Fahrenheit 2004 

Remembering the movies that heated up theaters this year.

The Moore the Merrier

One film looms over all others in 2004: Fahrenheit 9/11, released in the heat of summer and the heat of an election-year battle, cast all comers in its estimable shadow and renders them moot. Combined, the dozen or so political docs that received theatrical distribution this year didn't make a fraction of its fortunes, and deservedly so, because not one of them was a good movie -- meaning not one outraged, engaged, or entertained the way Michael Moore's did, no matter who you were voting for.

Love the guy or hate the guy -- and it's possible to do both, even if (or especially if) you agree with him -- he's still a masterful director, a street-corner propagandist whose sense of outrage is tempered by his sense of humor. He's too sloppy to make converts and too infuriated to make peace, but his was never offered as straight-up documentary; it's political cartoonery, as A.O. Scott pointed out in The New York Times, exaggeration born of genuine rage. And now, with his regime change failed, it looks even a bit quaint -- a man shaking his fist at millions of moviegoers who patted him on the head while on their way to vote for the guy he hates the most.

To list the other political docs released in 2004 would take up the rest of this small space; to add the others released on video and sold over the Web would eat up the rest of this issue. Suffice it to say Moore launched two separate industries: There were movies that looked an awful lot like Fahrenheit (Liberty Bound and Robert Greenwald's Uncovered: The War in Iraq) and movies that existed as its antithesis (George W. Bush: Faith in the White House, Michael Moore Hates America, and the incredibly dunderheaded Celsius 41.11). They all preached to the choir; none would make a single convert or, for the most part, more than a single dime.

Some of the better political docs focused not on politics, but on the media outlets that report on them, and quite poorly at that: Control Room, an even-handed look at Al-Jazeera, damned by the US government as the terrorists' CNN; Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, Greenwald's no-shit movie about how Fox News Channel is the Bush administration's private press room; and Danny Schechter's disturbing WMD: Weapons of Mass Distraction, which revealed how easily the media can be manipulated in the interests of maintaining the illusion of access. And for those with good-ol'-days nostalgia, there was The Hunting of the President, about the right-wing conspiracy to take down Bill Clinton. Smell that? I am inhaling, and exhaling, as you read this. -- Robert Wilonsky

The Gospel According to Mel

Who needs studio publicists when every fundamentalist pastor in the country is herding his flock to the multiplex? Why waste good money on TV spots when the Vatican is handing out rave reviews? No doubt about it, Thomas, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was a phenomenon unlike any in Hollywood's long and florid history -- a product fanatically presold by people who rarely go to movies, a $25 million gamble that won a major ideological victory for Right over Left, an act of faith drenched in blood. What else was it? Depends who you talked to. Believers said this 126-minute depiction of Jesus Christ's final hours as a mortal earthling was a cinematic "miracle," and many of them returned to watch it four or five times -- with their wide-eyed kindergartners in tow. Appalled skeptics called it medieval anti-Semitism boiling with hatred and the ancient blood libel.

However various beholders took it, Gibson has clearly come a ways since Mad Max. Claiming that "the Holy Ghost was working through me," the action star who has morphed into an extremist Catholic zealot depicted Jesus' agony as a lurid horror movie complete with rods and studded whips, a vengeance-crazed mob screaming for crucifixion and the kind of trip up Calvary that the perpetrators of Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street could scarcely have imagined. Having splashed actor Jim Caviezel's torment-wracked body with quarts of sticky blood, director Mel nailed him brutally to the cross and nailed his vast audiences with the inescapable notion that since his version of the Passion may not be the Greatest Story Ever Told, it may as well be the Goriest.

Alas, poor Michael Moore was left with no more fluent reply in the US culture war than to bop George W. Bush a few times on the nose in Fahrenheit 9/11. As for Caviezel, he recovered quite nicely from his wounds, thank you. He was spotted just a few months later at the Westchester Country Club, swinging a niblick in something called Bobby Jones, Stroke of Genius, a movie about the resurrection of a golfer. -- Bill Gallo

History Kinda Repeats Itself

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," exhorts a character in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It's advice that makers of historically and biographically based movies seem to have taken to heart. After all, why let a few pesky facts get in the way of a good story?

Numerous movies based on "real" people were released in 2004. While few, if any, choose the straight mythological route, just about all of them omitted, condensed, or modified facts. Among the epics and biopics were Alexander, Kinsey, Ray, Beyond the Sea (about Bobby Darin), Finding Neverland (Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie), The Motorcycle Diaries (prerevolutionary Che Guevara), The Aviator (eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes), and De-Lovely (songwriter Cole Porter). Even King Arthur played around with the truth, although that's easier to do when nobody quite knows what the truth was.

John Logan, who wrote the screenplay for The Aviator, speaks for many writers when he says that he considers himself a dramatist, not an historian. But he is drawn to stories about real people and events, and is not cavalier about messing with the historical record. The very fact that a writer chooses to concentrate on a particular period of a person's life -- in the case of The Aviator, Hughes' love of flight -- means that he is "editing" that life.

Because a two- or even three-hour movie could never cover all the bases of a person's life, events are condensed or eliminated altogether, and supporting characters are rolled into one. At other times, the truth is a mere inconvenience, and is therefore softened in the belief that if the subject's true personality were disclosed, nobody would want to see a movie about him.

Neither Ray nor Kinsey hesitates to reveal their heroes' less than admirable qualities, though both films do soft-pedal the negative. Kinsey (Liam Neeson) admits at one point that he has become addicted to barbiturates. His alleged real-life drug intake was far greater than that simple line suggests, as was his level of promiscuity. But given that cultural conservatives campaigned against the film before it even started shooting, omitting some of the more sordid details was probably a wise decision. -- Jean Oppenheimer

Here's to You, Mrs. Robinson

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