'Fahrenheit 9/11' Is Casting a Wide Net at Theaters

Anti-Bush sentiment runs high at showings of the documentary, which has had a strong opening weekend on 868 screens.

By Stephanie Simon

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

June 27, 2004

DES PERES, Mo. — Before the movie started, Leslie Hanser prayed.

"I prayed the Lord would open my eyes," she said.

For months, her son Joshua, a college student, had been drawing her into political debate. He'd tell her she shouldn't trust President Bush. He'd tell her the Iraq war was wrong. Hanser, a 41-year-old homemaker, pushed back. She defended the president, supported him fiercely

But Joshua kept at her, until she prayed for help understanding her son's fervor.

Emerging from Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," her eyes wet, Hanser said she at last understood. "My emotions are just…. " She trailed off, waving her hands to show confusion. "I feel like we haven't seen the whole truth before."

That's the reaction Moore hopes to provoke with his film, which explores the ties between the Bush family and Osama bin Laden's relatives, the president's response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq. Moore has said he aims to shake the apathetic, m ove the undecided — and inspire voters to deny President Bush a second term.

Riding a week of enormous publicity, and controversy, "Fahrenheit 9/11" was a hit at the box office. Opening Friday on 868 screens, the movie grossed more than the farces "White Chicks" and "DodgeBall," even though those films showed on far more screens.

Industry sources estimated that the weekend gross for "Fahrenheit 9/11" could approach $20 million. That's close to the $21.6 million that Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" — until now, the highest-grossing documentary ever — took in during its entire run.

"Fahrenheit 9/11" got a shot of free publicity when Walt Disney Co., concerned about the movie's partisan edge, barred its subsidiary from releasing it. The buzz only grew last month when the film won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Yet its appeal seemed to take some by surprise: In the heavily Latino and Asian community of Downey, theater manager William Vasquez was surpri sed at the line — which was so long, he decided to show the film on two screens simultaneously Friday night. "I don't know of any documentary that has created this kind of stir," he said, noting that even teenagers seemed "glued to the screen."

In many cities, and even in conservative suburbs, the crowds were predictably (and loudly) liberal, hissing and hooting their reactions to Bush on screen.

Here in suburban St. Louis — in a multiplex catering to well-off neighborhoods that were flocked with Bush/Cheney signs in 2000 — the rowdy throng cheered when a man in back stood to shout an appeal for Democratic Party volunteers. "Anyone here for [Ralph] Nader?" another man called out. He was booed.

Across the country, in another conservative neighborhood, the audience at an Orange County multiplex chanted: "Throw Bush out! Throw Bush out!" as the lights came on.

College student Jebodiah Beard, 25, summed up the crowd this way: "I think we're preaching to th e choir."

Moore acknowledged as much — but saw no need to apologize.

"It's good to give the choir something to sing," he said at a politician-packed premiere in Washington last week. "The choir has been demoralized."

If so, the movie was an electric wake-up call.

Outside a sold-out screening Friday on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, activists stamped hands with peace signs and passed around petitions calling for universal healthcare, gay rights and the repeal of the Patriot Act.

"I can't imagine anyone coming out of [the movie] and not working their brains out to get rid of this administration," said Mimi Adams, 70, who was holding a sign that said: "No One Died When Clinton Lied."

In theaters nationwide, many viewers said they couldn't imagine loyal Republicans coming to see a movie the Bush administration had dismissed as a twisted montage of misleading innuendo and outright falsehoods. But for all the partisan hooting, the movie did appea r to draw at least a strong smattering of the Republican and the undecided voters that Moore most desperately hopes to reach.

And some of them said they were deeply moved.

Moved enough, perhaps, to consider voting for Kerry in November.

For Richard Hagen, 56, it was the footage from Iraq: the raw cries of bombed civilians, the clenched-teeth agony of wounded American troops. A retired insurance agent from the wealthy River Oaks neighborhood in central Houston, Hagen described himself as a lifelong Republican. But then, standing by his silver Mercedes, he amended that: A former lifelong Republican.

"Seeing [the war] brings it home in a way you don't get from reading about it," he said. "I won't be voting for a Republican presidential candidate this time."

Mary Butler, too, may not bring herself to punch the ballot for Bush.

She didn't vote for him in 2000. But Butler, 48, said until this weekend, she was leaning strongly toward supporting him this year. "In a war situation, I figured it was too hard to switch horses midstream. I thought the country would be too vulnerable," she said.

Butler, a librarian from suburban St. Louis, said one sentence in Moore's film made her rethink.

After showing faces of the men and women of America's military, Moore reminds his audience that they have volunteered to sacrifice their futures for our country. We owe them just one obligation, he says: to send them into harm's way only when we absolutely must.

That got Butler. She doesn't feel the war in Iraq fits into that category. And that one sentence — a filmmaker's accusing voice-over — might cost Bush her vote in the pivotal swing state of Missouri: "This is probably the strongest I've ever felt about voting against him," she said.

Their tears reflected in the bluish light of the movie screen, many viewers here and elsewhere seemed especially moved by the story of Lila Lipscomb, the mother at the heart of "Fahrenheit 9/11." When Moore first encounters her in Flint, Mich., she speaks with pride of her children's military service, of all the opportunities the armed forces can give them. Then her son was killed in Iraq.

Appearing with Moore at the film's premiere in Washington, Lipscomb received a standing ovation.

"President Bush said he was a president of war," Lipscomb said. "Well, I stand before you tonight as a mother that is now a mother of war. I urge all of America to stop being ignorant. Open your eyes to see. Open your ears to hear. Open your mouth to speak."

Many who watched "Fahrenheit 9/11" over the weekend vowed the movie would spur them to do just that — to look deeper, listen closer, to speak out with conviction.

In the end, however, some doubted whether a summer movie, however pointed, could really affect the outcome of November's election.

"It will have an impact of some sort," said Rep. Jim McDermott, (D-Wash.), who is interviewed by Moore in the film, "but I'm not s ure what."

*


Times staff writers Jia Lynn Yang in Washington, Elaine Dutka in Santa Monica, Lianne Hart in Houston, Jeff Gottlieb in Orange County and Brett Brune in Burbank contributed to this report.