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Effect of controversial Moore film on election is debatable

NEW YORK -- Having already won an Oscar, a Palme d'Or, and international fame, filmmaker Michael Moore is launching his latest film, ''Fahrenheit 9/11," this week with an even more ambitious goal -- to influence the outcome of this year's presidential election.

Moore, in front of an enthusiastic crowd of celebrities, said, ''It would be a good thing" if his politically charged documentary about Sept. 11 and Iraq inspires Democrats to vote against President Bush. In keeping with the Democratic movement to elect ''anybody but Bush," Moore did not say a word about the presumptive Democratic nominee, either on screen or in his impromptu remarks afterward.

''I was asked by a lot of people coming in here if this movie would affect the election," Moore said. He acknowledged that the film, which paints a cartoonishly negative portrait of Bush, might be ''preaching to the choir," but added: ''The choir has been asleep. If this movie gets the choir singing again, that's a good thing."

Following several books critical of the Bush administration, including those by former anti-terrorism czar Richard Clarke and journalist Bob Woodward, the Moore film, which premiered here Monday night, has sparked an upheaval in Hollywood and in political circles. Although Miramax financed the movie, its parent company, the Disney Corp., refused to distribute it, saying it is too overtly partisan. Miramax heads Harvey and Bob Weinstein reached a separate distribution deal with Lions Gate and IFC Films.

But whether the movie, which opens nationally next week, will cause a real stir among voters is debatable, given that the pre-release publicity has given away most of its secrets -- and that it is likely to draw partisans, rather than undecided voters in the handful of swing states, to the theaters. At the same time, some of the most provocative parts, about Bush's relationship with Saudi Arabia and abuse of Iraqi prisoners, are either thinly supported or have already been made public. Even Moore conceded having doubts about his powers of persuasion, saying, ''It's just a movie."

In particular, the film dwells on the departure of a planeload of Saudi relatives of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden on Sept. 13, 2001, implying that Bush improperly allowed them to flee in the aftermath of the attacks, and suggests an ominously close relationship between the Bush family and Saudi royals.

It also shows a series of photos with President George H.W. Bush and Saudi diplomats, but does not say when or where the photos were taken, or if they came from routine White House meetings.

Images of US soldiers taunting Iraqi prisoners and making sexually explicit jokes offer some of the film's most powerful political statements, but they come after more than three-quarters of voters polled in several surveys say they have already seen similar photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison. Moore has said he struggled with whether to release his photographs before the film came out, but decided not to because he feared he would be accused of political opportunism.

At the same time, there is a central hole in the film's political plotline: It does not mention Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, although several scenes were shot after the primary process had ended. Kerry voted to authorize the war in Iraq and is now seeking centrist votes.

Moore, an outspoken liberal and famously provocative filmmaker, endorsed retired General Wesley K. Clark during the primary process this year -- a fact that Republicans are happy to point out.

''If you look at Michael Moore, this is the guy who, when he wrapped his arms around Wes Clark's candidacy, Wes Clark imploded within 48 hours," Bush campaign spokeswoman Nicolle Devenish said ''I'd be interested to see what lengths John Kerry goes to to keep his distance from the movie."

Devenish said that no one at the Bush campaign had seen the movie, and Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said the same of the Kerry campaign. Cutter declined to comment further on the film.

In one of several anti-Bush moments that drew huge cheers on Monday night, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq reads aloud from her son's final letter home. ''I really hope they do not reelect that fool, honestly," Lila Lipscomb read from her son Michael Patterson's letter.

Another scene showed a soldier criticizing the US military hierarchy. ''If Donald Rumsfeld was here, I'd ask for his resignation," the soldier said. Again, the crowd applauded.

When an image of Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz -- having his hair slicked back before a television appearance by an aide who used his own spit as hair gel -- appeared on screen, the audience hissed. Appearances by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney drew a similar response.

As he did at the Cannes film festival where he won his most recent prize, Moore received a standing ovation at the Ziegfeld Theater screening in midtown Manhattan, which was packed with Hollywood celebrities and other famous figures. Coming just three days after Ronald Reagan's star-studded funeral in Washington, the event felt almost as if it were designed to be a liberal counterpoint. Anne E. Kornblut can be reached at akornblut@globe.com. 

Michael Moore, who won a prize at Cannes for his new film, admits having doubts about his powers of persuasion, saying, 'It's just a movie.'
Michael Moore, who won a prize at Cannes for his new film, admits having doubts about his powers of persuasion, saying, "It's just a movie." (AP Photo )
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