‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ movie controversy no. 1: Michael Moore vs. mighty Walt Disney Company
Fahrenheit 9/11 movie controversies began long before the release of the anti-George W. Bush White House, anti-Iraq War, anti-U.S. media cravenness Michael Moore 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.com article “Paranoia for Fun and Profit: How Disney and Michael Moore cleaned up on Fahrenheit 9/11,” Moore later claimed 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 thereafter, Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax bought the distribution rights to the planned documentary. That would lead to an even more notorious Fahrenheit 9/11 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, his Fahrenheit 9/11 movie was to be screened at the 2004 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 in 1956.)
At the time, Moore’s agent, Ari Emanuel, countered that 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 $119.19 million from U.S. and Canadian movie houses, plus $103.25 million internationally – for a worldwide grand total of $222.44 million – Fahrenheit 9/11 has become by far the most financially successful documentary in history.
‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ movie controversy no. 2: Ray Bradbury vs. Michael Moore
In a June 2004 interview with NBC News‘ Andrea Mitchell, author Ray Bradbury expressed his displeasure with Michael Moore, who adapted the title of his 1963 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 – about systematic book-burning in a totalitarian state† – without Bradbury’s 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 Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper catches fire. According to Moore, “Fahrenheit 9/11” is the temperature at which freedom burns.
February 2019 update: Michael Moore’s embarrassment and self-consciousness had apparently dissipated by September 2018, when his Fahrenheit 11/9, about 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 WGA 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.
‘Fahrenheit 451’ movie versions
† Directed by François Truffaut from a screenplay by Truffaut and Jean-Louis Richard, Fahrenheit 451 was first transferred to the screen in 1966. The film stars Oskar Werner as the book incinerator-turned-book reader, Julie Christie in a double role, and Cyril Cusack.
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), in addition to 1960s veteran Keir Dullea (Bunny Lake Is Missing, 2001: A Space Odyssey) in a small role.
A week after its 2018 Cannes Film Festival premiere, Bahrani’s Fahrenheit 451 was presented on HBO.
As an aside, there seems to be “no authoritative value” for the temperature at which paper auto-ignites.
‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ movie controversy no. 3: Banned + broadcast illegally
Fahrenheit 9/11 has been banned by U.S. allies Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, there hasn’t been any such ban in Cuba. 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 Moore or the film’s 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.
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 as Best Picture and in other Oscar categories. Ultimately, despite its enormous popularity and timely topic, Fahrenheit 9/11 failed to receive a single Academy Award nomination.*
German television hit
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 Fahrenheit 9/11 in its first primetime showing, courtesy of the commercial channel ProSieben.
The documentary’s strong anti-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).
* The five Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees of 2004 were Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni’s The Story of the Weeping Camel, Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, Kirby Dick’s Twist of Faith, Lauren Lazin’s Tupak: Resurrected, and the eventual winner, Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids.
‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ movie controversy no. 4: Middle-of-the-night flights
Michael Moore points out in Fahrenheit 9/11, 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.
In the film, Moore alleges that the prominent Saudis were able to leave the U.S. as a result of the close 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.”
See below the Fahrenheit 9/11 trailer:
‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ movie controversy no. 5: Bloody war = Big profits
February 2006 update: 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 U.S. 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.”
Indirect ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ movie controversy: Iraq War has led to more terrorist attacks
March 2006 update: Though officially a crucial front in the 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 “the following dangers: 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.”
North American critics’ favorite nonfiction film
As mentioned above, the Academy’s supposed “liberal bias” or no, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 failed to receive a single Oscar nod. North American critics, however, were enthusiastic about the film.
Moore’s documentary 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/Critics’ Choice Awards.
Fahrenheit 9/11 was also the Los Angeles Film Critics Association‘s Best Documentary runner-up.
Fahrenheit 9/11 movie images and trailer: Lionsgate Films.
Oskar Werner Fahrenheit 451 image: Universal Pictures.
“Fahrenheit 9/11 Movie Controversies: Michael Moore vs. Disney & Ray Bradbury” last updated in February 2019.