Michael Moore’s controversial documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” is drawing comparison to the year’s last big surprise blockbuster, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”
“Fahrenheit 9/11” opened in 868 theaters, averaging $25,115 per theater through the weekend. That is $4 more than “The Passion,” which opened to packed houses on Ash Wednesday.
“Personally I believe that Jesus had something to do with that,” Moore quipped during a conference call with a reported 55,000 people in 4,800 house parties coordinated by the liberal group MoveOn PAC, which plans to follow up with a July 11 phone bank to register voters in swing states.
“I’ve been feeling for a month that he [Jesus] has been very upset at that movie,” Moore continued. “So I think it was just his own little pay back this weekend. Our per-screen average was just $4 over Mel Gibson’s, but it was just enough, and I think I can say that, as a practicing Catholic.”
Moore’s scathing indictment of the Bush family’s connections to relatives of Osama Bin Laden, the president’s response to 9/11 and the war in Iraq is being viewed as a litmus test for liberals, much as the conservative Christian community regarded seeing the “The Passion” as a religious pilgrimage.
Anti-war groups purchased blocks of tickets, reminiscent of churches that sponsored sold-out screenings of Gibson’s movie. Another similarity is that both films benefited from controversy: Gibson’s for violence and allegations of anti-Semitism, and Moore’s for Disney’s refusal to let its subsidiary show the film because it was too political.
“Fahrenheit 9/11” earned an estimated $21.8 million in its first three days of release, making it the first documentary ever to debut as the highest-earning weekend film. It broke a box-office record for films opening on less than 1,000 screens set by “Rocky.”
While critics predicted Moore’s film would be “preaching to the choir,” he claimed exit polls showed that audiences included a cross section of Democrats and Republicans.
The movie sold out in Fayetteville, N.C., Moore said, home of Fort Bragg. He said he read a story about a church group bringing people in Tulsa, Okla., where the movie also sold out.
Early audiences reported enthusiastic—and even religious—reactions.
The Los Angeles Times described a Missouri woman, who after months of arguing with her son who said she shouldn’t trust President Bush prayed before the movie that “the Lord would open my eyes.” Coming out, the paper reported, she was in tears. “I feel like we haven’t seen the whole truth before,” she said.
Sixty members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro, N.C., bought advance tickets. “We knew it was going to be a sellout,” Tom Clayton, chairman of the church’s social-action committee told the Greensboro News & Record. “So we asked how many people from our church would want to go. Even without knowing what time it would be playing, 60 people signed up to see the movie.”
A peace group in Princeton, N.J., bought a block of tickets for a Sunday afternoon show, followed by a 75-minute discussion at a United Methodist Church across the street, according to a report in the Princeton Times.
The Friends Meeting House in West Hartford, Conn., was one venue for the “National Town Meeting” with Moore Monday night, according to the Hartford Courant.
Moore told MoveOn members listening on computers and speaker phones that he still gets emotional when he watches a scene with Lila Lipscomb, a woman from his hometown of Flint, Mich., whose son was killed in Iraq, reading his last letter home.
“I still cry each time when she reads that letter,” Moore said. “I’ve seen the film a hundred times. I didn’t know what the letter said when she read it, so I heard it for the first time while we were filming her on camera…. [I]t was so hard sitting in that room and tears were streaming down my face and then she gets to the part where essentially his last request is that he hopes that the people of our country do not elect that fool to the White House.”
“It was like a kick in the gut, and I thought the only way I can recover from this in this moment is I’ve just got to commit myself to honoring his last wish so that his death won’t be in vain,” Moore said. “We’ll do that for Michael Patterson, her son.”
Lipscomb, who has been bombarded by media calls since the movie opened, told the Flint Journal she thinks she knows why so many viewers are touched by her story.
“I believe it’s because it puts a heart to the war,” she said. “Because we’ve been so desensitized through the media ever since the war began. You’ll continuously show me beheaded people, but you won’t even show my son coming home being honored through Dover Air Force Base.”
Lipscomb said she represents not only her son. “It’s not just about me, and it’s not about my son. It’s about the over 850 other families–not counting the thousands and thousands of wounded and not counting the tens of thousands of Iraqis that have been killed and wounded.”
Moore invited supporters to set up voter-registration tables or hand out registration cards at theaters in their towns this weekend.
“This next weekend the people who come to see the film are truly not hard core,” he said. “They’re going to come because they heard this is the No. 1 movie in America and that it beat ‘White Chicks’ and ‘Dodge Ball.’ My guess is that a healthy number of them are going to be non-voters.”
He also urged everyone listening to take a weekend in October to visit a swing state and to take off work Nov. 2 and campaign all day.
“The other side, they are organized and they are historically much better at this than we are,” he said. “They are up at the crack of dawn figuring out ‘what group of Americans are we going to hurt?’ Our side, we never see the crack of dawn unless we’ve been up all night.”
“These people are not going to give up the White House without a fight, and they’ll stoop to whatever they have to do,” he said.
Supporters of the president meanwhile, attacked Moore’s film and questioned its accuracy.
Bill O’Reilly of the Fox News Channel called it “slick propaganda.” The White House said Moore is “outside the mainstream.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.