Now, before you throw your hands up and close your browser window, let’s get a few things out on the table. This discussion is not meant as a commentary on the content of either documentary, but rather, the circumstances and media reactions to both. The aim is not to align either film with being right or wrong, but rather to explore how the circumstances surrounding both of their releases are uncompromisingly similar.
First up: the issue of advertising the films on television. The producers of 2016 recently claimed that CNN “rejected” an ad promoting the film on the grounds that it was “too political,” according to EW. CNN refuted the claim, stating to the media outlet, “We asked them to explain why they believe the ad is not subject to political advertising disclosure requirements, and we did not hear back from them with any explanation.” Since that comment, CNN has approved a different, subsequent ad for the film, a CNN spokesperson confirmed to Hollywood.com. Keep in mind that it’s getting rather close to the November election, and that the ad in question is very politically charged, taking aim very specifically at President Obama. But wait, this is all too familiar.
A roadblock along these lines occurred when Michael Moore’s documentary began airing ads in the summer of 2004 before the election between then-President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry. In 2004, the conservative group Citizens United filed a claim with the Federal Election Commission claiming that ads for Moore’s very obviously anti-Bush film were tantamount to actual political ads that should be regulated by the FEC. Though they did not succeed, and the ads aired anyway, that argument and CNN’s questioning of the ads for 2016 are worth noting in unison: the circumstances of both releases are simply far too congruent.
Both documentarians, Moore and Dinesh D’Souza, have been accused of misrepresenting facts and in some cases, presenting inaccurate “truths.” Former New York mayor, Democrat Ed Koch, posited that Moore’s film worked to “cheapen debate” in The World Tribune while English-American journalist Christopher Hitchens practically led a one-man charge against Moore’s various claims in the film. Likewise, D’Souza has been attacked numerous times in the past weeks for his claims, mainly those that state that Obama’s beliefs stem directly from his father, with whom he had very little contact throughout his life. The Associated Press’ Beth Foughey claims that D’Souza’s film makes allegations about Obama’s presidency that “don’t hold water” and points out numerous instances in which the documentarian makes claims about the President without providing sufficient evidence. Again, this does not determine that one documentary is more right than the other, but mainly that both partisan messages experienced significant, and intelligent backlash.
Finally, the time period when both films were released begs comparison. Both came out in the summer prior to a Presidential election — both elections featured an incumbent president facing opposition. In 2004, Fahrenheit 9/11 hit in June, as Kerry and Bush’s poll numbers were separated by single percents. The stakes were incredibly high. Likewise, 2016 hit theaters in late July, rising to greater noteworthiness in late August, and like in 2004, the campaign polls place Romney and Obama in a near dead-heat, with each candidate taking the lead from the other every few days.
I doubt anyone, conservative or liberal, would argue that both films didn’t aim to tip the scales with their waves of supposed truths, and that both clearly aim to strike fear in their own unique ways. A quick listen to both the ad for 2016 and the ad for Fahrenheit 9/11 display just how clear and expected those aims were. 2016 makes use of dark imagery and haunting music, connecting Obama to his estranged, Kenyan father’s roots and the fears that many Obama opponents already possess. On that same token, Moore’s film plays into the popularized notion that Bush was a clueless, goofy cowboy, running the country by the seat of his pants. Neither film, nor their ads, made any attempt to offer up their viewpoints on even keel. Both have clear slants. And both made those slants painstakingly clear in their timing and the aesthetic elements of their marketing materials.
Only time will tell if their stories really will match up. Moore’s rant against the Bush administration didn’t stop Bush from winning the 2004 election and securing a second term as the P.O.T.U.S. Will 2016 experience a similar fate? Or will Obama’s low approval rating (hovering between 42-46 according to Gallup) be the right fuel for the doc’s fire? Conversely, Bush enjoyed a 48-50 approval rating when Fahrenheit began its charge, according to Gallup, which may have contributed to the failure of Moore’s documentary to impact the election. Of course, there’s always the potential that these sorts of films tend to cater to the voters already leaning towards the viewpoints they aim to amplify.
That said, should 2016 actually directly impact the results this November, the question of whether running ads for partisan documentaries like 2016 and Fahrenheit might be a question worth opening in a very real way.
Do you think the election could be swayed by 2016? Do you think it’s the conservative Fahrenheit 9/11?
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler.
[Photo Credit: Lionsgate, Rocky Mountain Pictures]