Ones on 1: The brief, unprecedented success of “Fahrenheit 9/11”

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Welcome to the first edition of Ones on 1, a new monthly feature I will be doing for the blog. The basic premise is simple: on the first of every month, I will write about a random film that was number one at the box office for precisely one weekend. That may sound like a broad topic, and it is, but the goal will be to choose films that achieved that peak, but didn’t quite belong there. Every Sunday, film journalists look at the box office standings, and most of the time the “winning” film is the most obvious choice. Ones on 1 will shine a light on some of the misfits who found themselves in a very exclusive, blockbuster-filled club. On that note, it feels appropriate that the first installment of this feature will examine the single most successful documentary of all time: Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. That’s right: to this day no documentary has been more financially successful, and it made headlines upon its release for being the first film in that genre to top the weekend box office. In the spring of 2004, it won the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. This is an insane level of success and attention, but just ten years later it seems almost nobody thinks about it anymore. Most wouldn’t even call it the best Michael Moore movie. This was a documentary that burned impossibly bright, then quickly faded away.

Fahrenheit 9/11’s rapid decline can be traced right back to the year it came out, and the events that did and didn’t transpire in the wake of its release. This was a film with one clear purpose: get George W. Bush out of the White House. Unless you are reading this from a parallel universe, you will recall that Bush was, in fact, reelected come November. Unlike other Moore films, which deal with larger American issues such as capitalism, gun control, healthcare and so on, Fahrenheit 9/11 is specifically about all the Bush administration had done up until the summer of 2004. It starts on the night of November 7, 2000, and charges forward from there. This is as angry a film as Moore has ever made, and it clearly touched a nerve with American audiences, but it was never going to have a very long shelf life.

Political documentaries of this sort also face one giant problem when it comes to inspiring real change: ultimately they turn into exercises in preaching to the choir. In the case of Fahrenheit 9/11, it turned out to be a very large choir, but it’s doubtful many right-leaning moviegoers even bothered to buy a ticket, and even fewer were likely convinced by Moore’s arguments. It’s telling that just a few spots behind Fahrenheit 9/11 on the list of most successful documentaries is the closest thing we have to a far right equivalent: Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America. Like Moore’s film, this is an angry political documentary released the summer before a presidential election in an effort to kick the current guy out of office. Both movies did very well financially, but neither had an impact on the ultimate result. It’s well known that in today’s political/media climate, people love having their beliefs reaffirmed and despise hearing what the other side has to say. Left-leaning moviegoers went to see Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004 and right-leaning moviegoers went to see 2016: Obama’s America eight years later, and there was very little, if any, crossover.

However, when it comes to making movies that preach right to the choir, Moore is pretty darn good at what he does. Watching Fahrenheit 9/11 ten years after its release, I was surprised by its considerable ability to get the blood boiling. Obviously, Moore doesn’t make your usual kind of documentary. His are extremely energetic, nakedly manipulative, and he isn’t afraid to put himself right in the middle of the action. It’s the same bag of tricks he’s revisited many times before and since, and it’s all perfectly calibrated to engage those who agree with him and repel those who don’t. There’s no real story or form here; just an endless barrage of one-sided information meant to provoke a strong emotional response. One minute Moore will be mocking the Bush administration using an on-the-nose pop song, the next he will adopt his serious/somber voice and tell a brief anecdote about some random injustice, and then he’ll finish it off by pulling stunts around Washington, D.C. meant to attract attention. He jumps between these three types of scenes randomly over the course of two hours, and then the movie ends to the tune of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” It’s all so very unfocused and sloppy, and yet undeniably effective in its best moments.

Even so, the film is often too unfocused for its own good. With Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore didn’t simply want to make an anti-Bush documentary. He wanted the make a comprehensive anti-Bush documentary, and in his efforts to create a complete picture of the administration’s failures, his reach often exceeded his grasp. Some sequences, like a trip to the under-patrolled Oregon coastline, feel as though they come out of another potentially effective movie. Others are fueled almost completely by speculation. Moore has a tendency to start with facts, make a perfectly fine case based on those facts, but then take his argument several steps further than it needed to go. He has never been a filmmaker content to quit while he is ahead.

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The best stretch of the film undoubtedly kicks in once Moore focuses exclusively on the Iraq War. At this point, he strips most of the speculation and extraneous information away and shows how the war was sold, how it began, and how it quickly blew up in the faces of the Bush administration. There are many interviews with soldiers, and the film shows how their morale and confidence in the mission slowly declined as things went south. It shows the human toll of the war, and Moore doesn’t back down from showing some truly gruesome images. Like the rest of Fahrenheit 9/11, it’s a provocation, but in this case it is purposeful provocation.

But then at the end, Moore’s fatal flaw emerges once more, and he puts himself in front of the camera and tries to encourage congressmen to sign their children up for the armed forces. They don’t, of course, and it’s just another instance of Moore trying a bit too hard to make his point. This is something he’s done with almost every film in his career. His debut feature Roger & Me centered around repeated attempts to get an interview with then-General Motors CEO Roger Smith. His most recent film Capitalism: A Love Story had Moore attempting to make citizens’ arrests on Wall Street. In every film he tries to frame himself as the noble truth-teller getting silenced by The Man, but these gestures are always far less effective than the arguments he makes around him. It’s not that Moore shouldn’t inject his films with his signature sense of humor, but these stunts ultimately feel like marketing choices more than strong filmmaking decisions. It’s no surprise that these moments are the ones that wind up in the trailers and television ads. They’re hooks, not statements.

Without these hooks, however, Michael Moore probably wouldn’t be the major figure he is today. Without the attempts to get congressmen to sign up their children for the military, Fahrenheit 9/11 probably would not have been the brief phenomenon it was. Of course, the “controversy” surrounding the film’s release helped matters as well. Miramax financed the film’s production, but when it came time for a theatrical release, its parent company Disney said no. This was a much-publicized fight, but eventually the Weinsteins took it upon themselves to release it with the help of The Fellowship Adventure Group and Lionsgate. There was also the controversy of the ‘R’ rating from the MPAA, as well as the many conservative groups who were outspoken about their opposition of the film. The marketing, obviously, embraced all this chatter; most posters for the film featured the tagline “Controversy… What Controversy?” That’s the beauty of filmmakers like Moore and D’Souza: they’re the kind of figures for whom any press is good press. If you’re on their side, great! If you’re not, and are vocal about it, even better.

All this, along with Moore’s inescapable public presence, turned a small, partisan political documentary into a $222 million worldwide smash. It accomplished something no documentary had pulled off before or since: a weekend on top of the American box office, defeating such new releases as White Chicks and The Notebook, despite showing in only 868 theaters. (Also among the vanquished: Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story in its second week.) Not only is it an indicator of how insane the buzz was surrounding the movie, but also of how much the movie landscape has changed in the last 10 years. This would never happen in 2014, especially smack dab in the middle of summer. Fahrenheit 9/11’s reign wouldn’t last forever, of course. The following weekend, it was defeated by a little art film called Spider-Man 2.

But not even Peter Parker can diffuse the curiosity that for one summer, ten years ago, Michael Moore was the talk of the cinematic world. He had created a film that generated a lot of buzz, had unprecedented success at the box office, but ultimately did little to change the political climate in the United States. Sure, some may believe romantic notions that movies have the power to change the world, but in the case of Michael Moore (and the aforementioned D’Souza), that does not seem to be the case. Fahrenheit 9/11 is probably as popular as a political documentary is ever going to get, but no matter how many tickets it sold, most of those sales went to those who were already converted. Cinema has the potential for great power, but altering people’s political beliefs? That’s a different task entirely.

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