Starting with Florida and twisting its way through the war in Iraq, Michael Moore's new movie, ''Fahrenheit 9/11,'' by turns humiliates, condemns, and brutally diminishes the President and his inner circle. Other than Miramax's Harvey and Bob Weinstein -- who bought back ''Fahrenheit'' when Disney dumped it and are presumably busy rolling naked in money at the moment -- no one knows what to make of the phenomenon surrounding the movie, which soared to the top spot at the box office with $24 million and broke all kinds of records. Right-wing advocacy groups are trying to use federal campaign finance laws to force the ads for ''Fahrenheit'' off the air and out of print after July 30. Liberal organizations are marshaling supporters to go see the movie. Conservative critics are howling about errors and malicious omissions. Nobody is sure if it will make a difference in the election -- but with the race so close, the number of undecided voters so small, and the bases of the Republican and Democratic parties so rabid, it doesn't seem impossible.
Ever the giddy bomb thrower, Moore, 50, sat down with EW for his most candid and extensive discussion yet of ''Fahrenheit'' and its controversies.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You had to be really disappointed by the opening-weekend gross, right? You almost got beat by ''White Chicks.''
MICHAEL MOORE: [Laughs] I was thinking 10 million. Twelve, maybe. It's like if this week the No. 1 album on the Billboard chart was a compilation of Bulgarian folk music. That can't happen! The pundits were saying that only the Bush haters would see this film, and it's No. 1 everywhere. The red states and the blue states.
Was it your intention to take down Bush?
My intention was to make as good a film as I could make.
But this movie is an explicit political attack.
If you start out with that as your primary motivation you're doomed. Case in point: ''The Day After Tomorrow.'' Well-intentioned. Good politics. I saw it at 10 p.m. opening night and there was so much laughter that people started chanting ''RE-FUND! RE-FUND! RE-FUND!'' ''China Syndrome'' is the opposite. Well-made movie first, and then people were willing to open up and listen to the politics.
It seems to me that what you were trying to do was build the left's most sensational, potent case against this administration.
My own motivation [was the thought that] we can't leave this up to the Democrats. It's too serious now. I mean, this is a party that can't even win when they win. They lose when they win, you can't get more pathetic than that. We have to save them from themselves.
Is this why you pushed for it to be released on June 25? And the October DVD date? To directly assist the Democrats in the election?
Talk to me about Lila Lipscomb, the mother of a soldier who died in Iraq. The story of her political conversion makes up roughly the last third of the movie. How did you find her?
I didn't know her at all. In the first month or two of the war, I noticed that [some] soldiers had died from Flint. I said we should start calling some of [their relatives] and see if they'll talk to us. The first three people said they would, so immediately we were like, whoa, because military families tend to be more conservative. As we followed Lila's story for three months there was a really interesting arc, because she was essentially this conservative Democrat, very pro-military. And we saw this shift take place over a period of months, and so you see it in the film.
So the first time you met her, her son had already died in that helicopter crash?
That's right. It was a number of months after her son had died, I can get you the exact dates, but I just constructed it in such a way that you don't know he's dead until [later in the film].
The first flash point for most people seems to be the footage of Bush in the grade-school classroom, when he is informed of the planes hitting the towers on 9/11. You are essentially imagining what Bush is thinking then. That's pretty audacious.
It's in a satirical voice. ''Which one of them screwed me?'' Clearly he's not thinking that, but yeah, I'm imagining that in a satirical voice.
How'd you get the tape?
We called up [the school] and they said, ''Sure we made some tapes!'' Because parents wanted a tape of the President there. That's a home-video VHS that the teacher set on a tripod. And I'm telling you, we're being kind to Bush. You should see the longer version where I let it run for, like, three of the seven minutes. It is painful. PAINFUL!
People have problems with your portrayal of kids playing in Baghdad before the bombings. I get what you're going for there, that those positive images were never seen, but Saddam was a bad guy and there's nothing to that effect in the film.
Who doesn't know that Saddam was a bad guy? The media did a wonderful job hammering that home every day in order to convince the public that they should support the war. For 20 seconds in this film, I become essentially the only person to say, I want you to take a look at the human beings that were living in Iraq in 2003. The ones that we were going to bomb indiscriminately. In those 20 seconds I show a child in a barbershop, a young boy flying a kite, a couple getting married. People having lunch at a café. Anyone who takes that and says that I'm trying to say that Saddam's Iraq was some utopia is just a crackpot. The New York Times reports that our air strikes that week were zero for 50 in terms of hitting the targets. We killed a lot of civilians, and I think that we're going to have to answer for that -- whether it's now or in the hereafter. If you pay taxes and you're an American your name is on those bombs. They were human beings who were just trying to get on with their daily lives.
