One film looms over all others in 2004: Fahrenheit 9/11, released in the heat of summer and the heat of an election-year battle, caught all comers in its estimable shadow and rendered them moot. Combined, the dozen or so political docs that received theatrical distribution this year didn't make a fraction of its fortunes, and deservedly so, because not one of them was a good movie -- meaning not one outraged, engaged, or entertained the way Michael Moore's did, no matter who you were voting for.
Love the guy or hate the guy -- and it's possible to do both, even if (or especially if) you agree with him -- he's still a masterful director, a street-corner propagandist whose sense of outrage is tempered by his sense of humor. He's too sloppy to make converts and too infuriated to make peace, but his was never offered as straight-up documentary; it's political cartoonery, as A.O. Scott pointed out in The New York Times, exaggeration borne of genuine rage. And now, with his regime change failed, it looks even a bit quaint -- a man shaking his fist at 35 million people who patted him on the head while on their way to vote for the guy he hates the most.
To list the other political docs released in 2004 would take up the rest of this small space; to add the others released on video and sold over the web would eat up the rest of this issue. Suffice to say Moore launched two separate industries: There were movies that looked an awful lot like Fahrenheit(Liberty Boundand Robert Greenwald's Uncovered: The War in Iraq) and movies that existed as its antithesis (George W. Bush: Faith in the White House, Michael Moore Hates America, and the incredibly dunderheaded Celsius 41.11). They all preached to the choir; none would make a single convert or, for the most part, more than a single dime.
Some of the better political docs focused not on politics, but on the media outlets that report on them, and quite poorly at that: Control Room, an even-handed look at Al Jazeera, damned by the U.S. government as the terrorists' CNN; Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, Greenwald's no-shit movie about how Fox News Channel is the Bush administration's private press room; and Danny Schechter's disturbing WMD: Weapons of Mass Distraction, which revealed how easily the media can be manipulated in the interests of maintaining the illusion of access. And for those with good-ol'-days nostalgia, there was The Hunting of the President, about the right-wing conspiracy to take down Bill Clinton. Smell that? I am inhaling, and exhaling, as you read this.