In terms of its success, Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" is in uncharted territory. By next week it will probably surpass $100 million in domestic box-office revenues, nearly five times as much as the next-highest-grossing documentary feature -- Moore's own "Bowling for Columbine."
In terms of its politics, though, "Fahrenheit" is strictly par for the course. At a time when the right-leaning Fox News Channel leads all cable news channels, when radio airwaves resound with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, when bookstores are piled high with the pronouncements of Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter and Bernard Goldberg, one form of nonfiction narrative remains determinedly liberal: the documentary film.
Pop Culture and the 2004 Election (The Washington Post, Jul 2, 2004)
Incendiary 'Fahrenheit' Is No Box Office Bomb (The Washington Post, Jun 28, 2004)
'Fahrenheit 9/11' Is a Red-Hot Ticket (The Washington Post, Jun 24, 2004)
Democrats Warm To 'Fahrenheit 9/11' (The Washington Post, Jun 17, 2004)
Tilting at the Right, Leaning to the Left (The Washington Post, Jul 11, 2004)
Weinsteins Land Rights to Distribute 'Fahrenheit 9/11' (The Washington Post, May 29, 2004)
Michael Moore, Red-Hot and Golden (The Washington Post, May 23, 2004)
'Fahrenheit 9/11' Too Hot for Disney? (The Washington Post, May 6, 2004)
A Web Site's Push for Less Moore (The Washington Post, Jun 16, 2004)
In 'Control Room,' The Splitting Image Of War Coverage (The Washington Post, Jun 16, 2004)
Looking Back At Broken 'Dreams' (The Washington Post, Jul 5, 2004)
Since the political upheaval of the late 1960s, the liberal point of view has predominated among documentaries -- at least those that get a showing in theaters. From films about opposition to the Vietnam War (1974's "Hearts and Minds," 1979's "The War at Home") to slain black leftist or gay leaders (1971's "The Murder of Fred Hampton," 1984's "The Times of Harvey Milk"); from films about the menace of Republican administrations (1992's "Panama Deception," 2002's "The Trials of Henry Kissinger") to the struggles of coal-mining and meatpacking union workers (1976's "Harlan County U.S.A." and 1991's "American Dream"), most documentaries that approach political issues do so from the left.
"I think it's pretty meaningless for a documentary filmmaker to put six years of his life into a film that reinforces the dominant paradigm," explained Mark Achbar, co-director of "The Corporation," a treatise on the evolution of corporate power that opened last week in Washington. "By default, documentary filmmakers are put in a dissident position because we are being critical of what's happening in the world."
"The people who make documentaries very often come from the left," agreed LA Weekly critic Ella Taylor, "mostly because conservatives are not particularly socially conscious people looking to change the world."
Conservatives, of course, might differ with that assessment. And while it might be hard to imagine a captivating 90-minute treatment of, say, the need for a capital-gains tax cut, why couldn't there be, for example, a documentary about the rise of political correctness on American campuses?
Few though they may be, there are filmmakers asking questions like that. David Hoffman, who has been directing documentaries for 40 years, dislikes a lot of what he sees from his colleagues.
"In these documentaries, America is always the bad guy, the power structure is the cause of people's problems, racism is rampant -- they're just too easy to make," Hoffman said. "I despise the assumption of 'the truth' presented by liberal documentary films, which Hollywood just seems to love and always rewards with top prizes."
"Maybe there's a little bit of circularity here," said professor and filmmaker Jon Else, who heads the documentary program at the University of California, Berkeley. "The awards are generally given out by juries in places like Los Angeles, New York, Sundance and Cannes. Those aren't red-state juries, and I don't think that it's a good thing that documentaries are such a blue-state phenomenon."
And films that win awards have a much better chance of being booked at the multiplex.
Even movies that do not overtly espouse a political viewpoint may arise from a "deep questioning of how power is used in a democracy," said Else, director of 1980's "The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb" and a producer on the PBS civil-rights series "Eyes on the Prize." "For me, that's how you spot" a liberal documentary. Examples: filmmakers questioning the pursuit of convictions in "The Thin Blue Line" (1988) and "Capturing the Friedmans" (2003), and the Arab satellite television network al-Jazeera challenging the American view of the Iraq war in this year's "Control Room."
Not all filmmakers recognize a left-leaning tradition. "The vast majority of documentaries have no political leanings," said Barbara Kopple, the director best known for two Oscar-winning films, "Harlan County U.S.A." and "American Dream." "The ones that do are simply exploring social issues, and different types of storytelling emerge from different crises. So, no, most documentaries do not come from the left."
It is true that most nonfiction films are apolitical. The real meat and potatoes of the documentary industry, Kopple and Else noted, are the works seen on public television, cable channels like A&E and Discovery, and countless direct-to-video releases, where the subjects vary from music to nature to biography.
Still, the documentaries with the highest profiles are the ones that make it to the big screen. And the best opportunity for a documentary to make it into film festivals and, from there, to neighborhood theaters is through a provocative exploration of social, often political, matters.