upcoming "Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst." "They seem to lack artistry or story. They're right in your face," he says. "I think there is a feeling of burnout."

With the exception of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" ($119 million domestic box office), the political documentaries, many made by first-time filmmakers, have fared poorly at the cineplex.

"Bush's Brain," out for two months, has earned $177,525. Butler's "Going Upriver" has done $613,252 in theaters. Robert Greenwald's "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism" was, after Moore's movie, probably the most talked-about political documentary of the season. It closed its theatrical run having earned $432,577 at the box office.

A useful comparison? The worst-reviewed studio release of the summer, "Catwoman," made $40 million in the United States. (Heck, a Canadian documentary decrying the abuses of capitalism, "The Corporation," has made $2 million).

In interviews with some of the most honored documentarians in the country, they mostly declined to critique these films: The land of documentary filmmaking seems to be a magnanimous place. (And many hadn't seen the films.)

"The first question to ask is, is the film any good? Are they yelling about politics or is there rich storytelling, about the complexities, ambiguities of the world?" says R.J. Cutler, producer of "The War Room," which introduced James Carville to the big screen in 1993.

Yet unlike most moviemakers, who pray their films will receive critical acclaim or box office success, that is not really the point for the agitprop.

"Their premium is on timeliness. They want to have a direct impact on the elections," says Michael Renov, associate dean of the School of Cinema and Television at the University of Southern California. "It doesn't have to be a great film. It's all about the audience and its political impact, first and foremost, with artistry and creativity playing a secondary role."

Says Michael Paradies Shoob, director of "Bush's Brain," which portrays Karl Rove as a scary puppet master: "The pose in the documentary world used to be, we're filmmakers and we're not out to change the political landscape. But Michael Moore unmasked us. We are out to change the political landscape."

Think: film as political pamphlet.

A marathon night in front of the DVD player would reveal that Bush is a man of deep religious conviction ("Faith in the White House") who is in bed with the Saudi mullahs ("The Oil Factor"); a president obsessed with global domination ("Hijacking Catastrophe") who fought a just war against a madman ("WMD: The Murderous Reign of Saddam Hussein"); a former party boy and scion of wealth and privilege ("Bush Family Fortunes") who deserves to be reelected in a landslide ("Confronting Iraq") against a traitorous John Kerry ("Stolen Honor"), who by the way is also a man of honor and integrity ("Going Upriver").

These are not your father's PBS specials.

Whether these two dozen films will have any measurable impact on today's election remains, as the pundits like to say, "to be seen."

If the pollsters can't tell us who is winning in Ohio, it might be too much to ask whether "Soldiers Pay" (by David O. Russell, director of "I H Huckabees") is going to turn the tide against Bush in Dayton or whether "Buried in the Sand: The Deception of America" (by conservative talk radio host Mark Taylor) will bolster the president's street cred with security moms in Cleveland.

With theatrical release not an option for most, the filmmakers have been pushing DVDs and videos. There are now new ways of moving these wares -- through the filmmakers' Web sites, online purveyors such as Amazon and Netflix, and sponsorship by partisan groups such as MoveOn or Citizens United.

The Web page for the anti-Bush film "The Oil Factor: Behind the War on Terror" is offering "pre-election specials" for buyers. The makers of "There's Something about W" will send a free DVD to anyone who hosts a screening in a swing state.

But the sales for the poli-docs have been mom-and-pop, actually, so small that tracking services such as Nielsen Video Scan don't have tallies.

Producer Greenwald has been defying Hollywood logic by begging partisans to make copies of his "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism." His production company estimates that 150,000 DVDs and videos are in circulation.

Grizzly Adams Productions has been selling DVDs of "George W. Bush: Faith in the White House" for $4 a pop -- if bought in bulk. The film's director, David Balsiger, said his "best guess" is that 450,000 copies are "in the marketplace." They are being purchased -- in orders of 100 to 1,000 at a time -- by partisans who are then giving them away to churches in the swing states.

