Michael Moore's controversial anti-Bush documentary draws applause, but reviews are mixed

By Leah Rozen
Updated May 18, 2004 03:00 PM

Everyone’s favorite question upon seeing every movie at the Cannes Film Festival this year is, “What will Quentin think?”

They’re talking, of course, about director-writer Quentin Tarantino, who is heading up the jury responsible for deciding which of the 19 films in the official competition (which includes Shrek 2) wins the grand prize, to be awarded next Saturday. (Tarantino’s latest movie, Kill Bill – Vol. 2, was screened at Cannes over the weekend, but is in the “out of competition” category.)

The big man on the Croisette on Monday was Michael Moore. Fahrenheit 9/11, his scorching documentary hurling accusations at George W. Bush and his administration, finally had its public premiere at an afternoon screening. It was met with a 15-minute standing ovation afterward, according to one person in the audience.

Most journalists and critics, including myself, saw it at one of four press screenings held earlier in the morning, starting at 8 a.m. As we left the theater, we were greeted by reporters with TV crews soliciting our opinions on the movie. Miramax Films chief Harvey Weinstein – who helped finance the movie and had hoped to distribute it before Disney, Miramax’s parent company, put the kibosh on the plan – was surrounded by camera crews when he came out of the 8 a.m. showing. He paused long enough to voice his support for the movie.

Fahrenheit is exactly what one would expect from a film by Moore, who two years ago caused almost as big a splash at Cannes with Bowling for Columbine, his movie about America’s gun culture and the 1999 shootings at a Colorado high school. Fahrenheit is funny, acid-laced, one-sided, and features Moore showboating at every opportunity, including attempting to talk members of Congress into enlisting their sons and daughters in the armed forces to fight in Iraq. (The film bemoans the fact that only one member of Congress has a child serving with the military in Iraq.) He shows graphic images of the violence against civilians in Iraq and includes shocking – well, sadly, maybe no longer – footage of American soldiers making crude sexual jokes about an Iraqi soldier’s corpse and smiling for snapshots with newly taken Iraqi prisoners who are blindfolded or have bags covering their heads.

In his favor, Moore is bringing up and making accessible issues and information that are worth focusing on but that only hardcore news junkies had a handle on before. He paints with broad strokes, takes too many side-trips, and makes some accusations that are debatable, but the points he raises are worth discussing.

The film as yet has no American distributor, but Moore has said he’s determined to have it in theaters by mid-summer and available on DVD by November’s presidential election. I’m guessing George W. Bush will not be first in line to buy a ticket.

Other films at Cannes that have caused a stir so far:

The Assassination of Richard Nixon: Inspired by a real story, this disturbing drama stars Sean Penn as Sam Bicke, a former tire salesman who was fatally shot in 1974 after hijacking a plane he intended to fly into the White House. Penn gives a superbly measured performance, showing how Bicke comes undone as his marriage founders and he loses his job.

Don’t Move. Penelope Cruz’s career in America won’t be enhanced by this soggy Italian melodrama. Wearing greasy hair and short skirts, she plays a downtrodden woman who is raped by a doctor who then falls in love with her. They don’t come sillier than this.

Look at Me (Comme Une Image). This is one of those wonderful French domestic comedies that remind you why you fell in love with French movies in the first place. Written, directed by and starring Agnes Jaoue, who a few years back made the popular The Taste of Others, this one is about a heavyset young woman trying to emerge from the shadow of her sarcastic, self-involved father, a successful writer and publisher.

Finally, in case you were wondering, French and English coexist as the official languages of the festival. All films in English carry French subtitles and vice-versa. If a film is in a third language, it features subtitles in both French and English, though the French titles always appear above the English ones. Of course, it’s their country.