- Fahrenheit 9/11 movie controversies include: Michael Moore vs. Disney honcho Michael Eisner, U.S. ally Kuwait ban, mysterious post-Sept. 11 middle-of-the-night flights involving powerful Saudi nationals, and Fahrenheit 451 author Ray Bradbury demanding his title back.
8 Fahrenheit 9/11 movie controversies: From Michael Moore battling Disney to mysterious middle-of-the-night flights
Since its June 2004 release in the United States – in fact, even before then – Fahrenheit 9/11 movie controversies have included the following:
- Michael Moore accusing Mel Gibson and Icon Productions of reneging on an agreement to handle the anti-Iraq War, anti-U.S. President George W. Bush documentary.
- The Fahrenheit 9/11 filmmaker battling Walt Disney Company honcho Michael Eisner, who became all squeamish about releasing the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or winner.
- Fahrenheit 9/11 getting banned by U.S. ally Kuwait and getting shown on Cuban television without the filmmaker’s permission.
- Mysterious post-Sept. 11 middle-of-the-night flights involving prominent Saudi nationals (as passengers) and U.S. law enforcement (as the Saudis’ protectors).
- Ray Bradbury, author of the classic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, carping about Michael Moore having hijacked the title of his book.
Michael Moore vs. Mel Gibson + Disney/Michael Eisner
Fahrenheit 9/11 movie controversies no. 1 & no. 2: The multifarious Fahrenheit 9/11 controversies began long before the release of the anti-Iraq War, anti-George W. Bush White House, anti-U.S. Media Cravenness blockbuster documentary. In fact, back-and-forth accusations were hurled from various sides even before Moore had shot a single foot of film.
It all began in April 2003, when Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions rejected handling the Moore project that evolved into Fahrenheit 9/11. As described in Edward Jay Epstein’s May 2005 Slate article “Paranoia for Fun and Profit: How Disney and Michael Moore cleaned up on Fahrenheit 9/11,” Moore would later claim that he had a signed contract with Icon before Gibson bowed out due to pressure from the White House. Icon executives, however, have denied that any such contract ever existed.
Shortly after the Icon debacle, Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax bought the distribution rights to the planned documentary. That would lead to an even more notorious controversy the following year – a U.S. presidential election year – when Miramax’s parent company, Walt Disney, halted the release of the polemical film.
Cheap self-promotion & Cannes win
When Michael Moore went public about the ban, Disney President Michael Eisner accused the director of cheap self-promotion, as, in a matter of days, Fahrenheit 9/11 was to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival – where, ultimately, it would become the second nonfiction film to win the Palme d’Or. (The first was Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Louis Malle’s The Silent World / Le Monde du silence back in 1956.)
At the time, Moore’s agent, Ari Emanuel, countered that Michael Eisner had “expressed particular concern that [releasing Fahrenheit 9/11] would endanger tax breaks Disney receives for its theme park, hotels and other ventures in Florida, where Mr. Bush’s brother, Jeb, is governor.”
Most successful documentary in history
As it turned out, despite their unwillingness to release Fahrenheit 9/11 on American screens, Disney and Michael Eisner had no qualms about profiting from the unprecedented success of the anti-Bush documentary after Miramax, via Harvey and his brother Bob Weinstein’s newly formed Fellowship Adventure Group, outsourced the movie’s U.S. distribution rights to Lionsgate Films and IFC Films, and the DVD rights to Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.
Epstein states that the studio pocketed – after expenses – around $46 million from the film’s theatrical release and DVD sales.
That figure shouldn’t be too surprising. With a reported $119.2 million from U.S. and Canadian movie houses, plus $103.2 million internationally – for a worldwide grand total of $222.4 million – Fahrenheit 9/11 became by far the most financially successful documentary in history.
Banned by U.S. ally Kuwait
Fahrenheit 9/11 movie controversy no. 3: In August 2004, Michael Moore’s documentary was banned by U.S. ally Kuwait.
“We have a law that prohibits insulting friendly nations, and ties between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are special,” the cinema and production supervisor at the Kuwaiti information ministry told The Associated Press.
He added that the film “insulted the Saudi royal family by saying they had common interests with the Bush family and that those interests contradicted with the interests of the American people.”
