Now that Michael Moore's documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" has been awarded the Palme d'Or, the highest award of the Cannes film festival, the American film industry faces a critical test.
Controversial and of the moment, praised by most reviewers and now internationally acclaimed, "Fahrenheit 9/11" surely meets the critical standard for wide distribution in the United States. In addition, Moore's track record of producing commercially successful films and television programs, as well as best-selling books such as "Stupid White Men," provides all the economic argument that ought to be needed for getting "Fahrenheit 9/11" into the theaters.
Yet Moore has struggled with distribution issues. The Walt Disney Co., the mouse that does not have the courage to roar, refused to place the documentary in theaters because doing so might offend the Bush administration. Other major media corporations have apparently felt similarly intimidated, so questions remain about how thorough the distribution of "Fahrenheit 9/11" will be.
That the administration does not want this film to be seen by the American people is now blatantly obvious. There is talk that Republican operatives may file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, apparently on the theory that artistic expression and free speech ought to be limited in election years.
In case there was any doubt as to the source of the anti-Moore pressures, White House communications director Dan Bartlett went to the unusual extreme of condemning "Fahrenheit 9/11" before he, or presumably anyone else on the Bush-Cheney team, had seen it.
"It's so outrageously false," grumbled Bartlett when asked about the documentary.
Bartlett knows a thing or two about outrageous falsehoods. After all, he has had to try to explain away all those discredited claims by George Bush, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell regarding Iraqi weapons, nuclear programs and terrorist connections that were peddled in order to lead America into an unwise and unnecessary war.
Regarding Moore's documentary, Bartlett is wrong. What makes the film so powerful, according to critics and the judges at Cannes, is its heavy reliance on archival footage of a disengaged and disingenuous President Bush.
Moore does not need to try to create false impressions. He indicts Bush by letting the president speak for himself, and by showing him golfing, boating, fishing and generally avoiding work and responsibility even after he had been warned that terrorists intended to attack the United States; failing to respond when he learned of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; and then exploiting the fear and frustration that followed those attacks to promote an unwise and unnecessary war with Iraq.
Some viewers will love "Fahrenheit 9/11," others will hate it. And that's the point. Moore makes documentaries that are funny, frightening, provocative and likely to sell tickets. That should have the film industry salivating at the prospect of getting a piece of the action.
So what's wrong with Disney? In an era of big media, when consolidated corporations control more and more of our communications, supersize companies such as Disney don't like to offend powerful interests. They would rather use their powerful distribution network to peddle cheap titillation and sports.
Ultimately, "Fahrenheit 9/11" will be distributed. But the extent and quality of that distribution remain uncertain, not because there is any doubt about its potential appeal but because of the chilling of free expression in George W. Bush's America.
And that is where the test for the film industry comes: Now that "Fahrenheit 9/11" has been honored by the judges at Cannes with their top prize, if it does not receive the widest possible distribution then the chill is turning into a freeze on the freedoms that all Americans should seek to defend.
Copyright 2003 The Capital Times