Washington — "Fahrenheit 9/11," a blistering critique of President Bush by filmmaker Michael Moore, debuted Wednesday night in the nation's capital amid fierce controversy over its political message.
Conservatives are calling for a boycott of the movie when it opens nationally Friday. Liberals want to fill theater seats across the country in the hope that viewers will emerge from the screenings determined to defeat Bush in the November election.
The 110-minute movie, a relentless assault on Bush and other top administration officials, portrays the president as an inept tool of corporate interests who led the nation into an immoral war on Iraq by grossly exaggerating the need for action.
The film is labeled a documentary, but Moore uses facts selectively, emphasizing points that fit his premise and discarding any information that doesn't.
In remarks before the screening to an audience dominated by journalists and Democratic politicians, Moore said the movie is intended to energize Americans who have become demoralized and cynical about the Bush administration.
"Cynicism and despair are the great friends of the rich and the powerful," he said. "This film is a different tune. This film says, 'You know what? It's still our country, it's still a great nation, and we're still a majority."'
Some scenes are embarrassing to Bush and his aides in any context.
One of the most awkward moments comes on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, immediately after the president was told about the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Moore replays a seven-minute video showing a bewildered-looking Bush reading "My Pet Goat" with a group of Florida schoolchildren.
The president has said he wanted to avoid any show of panic after the attacks, but it's not a confidence-inspiring moment. In another scene, a vacationing Bush takes time from his golf game to express outrage over terrorist attacks, then blithely tells reporters, "Now watch this drive."
Some lines of attack are so heavy-handed they may backfire. Moore explores indirect business links between the Bush family and Osama bin Laden's extended family in Saudi Arabia. He suggests that the Bush administration tried to protect some bin Laden family members by letting them leave the United States shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The independent commission that's investigating the Sept. 11 attacks reported recently that the FBI had approved the departures. Most of bin Laden's relatives have nothing to do with him.
Art and politics have always been a combustible mix, but Moore has taken it to a new level by trying to drive the president from office. The early reaction recalls the furor earlier this year that surrounded Mel Gibson's "The Passion of The Christ," a movie that some considered anti-Semitic.
Former President George H.W. Bush has dismissed Moore as a "slimeball" and told the New York Daily News the movie is "a vicious attack on our son." Move America Forward, a conservative group, has tried, without much success, to convince theater owners to shun the film.
"I believe the movie is a pack of lies," said Siobhan Guiney, the organization's executive director. She also called it "a military-bashing piece of propaganda."
At the other end of the political spectrum, MoveOn, a liberal political action committee, is aggressively promoting the movie. More than 110,000 MoveOn activists have agreed to see it on its opening weekend. Others will stand outside theaters in an attempt to channel viewers' anger into political action against Bush.