Needless to say, Fahrenheit 9/11 will also not be available on Saudi television – since 1983, movie theaters have been banned in the theocratic Muslim country. Locals will be able to check out Moore’s criticism of the U.S. government’s ties with the Saudi kingdom only if they travel abroad or get a hold of bootlegged copies.
Illegal Cuban broadcast
Fahrenheit 9/11 movie controversy no. 4: In Cuba, there hasn’t been any Fahrenheit 9/11 ban. In fact, an illegal print of Michael Moore’s documentary was aired on Cuban television in July 2004.
Since the broadcast had not been sanctioned by either the filmmaker or the producers, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided that Fahrenheit 9/11 was to remain eligible in the Academy Awards’ Best Documentary Feature category.
At that time, an arcane Academy rule prevented eligible documentaries – but not fiction films – from being shown on TV anywhere in the world until nine months after their initial theatrical release. (That rule was changed this past January.)
Eventually, Michael Moore chose not to submit his film to the Academy’s documentary committee because he wanted it aired on American television before the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 5.
On his website, Moore stated that other worthy documentaries should get their share of attention, while adding that Fahrenheit 9/11 would still be eligible in the Best Picture and other Oscar categories.
Ultimately, despite its enormous popularity and timely topic, Fahrenheit 9/11 failed to receive a single Academy Award nomination.
German TV hit
Uncontroversial but noteworthy all the same was the German broadcast of Fahrenheit 9/11.
According to the ratings organization AGF/GfK, last Nov. 1 an estimated 6.7 million German viewers, representing an 18.6 percent market share, watched Moore’s documentary in its first primetime showing, courtesy of the commercial channel ProSieben.
The film’s strong anti-George W. Bush stance has been well received in Germany, where an overwhelming majority of the population opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
As found in The Hollywood Reporter, Fahrenheit 9/11 amassed approximately $7 million at the German box office, the second largest take for a documentary in that country, following Michael Moore’s own Best Documentary Feature Oscar winner Bowling for Columbine (2002).
Middle-of-the-night Saudi flights
Fahrenheit 9/11 movie controversy no. 5: In his film, Michael Moore points out that in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., the FBI helped several Osama bin Laden relatives to leave the United States – without interviewing them before their departure and at a time when airplanes were grounded for just about everybody else.
Moore alleges that the prominent Saudis were able to leave the U.S. due to the strong ties binding the George W. Bush White House and the Saudi Royal Family.
The Bush Administration denied the accusation, while their apologists accused Moore of coming up with baseless conspiracy theories.
In late March 2005, however, a New York Times article revealed that the FBI did indeed facilitate chartered flights for “dozens of well-connected Saudis.”
Ray Bradbury waits for Michael Moore phone call
Fahrenheit 9/11 movie controversy no. 6: In a June 2004 interview with NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell, Fahrenheit 451 author Ray Bradbury expressed his displeasure with Michael Moore for having “borrowed” the title of his 1963 dystopian novel – about systematic book-burning in a totalitarian state – without his consent.
“Well, I’m very unhappy about it, because he borrowed my title six months ago and never called me. I found out about it in Variety magazine. And I called Variety and I said, what is this Michael Moore doing borrowing the title of my book?
Next, Bradbury called Moore’s production company.
“So they told me that Michael Moore would call me that afternoon. That was six months ago. He never called. Finally, a week ago, he finally called me […] and he was very embarrassed and self-conscious.
“He said, ‘I’ve made a terrible mistake. I grew up on your books and I love Fahrenheit 451 and I didn’t realize what I was doing and I shouldn’t have done it.’
“I said, ‘I wish you would give me my title back, because it’s not fair, what you’re doing.’ He said he would call me again this week and he never has.
According to Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper catches fire.
According to Michael Moore, “Fahrenheit 9/11” is the temperature at which freedom burns.
An aside: There seems to be “no authoritative value” for the temperature at which paper auto-ignites.
February 2019 update: Michael Moore’s embarrassment and self-consciousness vis-à-vis the title of Ray Bradbury’s book had apparently dissipated by September 2018, when Fahrenheit 11/9 came out.
This Fahrenheit 9/11 movie “sequel” offers at look at the increasingly authoritarian Donald Trump presidency, its nefarious ties to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, out-of-control gun violence in the United States, and other hair-raising issues.
