An 8:15 Friday night showing of "Fahrenheit 9/11" ended about 15 minutes ago, and outside the doors of Landmark's E Street Cinema downtown, phrases like "creative license," "spin machine" and "what about the propaganda of Fox News" introduce the second act of the Michael Moore movie experience.
In this particular cluster of headlong debate, just one of many that continue to crowd the sidewalks of theaters playing the movie, the situation is three against one. Joe Brinker, 34, looks like a man who can take a good drubbing and still call these people around him his friends.
Brinker: "He stretched the truth!"
Isabelle De Ruyt, 29: "Most politicians stretch the truth all the time. Besides, he's a moviemaker. If he makes it all sound a little more dramatic than it is, that's his job."
Brian Kemler, 35: "And when Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and all those right-wing talking heads come with their rants, are they being held to any standard of truth? No!"
The fourth friend, who describes herself as a British Iranian woman living illegally in the United States: "And who is stretching the truth? Excuse me, isn't the CIA being blamed for the faulty intelligence that started the war? And now, of course, it's too late."
The four make a perfect diamond on the sidewalk, with about three feet between one and the next, but it's Brinker's corner that's having to field all the throws. The volume of their voices is healthy and unrestrained, making the whole group easy to spot, particularly for those pedestrians keen on staying clear of their art house drama.
It's normal for friends to converge after a film to talk about Jim Carrey's remarkable performance in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" or the curiously homoerotic moments in the "Lord of the Rings" movies. But a film like "Fahrenheit 9/11" is tailor-made for D.C.'s political wonkdom. Other "Fahrenheit" discussion circles outside the E Street Cinema have already left, but this one is nearing its 40th minute.
"Republicans would have had no breathing room whatsoever if Moore hadn't wandered into that little extra inch that he doesn't seem capable of resisting," Brinker says. He indicates to his friends that he is mostly playing the role of devil's advocate, and you don't have to tell him who the devil is. But he says it makes him uneasy that his fellow liberals can't be a little more critical of Moore's new movie.
Brinker: "What if I, someone who is already convinced, came out of the movie and said: 'Hmm. I know he stretched the truth on this, that and the other thing.' What's the movie going to seem like for someone who comes in skeptical?"
British Iranian woman: "What did Moore lie about? Look, Bush duped the country into going into war. Look at the larger picture!"
Kemler: "Art is not a pure representation of life. Art is not pure fact."
Brinker: "You're not telling me anything I don't know, Brian. You talk as if I'm in a sixth-grade art class."
De Ruyt: "It's far less propaganda than Fox News."
Brinker: "But [this film] has to be made with a higher standard because I am the choir!"
If these four are the choir, then there's an impromptu cathedral forming outside the Loews Georgetown theater on K Street NW, just moments after Friday's 9:15 screening has let out. Among these five or six discussion clusters, not one devil's advocate can be found, let alone a conservative gasping for air. But even without a voice of dissent, the discussions still create their own lively free-form forum; one group of young people of South Asian descent starts to talk less about the points of the film and more about the political action they're going to take to "get Bush out."
In another group, Lars Thorn, 26, says, "There needs to be a chat room after the movie where everyone can go." He's joined by his brother Lukas, 24, and friend Sarah Pullen, 23. Lars Thorn says he can also detect the one-sidedness of all the discussions around him, mentioning that he would like to see the movie in Montana to get a feel for Moore's effect in the red states.
"I don't think they're going to be anti-Bush because of this movie," says Pullen. "Like my mother -- anything negative just instantly turns her off."
"True," says Lars Thorn. "There's really an appetite for this stuff in D.C., though."
"If this movie is what it takes to wake up Americans," says his brother, "then the film had to be made."
Kemler, back at the E Street Cinema downtown, eventually arrives at the third act that at least some people discover in the Michael Moore movie experience, the part that the Bush administration undoubtedly hates the most.
"I felt so viscerally angry after seeing this movie," says Kemler, "I'm going to donate $1,000 to the Kerry campaign." It's unclear how many minds are being changed by this movie, but when you preach to the choir, the singing gets louder.