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Byline: Judy Bachrach
It is not insignificant that, about a year ago, Michael Moore's campaign on behalf of his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 was dubbed "the war room"-a reference to the operation that once got Bill Clinton elected president. It was even led by some warrior-like Clintonians: Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane. Their job, says Lehane, was to ensure that "virtually every day Fahrenheit 9/11 did something to create news and drive the coverage in a way that defined the movie on our terms and occupied significant media real estate." A sit-down with the New York Times editorial board, an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. ABC, USA Today. His own Web site. Media real estate that became the home of volcanic Moore-isms: George W. Bush? "A deserter." John Kerry? "Of course he's a lousy candidate-he's a Democrat, for heaven's sake!"
War happens to be Moore's second profession-one in which he attracts substantial comrades-in-arms. "I love him," says Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein, who, with his brother, Bob, backed the film as well as the media blitz that promoted it. "I think he walks a lonely path."
But surely not a quiet one. In Moore's wake are a humiliated sitting president (Fahrenheit 9/11); an eviscerated automobile czar (Roger & Me); and the aging icon Charlton Heston (Bowling for Columbine), once the head of the National Rifle Association. Moore's newest project, Sicko, about the health-care industry, for which he will be paid about $25 million, will have a more resilient target: "It'll never be the same for the H.M.O.'s again," says Moore.
He is meeting me in early December-late, as usual, blaming his tardiness on the publicist-at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles. It is four days after he appeared (in a suit!) on "Jay," as he has taken to calling The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Moore, who has never been publicity-shy, is running the biggest leg of his campaign so far in order to land a best-picture Oscar for Fahrenheit 9/11. Within short order he will receive the award for best nonfiction film from the New York Film Critics Circle and a People's Choice award for favorite film. Why, he has even accepted a VH1 Big Boat Rocker of '04 award from Sharon Stone. "A very smart and generous person," says Moore of the film star, who also sat on the jury that awarded him a Cannes Film Festival prize for Bowling for Columbine, in 2002-the very year it got an Oscar for best feature-length documentary. He has learned a lot about show business since his days as a deflated activist, dismissed first by Mother Jones magazine and then by Ralph Nader, and living on $99-a-week unemployment.
But perhaps not quite enough. There is a sizable number of opinion molders who wonder whether Moore affected the last presidential election in ways he had not intended. Jon Feltheimer, C.E.O. of Lions Gate Entertainment, which swooped in to help save Fahrenheit 9/11 when Disney's Michael Eisner backed out, says, "I've been told a number of times, 'Isn't it great what you've done for the party?' And that's interesting because, frankly, when I first saw it I was very concerned this movie would create a backlash." Then Feltheimer says, "I'm just not sure it didn't also mobilize the Republican side."
When I tell Moore what Feltheimer said, he does not appear pleased. During our second interview, he erupts with a rant against Lions Gate. "Lions Gate is trying to sell the company. Look at their press releases since the film came out! Look at their stock, how it's been going up since the film came out. How they used this whole thing in terms of how it's a benefit for them!"
Not that much of a benefit, according to Tom Ortenberg, a top Lions Gate executive. "It was a pleasure and an honor to work on Fahrenheit," he says. "But it didn't do all that much for our bottom line. It is only our fourth-most-profitable movie this year. Saw was No. 1. But it did establish our name-brand identity."
Feltheimer is not alone in his reservations about Fahrenheit 9/11's long-term political consequences. "As you energize one group, you energize another group that's potentially more powerful," crows David Bossie, the head of the right-wing Citizens United. "Michael Moore was a major factor in galvanizing the Republican vote." The newsletter of pollster John Zogby informed readers that many respondents last summer viewed Fahrenheit 9/11 as "an attack not just on Bush, but on themselves and their values." Zogby sees the Democratic defeat as mostly "Kerry's fault.... But Michael Moore had something to do with it. He's too hot a figure."
"The movie struck me as being out-and-out propaganda," says Steve Grossman, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, who also chaired Howard Dean's failed campaign for the presidential nomination. "While the Michael Moore film and phenomenon helped create unprecedented unity and energy," he says, picking his words, "it was in a deceptively small segment of the Democratic Party and base. And then there was the law of unintended consequences," meaning, says Grossman, "the unprecedented turnout may have had something to do with the fact that the other side would not allow their president to be trashed by Michael Moore."
"Grossman said that?" Moore is thoroughly disgusted. "Typical liberal response.... Someone actually has his finger on the pulse of the American public and got millions out to vote!" He possesses no false modesty. "What I did, what MoveOn did, what Bruce Springsteen did-we prevented a Bush landslide."
The filmmaker, it may be safely concluded, is never loath to take credit for seismic political events. As his former manager Douglas Urbanski …