Less well-regarded than its predecessor – despite a Writers Guild Award nomination – Fahrenheit 11/9 also turned out to be a major box office dud, collecting a mere $6.35 million in the domestic market.
This time around there were no direct complaints from Ray Bradbury, who had died at age 91 in June 2012.
Bloody war = Big profits
February 2006 update – Fahrenheit 9/11 movie controversy no. 7: In Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore accuses major American corporations of exploiting the Iraq War to increase their profits.
But how inhumane (and inhuman) could they possibly be?
Here’s one instance, according to a February 2006 New York Times report:
“The Army has decided to reimburse a Halliburton subsidiary for nearly all of its disputed costs on a $2.41 billion no-bid contract to deliver fuel and repair oil equipment in Iraq, even though the Pentagon’s own auditors had identified more than $250 million in charges as potentially excessive or unjustified.”
Iraq War has led to more terrorist attacks
March 2006 update – Fahrenheit 9/11 movie controversy no. 8: Although officially a crucial front in the George W. Bush Administration’s so-called “War on Terror,” the occupation of Iraq has led, quite literally, to an explosion of terrorist attacks in that country.
As a safeguard of sorts, Iraqis have begun buying terrorism insurance policies – the only such offerings in the world. As per the New York Times, the coverage includes “1) explosions caused by weapons of war and car bombs; 2) assassinations; 3) terrorist attacks.”
Gilbert Burnham, of the U.S.-based Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Reuters, “We estimate that as a consequence of the coalition invasion … about 655,000 Iraqis have died above the number that would be expected in a non-conflict situation.”
Largely ignoring the role American public opinion played on the launching of the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, a March 2006 New York Times editorial concluded:
“The Iraq debacle ought to serve as a humbling lesson for future generations of American leaders – although, if our leaders were capable of being humbled, they could have simply looked back to Vietnam. …
“While we are distracted by picking up the pieces, there is no time to imagine what the world might be like if George Bush had chosen to see things as they were instead of how he wanted them to be three years ago. History will have more time to consider the question.”
“Fahrenheit 9/11 Movie: 8 Controversies” notes
North American critics’ favorite nonfiction film
 As mentioned above, purported “liberal bias” or no on the part of the Academy, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 failed to receive a single Oscar nod. North American critics, however, were enthusiastic about it.
An awards-season blockbuster, Fahrenheit 9/11 was chosen as 2004’s Best Nonfiction Film/Best Documentary by the following local/regional critics groups: Chicago, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Florida, Kansas City, Las Vegas, New York, Phoenix, San Francisco, Southeastern, and Vancouver, in addition to the Online Film Critics Society and the Broadcast Film Critics Association’s Critics’ Choice Awards.
Fahrenheit 9/11 was also the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Best Documentary runner-up and one of the recipients of the National Board of Review’s Freedom of Expression Award.
Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees
- Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni’s The Story of the Weeping Camel.
- Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me.
- Lauren Lazin’s Tupak: Resurrected.
- Kirby Dick’s Twist of Faith.
- The eventual winner, Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids.
Fahrenheit 451 movie versions
The film stars Best Actor Oscar nominee Oskar Werner (Ship of Fools, 1965) as the totalitarian state’s book-burning officer turned book reader and Best Actress Oscar winner Julie Christie (Darling, 1965) as the two women in his life (his conformist wife and a subversive schoolteacher), in addition to Cyril Cusack, Anton Diffring, and Jeremy Spenser.
February 2019 update: Directed by Ramin Bahrani from a screenplay by Bahrani and Amir Naderi, a poorly received 2018 adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 stars Michael B. Jordan in the old Oskar Werner role, Sofia Boutella (as a single character), and two-time Best Supporting Actor nominee Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, 2008; Nocturnal Animals, 2017).
A week after its 2018 Cannes Film Festival premiere, Bahrani’s Fahrenheit 451 was presented on HBO.
“Fahrenheit 9/11 Movie” endnotes
Fahrenheit 9/11 movie poster and Michael Moore/John Tanner image: Lionsgate Films | IFC Films.
Oskar Werner Fahrenheit 451 image: Universal Pictures.
“Fahrenheit 9/11 Movie: 8 Controversies About Documentary Blockbuster” last updated in December 2022.