This Friday marks the second time this year that a film enters theaters behind a tidal wave of furious, polarizing hype. The other was, of course, The Passion of the Christ. Just as churches organized group outings to Mel Gibson’s lash-a-thon, leftist groups are rallying behind Fahrenheit 9/11. There’s a screening Friday afternoon at 2 p.m., at Raleigh’s Rialto Theater, to benefit the Wake County Dems and is urging everyone to see it on opening night.

Bush supporters are fighting back with Web sites urging citizens to pressure theaters against exhibiting the film, and an upstart filmmaker is hawking a Moore-style work in progress called Michael Moore Hates America. Then there’s Christopher Hitchens, one-time darling of the left, who earlier this week in the online journal penned a scathing attack on the film, calling it “a sinister exercise in moral frivolity” and “a spectacle of abject political cowardice.” Hitchens’ screed, despite its predictability, levels some charges against Moore serious enough to make his column worth revisiting after seeing the movie.

It’s a strange world we live in, and a testament to the power of the two-hour theatrical experience, that the anti-war left is placing its hopes on a bumptious, suspiciously self-aggrandizing filmmaker rather than the haughty millionaire who somehow bears the standard of the Democratic Party. But citizens who are alarmed by the Bush administration’s arrogance and recklessness have been starved for a public voice, and Michael Moore–that shambling, irritating guy with a jes’ folks pose–is practically all we’ve got.

Boston Phoenix writer Gerald Peary attended last month’s Cannes Film Festival, where Fahrenheit 9/11 received a 20-minute standing ovation at its premiere and later won the Palme d’Or from the Quentin Tarantino-chaired jury. Here is his account of a Moore press conference. –David Fellerath

This weekend, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 will open in wide release all over America. In early May, when the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, Moore’s anti-Bush documentary diatribe was stuck in political limbo: financed by Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions, which chose not to release it and sold to Miramax Films, which was being stopped from exhibiting it by Miramax’s parent company, Disney Studios.

At the Cannes press conference, Moore was asked to trace the path from Icon. “I don’t hang out with Mel Gibson. I only know what I was told by my agent, Ari Emmanuel. Icon was the Bowling for Columbine distributor in Australia and New Zealand. They came to us and said they wanted to make the next Michael Moore film. It was a signed deal, negotiated over three months. We were making the movie, then we weren’t making the movie. Suddenly, we had to get out.

“Ari was at his Seder dinner, he got a call from Bruce Davey, who runs Icon, asking someone to take over. They had got a call from top Republicans to tell Mel Gibson don’t expect to get more invitations to the White House. But Harvey Weinstein was interested, and Miramax immediately said they’d make the deal. I’m completely confident that Miramax will assure that Americans across the board see this film.” Would Moore be pacified if his film debuted on network TV?

“I don’t want this shown first on television,” Moore said, adamantly. “TV is a passive activity. Going to movies involves sitting in a theater of strangers having a communal experience, and who are more committed to action than someone lying on a couch drinking beer. When I make any movie, [I try to make] something I’d like to go to on a Friday night, so entertaining people could take a girlfriend, a spouse, eat popcorn, laugh, cry.

“My films are not shown in art theaters but in shopping malls and commercial houses. We polled the audience for Bowling for Columbine: over 70 percent had never seen a documentary in a theater before in their lives.” A skeptical journalist who had just watched Fahrenheit 9/11 queried Moore if there was anything really new in his film?

“I don’t think you’ve heard before American soldiers [who fought in Iraq] talk of their despair, their disillusionment,” Moore answered. “You see the first footage of abuse of American detainees in Iraq outside of prison walls. Footage, not photographs. So, there’s footage you’ve never seen before, starting with documents of Bush’s military record.”

At Cannes, Moore dramatically held up a document featured in the movie, in which the name of a certain James Bath, connected mysteriously with George W. during his National Guard days, has been obliterated. “I can show you the 2000 document and the document in 2004, and he [Bush] or someone at the White House has blackened out the name, James Bath. What were they afraid of? 2000 was pre-9/11. After 9/11, they saw a need to take out his name.

“The American people do not like things kept from them. This film will be like Toto pulling the curtain back. The people will be shocked, and act accordingly. Will it influence the election? I hope it influences people to leave the theater and be good citizens. It’s up to them. I’m not a member of the Democratic Party. I don’t have a vested interest in electing Democrats. I do have a vested interest in getting our boys and women back from the war.”

Moore, sounding the intemperate rhetoric of a 1960s radical, unwound about America in Iraq. “This is not some noble mission, to free a country, prevent a holocaust. Bush despises our troops, our young people, sending them to a war based on a lie. He’s against our troops, putting them on the line for [the business interests] of him and his friends. The lack of character begins with him, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Fish rots from the top down. On September 11, we had a president asleep at the wheel, we had an attorney general who said, ‘I don’t want to hear about terrorists.’ But they are very good at what they do: 70 percent of Americans believed there was a connection of Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.”

So what difference could Moore’s film make? Aren’t those who will see it the educated left, who already loathe George W. Bush?

“The problem with our side,” Moore said, “is that it tends to vote in less numbers. The right-wing is there at six in the morning, bringing 10 people with them.”

So maybe that’s the real value of Fahrenheit 9/11: to motivate the converted to actually go to the polls and prevent Bush’s re-election? “Reelection of George Bush?” Michael Moore smirked. “First you have to get elected.” EndBlock