The documentaries haven't had much luck getting aired on broadcast television. The Sinclair Broadcast Group initially planned to show the anti-Kerry "Stolen Honor" on its 62 stations, but backed off and ran excerpts in a more balanced news show on the Vietnam POW issue. On cable, there was a last-minute blast from the left. The Sundance Channel, owned in part by Robert Redford, announced it would screen a trio of Greenwald films and "Bush's Brain" on Monday night. Over at the Independent Film Channel, they scheduled weekend showings of Russell's "Soldiers Pay" and "Fahrenheit 9/11: A Movement in Time," Moore's 30-minute documentary about his documentary. The pro-Bush "Faith in the White House" has been airing on some Christian cable and satellite channels.

Political operatives and Hollywood execs say partisan flicks draw partisan audiences -- they are "reinforcement films," as political science professor Art English of the University of Arkansas dubbed them.

Think: film as bumper sticker.

Normally, the movie marketplace tends to enforce its brutal realities. But Greenwald's films have been paid for by the ACLU ("Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties") and MoveOn ("Outfoxed"). Carlton Sherwood's "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," which describes itself as "a documentary exposing John Kerry's record of betrayal," received its initial funding from "Pennsylvania veterans." Roger Aronoff's "Confronting Iraq" was paid for by his organization, the right-leaning Accuracy in Media. The pro-Bush homage "Celsius 41.11" was funded by Citizens United, a conservative Washington-based advocacy group.

Think: 90-minute attack ads.

Errol Morris, the Academy Award-winning director of "The Fog of War," about former defense secretary Robert McNamara, says the sudden appearance of all these films "has less to do with documentary filmmaking than how polarized the country is. We all feel it. This enormous anger."

Morgan Spurlock, director of "Super Size Me," a documentary about the perils of a McDonald's-only diet, believes the partisan filmmakers are struggling to enter the debate in a sea of corporatized media. "The news we get from the TV, magazines, newspapers is all watered down. Especially TV," Spurlock says. "They're pulling a curtain down in front of our eyes and we're starved for information."

Many suspect that this crop of agitprop will hit its expiration date on Nov. 3. In the past, for example, a film like Cutler's about Oliver North's run for Congress ("A Perfect Candidate") would appear after his run for Congress, not during. Today's political filmmakers don't want to wait because they want to influence the outcome. That can infuse these films with a newsy immediacy; it can also give them a rushed, pasted-together-at-4 a.m. look.

But Spurlock predicts this is just the beginning: "I promise you, if things go one way or another, you're going to see a lot more documentaries over the next four years."

Think: film as blog.

"Certainly, many of these films are partisan. They are not balanced," says Andrew Jarecki, director of the Oscar-nominated "Capturing the Friedmans." "But the cumulative effect of having a lot of them out there is that people are shown different points of view, and that seems to me a very positive thing."

Credit, in part, reality TV.

Audiences may now be used to the vérité look of reality television shows and so are better prepared to accept the lower-quality production values of the new documentarians with hand-held mini-DVD cameras. Says Spurlock: "People think, well, it's interesting to see a normal person on TV. So, why not go see a real person in a film. It's not that big of a stretch."

There is, of course, history here. "Lenin really saw the utility of the documentary," USC's Renov says, as a tool to inspire the illiterate masses. The power of film was not lost on Adolf Hitler, either, who persuaded Riefenstahl to make "Triumph of the Will," about the Nazi rallies at Nuremburg. The U.S. Office of War Information hired director Capra ("It's a Wonderful Life") to make his "Why We Fight" series to defeat the Axis. His first, "Prelude to War," won an Academy Award for documentary film in 1942.

For this year's entries, remember, Moore has pulled "Fahrenheit 9/11" from consideration for Best Documentary. Moore announced he wants a nomination for Best Picture. So the field is wide open. See ya at the Oscars.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company