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Responding to Michael Moore

Movies | Filmmakers are quickly producing documents to counter the charges of anti-Bush documentaries

Issue: "2004 Election: Clinch time," Oct. 30, 2004

Fahrenheit 9/11. Bush's Brain. The Corporation. The Hunting of the President. Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry. Outfoxed. Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War. The remarkable number of liberal documentaries running in theaters has become one of the stories of this election cycle. Fahrenheit 9/11 led the charge early in the summer, and, perhaps due in part to the financial success of Michael Moore's film, the floodgates opened.

But, as the election draws near, one of the sub-stories of this phenomenon is the conservative response-not on op-ed pages or cable news networks, but on film. And in the long run, because of the paucity of such efforts historically, this may become the bigger story.

Two of these conservative films are direct responses to Mr. Moore's film and are now in circulation: Celsius 41.11 and Fahrenhype 9/11. Celsius 41.11's obscure temperature reference is explained in its subtitle: "The Temperature at Which the Brain Begins to Die." Citizens United, a conservative advocacy group headed by Dave Bossie, financed the film, its first foray into feature-length documentary filmmaking, and Mr. Bossie served as executive producer.

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Mr. Bossie says he "took the idea to the best in Hollywood and convinced them how necessary this project was to complete." In this case, that was the writing/producing team of Lionel Chetwynd and Ted Steinberg, and director Kevin Knoblock. Once the creative team was in place, the film was completed in a short seven weeks.

The finished product is different from Mr. Moore's film not just in ideological content, but also, very dramatically, in style. While Mr. Moore's approach relies heavily on innuendo and incomplete arguments, Celsius is a carefully measured, serious analysis of five main points raised by Mr. Moore, listed onscreen early in the film: the 2000 election, WMDs, the Patriot Act, and Bush administration actions before and after Sept. 11.

With the exception of some brutal footage of pre-war Iraq and frank scenes of profane anti-war protests, which earned the film an "R" rating from the MPAA, Celsius relies primarily on talking heads like Fred Barnes, Fred Thompson, and Charles Krauthammer to make its case.

Many critics-and some audiences-will be put off by Celsius's measured, sometimes dry approach. But both Mr. Bossie and Mr. Chetwynd went into the project with set parameters. "I didn't want to make a cheap shot," said Mr. Chetwynd. Mr. Bossie was on the same page: "Unlike Michael Moore, we have no desire to be reckless with the facts. We also don't think the War on Terror is a very funny subject."

Fahrenhype 9/11 is gaining most of its exposure from two sources: Dick Morris's many appearances on the Fox News Channel, and through online discount retailer Overstock.com. It won't be in theaters but is available on DVD. Mr. Morris, a former aide to President Clinton, was one of the film's chief instigators, co-writing it with Lee Troxler and Eileen McGann.

The Fahrenhype team also worked on an extremely compressed time schedule, beginning production in September and releasing the film on the same day that the Fahrenheit DVD hit store shelves earlier this month. Fahrenhype is closer in style to Mr. Moore's film, organized under broad topic headings (like "Propaganda") that debunk specific aspects of Fahrenheit. However, Fahrenhype, narrated by actor Ron Silver, also relies heavily on talking heads like Mr. Morris, Ann Coulter, and Ed Koch.

Fahrenhype's strongest moments, though, come from interviews with several people who appeared onscreen in Fahrenheit itself. Sarasota Elementary School Principal Gwendolyn Tose-Rigell, who was with President Bush on the morning of Sept. 11, walks viewers through those infamous seven minutes (the film claims it was actually five), and explains why she respects the way the president handled himself. In another scene, Sgt. Peter Damon, a double-amputee referred to in Mr. Moore's film as one of the soldiers "left behind" by U.S. policies, vehemently disputes Mr. Moore's implications.

While Fahrenhype is available on DVD, Celsius may have scored the biggest distribution coup, showing across the country in about 150 theaters. "The thing about being conservative in Hollywood is that you have to accept the prevailing culture," notes Mr. Chetwynd. "Every time you get a seat at the table, you win a small victory."

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