After more than a week of round-the-clock Reaganolotry, New York was so ready for the rollout of Michael Moore's Bush-bashing movie. I mean really, really ready. There was such demand to get into a small screening at the Beekman Theatre on Monday night that executive producer and host Harvey Weinstein moved the celebrity crowd to the thousand-seat Ziegfeld Theatre. This was a canny PR move. There was only a one-week frenzy window between Gippermania and the pending Clinton memoir, and Weinstein flew right through it.
Disney's refusal to distribute "Fahrenheit 9/11" was a perfect ploy to dramatize one of Moore's favorite themes, the suffocating power of big media. Attempted suppression is a promotional must these days. Bill O'Reilly's lawsuit put Al Franken on the bestseller list. The distributors who ran away from Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" made him a miracle worker at the box office. Now we have the Moore/Disney psychodrama. We have gone from the marketing Calvary of Christ to Michael Moore's Messiah complex.
The buzz is deafening. Weinstein had the wheeze of screening "Fahrenheit 9/11" with a different celebrity host virtually every night this week and next before the movie opens wide on June 25 in 700 theaters. Monday night's co-host with the Weinstein Brothers was legal eagle David Boies, and a backup cast including Richard Gere, Leonardo DiCaprio, Spike Lee, Tim Robbins, Philip Seymour Hoffman -- all the cool dudes. Tonight it's Viacom's new co-president, Tom Freston, along with Showtime boss Matt Blank. Next week, Blackstone Chairman Pete Peterson and his wife, Joan Ganz Cooney, corral the Park Avenue power players. If these screenings were scenes in a Michael Moore movie, the filmmaker would be hanging around outside with a camera crew trying for ambush interviews.
It speaks to how desperate New York Democrats feel that a New York premiere audience filled not just with credulous movie stars but top-of-the-line editors, First Amendment lawyers and sober-suited Wall Street donors was so forgiving of Moore's raucous cartoon history. The blase crowd that usually races out as the credits roll listened in respectful silence as Moore lumbered to the stage in that damn Michigan State University baseball cap and hackneyed leather jacket to pontificate on the importance of getting out the vote.
Nobody raised a question about his film's wacky insinuations that Bush let Taliban thugs escape because of some previously concocted deal in Texas or let Osama bin Laden get away because of deep Bush connections to the bin Laden family. In Moore's version of Iraq nobody was hanging from a meat hook in Saddam Hussein's jails. Baghdad was a happy city where children frolicked in the streets until boom! we blew them away. The invasion of Afghanistan? That was just a cover for running an oil pipeline across the country. You can argue that conspiracy theories are redundant since the Bush administration's malfeasance on the war is all there right on the surface, but, hey, this crowd feels that they're entitled to some lefty exuberance after biting their tongues through a week of Republican mythmaking. Their Bush-loathing is so intense there is a pent-up longing for excess, a desire to be swept with emotions the cautious Democratic nominee can't arouse. They were so jazzed by Moore's ripsnorting assault, the discussion on the sidewalk afterward was about just one thing: Will it help with the swing vote?
Probably not, but it will certainly pump the base. The movie has such big, noisy energy that it roars right over its own potholes with unforgettable video epiphanies. Who could not be grateful to Moore for the stolen eve-of-war footage of Paul Wolfowitz spitting on his comb before running it through his hair? Political attacks are all about the defining details. We will remember Wolfowitz grooming himself for a TV moment long after his geopolitical game plan to remake the Middle East has sunk into the mists of history.
Ditto the unforgettable camcorder scene of Bush on the morning of 9/11. Moore was able to get from the Florida Elementary School the video nobody else had bothered to ask for of the president sitting frozen in the classroom reading a book to the kiddies. And continuing to sit with a catatonic stare for a full seven minutes under the ticking clock after Andy Card enters and whispers to him the news of the attacks. Our commander in chief is paralyzed -- by what? Fear? Indecision? Panic? An unbreakable interest in the plot of "My Pet Goat"? Our conjecture about what must be going through his mind as his eyes dart from side to side at this epic moment (Dick Clarke's neglected terrorism memo?) is fueled by all the instant histories riding the bestseller list.
The usual arguments against Moore -- that he's intellectually dishonest, that he's a master of the cheap shot, that he's a loudmouthed neo-Marxist boor -- are beside the point against the power of such moments. After the weapons of mass destruction fallacy and the Saddam-did-9/11 fictions, it's payback time. The left can have a Rush Limbaugh, too.
Those squeamish about Michael Moore's methodology, however, should check out the other documentary that opened last night, "The Hunting of the President," produced by Clinton friend Harry Thomason. It tracks the network of Arkansas dirt-diggers who peddled Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones and Whitewater to the manipulative right-wing fringe. Thomason's movie, with its revelations of how Susan McDougal was pressured to lie to incriminate Hillary Clinton, is substantively more damning than "Fahrenheit 9/11." Moore fans can say his prosecution of Bush only employs the same paranoid technique of reasoning by juxtaposition that the Vince-Foster-was-murdered brigade used to torture the Clintons all those years. That is true, but it doesn't appeal to the Democrats less emotionally overwrought than Leonardo DiCaprio.
Hollywood agent and Kerry supporter Tom Baer told me, "Kerry should flee Moore's movie. It's Goebbels all over again." And former Clinton speechwriter Mark Katz put it this way: "I hold my guys to a higher standard," he said quietly. "That's why they're my guys."
(c) 2004, Tina Brown