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Friday, June 04, 2004 - Page updated at 10:17 A.M.

Collin Levey / Times editorial columnist
The Moore you know, the less you blame Disney


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Raise your voices and rejoice, Michael Moore is free. The "documentary" filmmaker has landed a North American distributor for his "Fahrenheit 9/11," which last month won top honors at the Cannes Film Festival for its portrayal of George Bush as a moron, American soldiers as brutes and the administration as a tool of the Saudi royal family.

You'll recall his film made headlines earlier when it was orphaned by Disney, which balked at sponsoring the partisan politics in an election season, fearing boycotts and an offended heartland public. Moore, though, had a different explanation. He said that someone told him that the rejection had to do with Disney World's Jeb Bush connection and Euro Disney's Saudi connection. How juicy.

Films are dumped by movie studios all the time and for a thousand reasons — from lackluster starlets to dicey subject matter. Here perhaps Moore can bond with Mel Gibson over his distribution challenges with "The Passion of the Christ." But to hear Moore tell it, the decision by Disney not to put its Mickey Mouse image in the service of political wrath was a threat on the order of the book-burnings of "Fahrenheit 451," the Ray Bradbury novel that is presumably the film's namesake.

Sages on both coasts rushed to his aid. "A company that should be championing free expression has instead chosen to censor a documentary," The New York Times lectured. "It is clear that Disney loves its bottom line more than freedom of political discourse." A Los Angeles Times article, meanwhile, called the movie "ambitious and complex."

Yeah, anyway, the movie will be released by Lions Gate Films, a Canadian studio that has picked up controversial Miramax spillover before. The deal was ushered along by movie mogul brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who liberated the film with their own personal financing to the jingle of $6 million. Moore, ever the comedian, thanked his "coalition of the willing."

The Weinsteins are certainly going to be busy in the next few months. In addition to marketing Moore's latest can of beans, the brothers will be producing the Los Angeles concert given by the Democratic National Committee for the benefit of the "Kerry Victory Committee 2004." Both of them have been major Democratic contributors over the years, but with new campaign-finance laws, it's getting tougher to shovel money to your guy.

Maybe that's why they couldn't pass up a chance to spend $6 million on a dishonest infomerical aimed at getting Bush out of office. No doubt they hope to reap a windfall on the investment, given the attention paid the film. It's certainly a surer bet than supporting the flailing Democratic talk-radio station Air America.

Artistically speaking, Moore likely could have submitted anti-Bush finger-painting on camels and won at Cannes. But the festival's judges were at pains to insist their decision was not a great raspberry blown by the French. Only one French judge served on the nine-member panel, supporters noted triumphantly. In addition to one from Belgium (ooh), there was an American judge — Quentin Tarantino!

"We were dealing with reels of film, not politics," said Tarantino after the award, when the usually quiet jury broke its silence to defend its decision. A lone voice of dissent in the crowd came from a Frenchman with the old-fashioned view that documentary filmmaking is art. Legendary filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard protested that the "halfway intelligent" Moore "doesn't know what he's doing."

Moore has all the pretension of the deliberately unpretentious. His cultivated gee-whiz-I'm-from-Michigan routine is meant to cover a belief that Hollywood should be as powerful as Hollywood thinks it is. But Hollywood is hardly the only source of political perspective in the country, as evidenced by how perennially out of sync it is with the electorate.

In any case, Disney or any other company can hardly be accused of "censorship" for what it decides not to present. Moore certainly wasn't censored when Disney exercised its right to decide that "it's not in the interest of any major corporation to be dragged into a highly charged political battle." With apologies for the remedial history, the First Amendment was intended to protect the right of individuals to speak freely without federal interference, not to guarantee major corporate sponsorship for those vehicles.

Reasonable people might ask what Disney was doing tangled up with the project to begin with. Moore's incendiary diatribes and reputation for playing fast and loose with facts was well known from his previous outings in "Roger and Me" and "Bowling for Columbine." That's easy: Moore's stuff sells. HarperCollins, an imprint owned by Rupert Murdoch, published his book for the same reasons. Here, Disney just decided the downside was bigger than the profit potential.

For all his loathing of corporate America, Moore himself has a fine understanding of what makes markets. "I'm a multimillionaire," he has said, "because multimillions like what I do. That's pretty good, isn't it?"

Indeed. The same principle guides Disney, and McDonald's and GM and every other business intending to earn its keep. And for what it's worth, the hunt for profit is also what brought the Weinsteins on board and made finding a distributor for the film inevitable.

Collin Levey writes Thursdays for editorial pages of The Times. E-mail her at clevey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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