July 4 is a date fraught "with significance in the American political calendar. It is the birthday of a nation, a celebration of its independence, and a photo-op bonanza for the Washington political machine run by the Republican and Democratic parties. No different in pageantry from any other year, July 4, 2004, was, however, a celebration apart. Left and right, the nation flocked to see a partisan attack from a filmmaker who, with a verve and chutzpah that harkened back to the radical 1960s, made political waves from Hollywood to Washington. The filmmaker was, of course, Michael Moore; the target, George W. Bush; the film, Fahrenheit 9/11.
Not known for reticence when it comes to commandeering media spotlight, Moore, on July 4, 2004, issued an open cybercommuniqué that celebrated the sundry ways in which his Canneswinnmg documentary made American film history. Entitled "My Wild First Week with Fahrenheit 9/11 " the e-mail revealed that in one weekend, the movie "was seen by more people than all those "who saw Bowling for Columbine in nine months; that it broke Rocky Ill's record for the biggest opening weekend for any film in less than a thousand theaters; and, perhaps most astonishing, that it beat the opening weekend receipts of Return of the Jedi. Writing on July 4, Moore could not yet know that in two more weeks, Fahrenheit 9/11 would break the $100 million landmark, becoming the highest-earning documentary in Hollywood's history and smashing the box office record set in 2002 by his own Bowling for Columbine, which clocked in under $30 million.
One can hardly blame the director for exulting over his success; in a nation addicted to Hollywood features, few documentary filmmakers ever cross over from art houses and rep theater to nationwide popularity or even stardom. Beside Errol Morris, director of The Thin Blue Line (1988) and The Fog of War (2003), or Morgan Spurlock, recognized from the recent sleeper hit, Super Size Me (2004), only Ken Burns, America's film-historian laureate, has carved out for himself a prominent place in the general public's mind. Here, however, all similarities end. Rightly renowned for his Civil War (1990) ma Jazz (2001) epics, Burns is not known for his political convictions. While not shying away from socially minded sentiments when necessitated by his historical material, Burns's work is unapologetic in its patriotic evocations of American political mythology.
If the difference between David Letterman and Michael Moore is one between a satirist and an activist, the difference between Ken Burns and Michael Moore is one between an apolitical and a political filmmaker. Almost single-handedly, it seems, Moore kindled interest in partisan involvement and political movie-making, making them seem not only fashionable, but almost fun. What makes this turnaround even more remarkable is the virtual absence of American political cinema historically. This is not to say that Hollywood has never evinced interest in politics or has never churned out a picture with the White House as a backdrop. There were, after all, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939); there were the First World War and second World War bond sale campaigns; there was the election of one of its own to Washington in the 1980s and to Sacramento in 2003; and of course, there was, is, and forever shall be Hollywood-abiding aptitude for political fund-raising.
Actors like Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Barbra Streisand, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, and Warren Beatty, to name only a few, have long been known for their political opinions, and equally, for not shying from airing them in public. "I don't think there's enough political films here or anywhere," Sean Penn told BBC News at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, which awarded the best film prize to Michael Moore. An outspoken critic of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Penn was promoting The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004), a film that, though not ostensibly political, promises to inflame passions left and right. …