Wasn’t there a time when documentary films were sepia-toned, highbrow loss leaders? They won awards, popped up at Film Forum, and never, ever got national distribution, except on PBS. But after 2004, there may never be another election year without a barrage of partisan harangues onscreen—bludgeons, really, in celluloid form. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 utterly changed the game. It made a fortune—$120 million so far—while dominating water-cooler chatter as no film ever has, and inspiring admiration and rage from Cannes to Hollywood, from John McCain (at the RNC) to Osama bin Laden (on Al-Jazeera).
Moore’s 2002 Oscar winner Bowling for Columbine was significant, but the proud propagandizing of Fahrenheit was something else again. Though the film broke only minor news and made some dodgy claims, it connected with audiences, purely by giving a (semi-)coherent form to anti-Bush outrage. The converted wanted to be preached to—riled up, even—and Moore happily delivered.
He was hardly alone. Small indie outfits left and right bellowed about the madness of Karl Rove (Bush’s Brain), the bias of Fox News (Outfoxed), the logic of big business (The Corporation)—and, of course, the failings of Mr. Moore (Michael Moore Hates America). MoveOn.org, which distributed DVDs of Robert Greenwald’s Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the War in Iraq and Outfoxed, coordinated screenings at people’s homes to raise funds. Even that was eclipsed by those shadowy Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who strung together short, strange films on a Website, packaged them into effective TV ads, and probably hurt John Kerry as much as anything (they certainly overwhelmed George Butler’s vastly superior pro-Kerry documentary, Going Upriver).
Morgan Spurlock’s outrageous Super Size Me, meanwhile, just may have helped nudge McDonald’s into retiring its Supersize option (of course, the company denies any link). How’d he do it? Not just by spelling out what everyone knows (too much fast food is bad for you) but by living on Big Macs and McNuggets for a month, recording every nasty result of said diet, and nearly turning his liver into foie gras. It wasn’t Frontline; it was great entertainment.
Even as these filmmakers insisted that “corporate media” were either too conservative or too liberal to tell the truth, they managed to work those outlets deftly. Spurlock’s film grew rather beefy itself, grossing more than $27 million. Greenwald raised large (if undisclosed) portions of MoveOn.org’s millions. Fahrenheit 9/11 was the year’s thirteenth-highest-grossing film—$19 million more than Tom Cruise’s Collateral—and that’s not including DVDs.
Since those corporate media love profits above all, Moore (who has four publicity teams working on his Oscar campaign) will have no trouble distributing his next work. He’s at work on a health-care film, and, in the mode of a true $100 million man, next year he’ll release a sequel: Fahrenheit, Part II.