But if you'd just taken a second to show that they weren't exactly living under the best circumstances, that would have defused this criticism from the beginning. Right?
I refuse to participate in the brainwashing that the media was doing to the American public. I didn't need to state the obvious. Kurt Vonnegut in ''Slaughterhouse-Five'' isn't criticized for not showing the horrors of the Nazi regime even though he shows that the people who we firebombed in Dresden were essentially old men, women, and children. Is he doing something dishonest or wrong? I know it upsets a lot of people in the media that I'm not playing ball, that I'm not showing the images that they showed. I know it's embarrassing to them because anybody who sees my film now knows that you were only presented with one side.
There's a lot of stuff we haven't seen before in this movie. Wounded civilians, recuperating soldiers, casualties. How did you get it?
I realized early on that we were going to have to do an end run around those at the Pentagon and the way they were stage-managing the news. They successfully got the networks to drink the Kool-Aid. Some of it was from freelancers who were already there. Some of it was from freelancers we sent there. Some of it was from people who were there who we gave cameras to. Some of it was from foreign news. And some of it was from people in the American news media who were disgusted by how the news was being censored and filtered and that Americans were only given one view of the war.
Is that where the footage of Bush after he addresses the nation on the golf course comes from?
Correct. Because a deal is made and this is what the deal is: Bush is on the golf course. So they allow a pool camera in only to film the statement he's going to give. Nothing before or after -- and if you do film [before or after] you're not to use it. And publicists from the White House will stand blocking the camera before the statement starts and then move right back in to block the camera when it's done. But by the summer of '02 the media had been so complicit in presenting a good face on Bush [that] his people had started to relax, because they knew that the media would censor themselves. And so, sure enough, on the night when that ran, ''A message to all terrorists!'', everyone had the rest of it and nobody ran it. Because of this implied agreement that we're going to protect each other, Bush feels comfortable enough making a crack like that. [''Now, watch this drive!''] It's like the Marine recruiters that we show? To do that we had to get permission from the Marine Corps. So we called Marine Corps headquarters and I don't even have to get to the point of saying this is Michael Moore's film, because they don't ask. They just make the assumption if media is calling saying they want to film some recruiters doing their job, well, that's a positive story!
Did you get the footage of the sexual abuse before or after the prison scandal broke?
Why didn't you make it public? Or at least give it to the government?
I thought, What should we do? We don't have a show, we're not going to give it to these networks. They're all cheerleaders for Bush.
Do you really believe that?
There's not a single network I would give this footage to and expect them to handle it properly.
But isn't there a chance that you could have stopped this earlier? Don't you have to take that chance?
It's funny, you know, it's kinda damned if you do, damned if you don't. If I had released this before Cannes, they would have all said that this is a publicity stunt for this movie. And now they're killing me that I waited.
What's the next movie?
I go after these HMOs and these pharmaceutical companies. The style of the film is like ''Run Lola Run.'' I don't know if I can run that fast for hours, but I just thought, What if we were just relentless motherf---ers, because I can't think of anything more evil than these HMOs. We try to see how many lives we can save in 90 minutes.
Ever worry about your tone? I mean, this guy IS the President.
I understand what you're saying. He is the President of the United States. Look, here's a good example of how I feel about this. A couple of weeks ago, out here on Broadway, a guy comes up to me and says, ''I'm a Navy surgeon. And I was on a ship off Iraq the night you made your speech at the Oscars and I was very angry at you. I remember yelling with the others at the screen. Now I just want to apologize. You were right. You were telling the truth.'' And I said, Listen, you don't owe me any apology. Apologize for what? That you believed your Commander-in-Chief? That you believed the President of the United States? Why should you feel bad? You SHOULD believe the President, because if we can't believe our President we're in deep trouble. You don't have to apologize for anything. In fact, I want to thank you for offering to risk your life to defend us. I think it would make the founding fathers proud to see the country still survives in their first belief, that's why it's their First Amendment, that somebody has the ability to express themselves and criticize the top guy. That's the country they created. That's the country that gave us Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and Groucho Marx. And that can't be anything but a good thing for America.
(This is an online-only excerpt of Entertainment Weekly's July 9, 2004, cover story.)