BROOKE GLADSTONE: The NRA has found one way to cut through the political message clutter. But the medium of choice this election season seems to be the political documentary, and the genre's heaviest hitter is Michael Moore whose new film, Fahrenheit 9/11, hits theaters Friday. [MUSIC UP & UNDER]
MAN: In the middle of the war, corporations decided to hold a conference to figure out how much money could be made.
MAN: Once that oil starts flowing, there's going to be lots of money. Whatever it costs, the government will pay you.
MAN: It's going to be good for business, bad for the people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fahrenheit 9/11, which includes some grisly footage from Iraq, grabbed headlines when the Walt Disney company refused to release it. Miramax Bob and Harvey Weinstein defied its parent company, bought the film and found a new distributor. This week it made news again when the Motion Picture Association of America gave it an R rating, barring kids under the age of 17, some of whom might soon be serving in the military, from seeing it without mom and dad. Moore is appealing that rating. Meanwhile, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo said he would urge people to watch the film before they pick their next president.
MICHAEL MOORE: How could Congress pass this Patriot Act without even reading it?
MAN: Sit down, my son. We don't read most of the bills.
MICHAEL MOORE: No one read it!
MICHAEL MOORE: [ANNOUNCING] Members of Congress -- this is Michael Moore. I would like to read to you the USA Patriot Act.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is a potent piece of political advocacy, and one in a series of films with liberal messages ranging from John Sayles' Silver City, a satire about what one reviewer calls "a grammatically-challenged born-again candidate from a right wing dynasty," to Tour of Duty -- a look at John Kerry's service in Vietnam from the director of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Pumping Iron. Add to that Harry Thomason's just-released film about the political vendetta against Bill Clinton, The Hunting of the President, and you have what some conservatives suggest is a vast, suspiciously-timed left wing cinematic conspiracy. [FILM CLIPS PLAY]
MAN: ...this is the inauguration reviewing stand...
MAN: ...here is where Bill Clinton will make his oval office...
BILL CLINTON: ...I, William Jefferson Clinton...
MAN: ...there was a sense in Washington that Clinton was not their kind of person...
MAN: ...the strategy was to use anything to inflict damage to his presidency...
HARRY THOMASON: All documentaries are made to influence opinion, and we hope this one does, but our opinion is not necessarily to affect the election. You have to understand, we thought we would have had this film out a year ago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Director Harry Thomason says that the proliferation of documentaries arises partly from the public's growing acceptance of the genre. It's also a response, he says, to a growing suspicion that traditional journalism, pressed under the thumb of corporate ownership, is falling down on the job. As for the timing of this new wave of left-leaning films coming out on the eve of what will surely be a squeaker of a national election--
HARRY THOMASON: Actually I think that all these films are coming out and it's strictly coincidental.
ROB RICHIE: This isn't all coincidence, because you do have individual filmmakers who do care about this election, and they are turning to what they do best to try to have an impact.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And they could, says Rob Richie, of the non-partisan Center for Voting and Democracy.
ROB RICHIE: When, you know, almost half the adult population doesn't vote, if you can get more of those people to vote, you can tip a close election. What can also happen, though, is that, say, Republicans can point a finger at Hollywood and say they're trying to steal this election, again, those rich liberals that aren't like you - and get out and vote. You know, like both sides are going to try to use such movies and the discussion about them to mobilize their base.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact, that's happening already. This month, Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly likened Michael Moore to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Then he read a list of fellow brownshirts who showed up at a recent screening of Fahrenheit 9/11 -- Billy Crystal, Sharon Stone, Martin Sheen, Larry David, Chris Rock, Demi and Ashton -- the list goes on and on. NBC's Tom Brokaw and New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. were there too, but the New York Post reported that the applause lasted only half a minute, and many declined to stand for the ovation. Harry Thomason.
HARRY THOMASON: I think Michael Moore is a wonderful filmmaker and-- I think if he thinks he's going to influence the election, then he's probably misinformed.
RICHARD VIGUERIE: I'm sure it'll have some impact, and it's almost certainly not good for conservatives, Republicans like myself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Richard Viguerie is an expert in the political use of alternative media.
RICHARD VIGUERIE: Because the Hollywood media is not something that, you know, we're particularly well-versed in, and it's not one of our strong suits.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But according to Viguerie, new campaign laws limiting contributions have both sides scrambling for new outlets. Film, he says, can be used as a partisan megaphone, like for instance, talk radio. Conservatives may own the microphone, but at the moment, liberals are running the cameras. And if ticket sales translate into votes--
RICHARD VIGUERIE: I suspect Republicans will, and conservatives, will weigh in, in future years. People are looking for ways to have an impact without violating McCain-Feingold law, and this is an obvious way to, to do that. But I think you're seeing the forerunner of a mass onslaught of documentaries that are just thinly veiled campaign pieces.
MEREDITH MCGEHEE: I don't believe at this moment that political documentaries that are being floated around are being used to evade the McCain-Feingold law--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Meredith McGehee, of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, says that there is no evidence that people are funneling money into films as part of a coordinated effort to benefit a particular campaign. So despite reported grumblings from the GOP, there's no violation of the law.
MEREDITH MCGEHEE: It's the act of the coordination in itself that triggers any kind of limits. Being critical of a public official and having an intent to influence the outcome of a federal election, actually, are not exactly the same thing.
STEVE ROSENBAUM: Michael Moore's film -- I don't believe that two years ago when he started to make Fahrenheit 9/11, you know, that he was working on a film to support John Kerry. I think that he was making a film because he was really, really angry at what was happening in U.S. politics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven Rosenbaum is the director of Inside the Bubble, a documentary about the Kerry campaign's brain trust, currently slated for release after the election.
STEVE ROSENBAUM: I don't understand why people get so concerned about the fact that Michael Moore has a point of view.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He says filmmakers have always wanted to tell stories that move people, and today the big story is political. It's just the technology that's changed. With digital video, they work cheaper and faster, and so they are. As for influence, who knows?
STEVE ROSENBAUM: At this moment we can say for sure that Michael Moore's film will make a big noise when it opens on the 25th. Beyond that film, though, I don't know of anything coming down the pike that is a slam dunk in terms of the ability to kind of rattle the windows. You forget how extraordinarily hard it is to get people to take their 9 dollars out of their pocket and go to a movie theater and engage something serious and potentially a little hard to stomach.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So maybe it ends with Moore, but probably not. Rosenbaum says documentarians have always looked hard for funding, but depending on what happens in November, maybe the big campaign funders will come looking for them next time around. If they do, the watchdogs of campaign finance reform will be right behind them.