NEW YORK — Never in American movie history has politics — and partisan rivalry — invaded the local cineplex as dramatically and contentiously as in Election 2004. Call it the silver screen's version of "reality" TV.
Politically charged documentaries have drawn unusually large audiences to movie theaters this year, led of course by Michael Moore's award-winning, President Bush-bashing and surprise box-office hit "Fahrenheit 9/11." Most have been left-leaning films critical of George W. Bush and the policies that have led to a war in Iraq.
But now add to these Carlton Sherwood's "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," an unflattering documentary about John Kerry's Vietnam War protests, excerpts of which are scheduled to air in prime time on a host of television stations across the United States — less than two weeks before the election. This programming directive by the openly conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 62 stations in 20 states and can reach more than one-quarter of U.S. viewers, has set off an uproar among Democrats, who object to its classification as a "news program" and Sinclair's bid to use public airwaves to sway voters.
Whether these political films affect how people vote is debatable, though many media experts say their influence cannot be discounted in such a close election. Beyond the partisan bickering and charges that these films are merely political propaganda or media manipulation, some observers even see them signaling a new era in the way Americans choose to be politically informed.
Such films, they suggest, may represent a seismic shift in American journalism.
Though it's doubtful the films can convince a significant number of voters to support a particular candidate, their influence may be felt in subtle ways, observers say. With the country so evenly divided for four years, a slight effect on a tiny number of voters could impact the election result.
"Especially since the nation is so politically polarized," says Jeff Stein, a professor of communications at Wartburg College in Iowa, "these somewhat slanted message-driven documentaries are really not designed to change someone's opinion, but rather to reinforce beliefs people already hold, so they will . . . be more aggressive come election time."
Conversely, the films, like negative campaign ads, can depress turnout by chilling partisan fires. A film, like a campaign ad, may not persuade a voter to embrace a particular point of view, but the message can influence the kind of issues people are discussing.
"Even pro-Bush opponents of Moore's argument end up having to explain why the president sat in that Florida classroom for seven minutes after being informed of the World Trade Center attack," says Stephen Klien, an assistant professor of speech communication at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. "Whether the reason was justified or not, that image of Bush sitting silently while a clock ticks off minutes and seconds becomes a focal point for public discussion of the events of Sept. 11 — due in large part to the provocative attention Moore's film pays to that episode."
Moore's polemic, deliberately timed for release on video and DVD this month, is in good company. Moviegoers also made moderate successes of Harry Thomason's and Nick Perry's "The Hunting of the President," Robert Greenwald's "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," and Errol Morris's "The Fog of War," an Academy Award-winning documentary featuring Robert McNamara's insights on modern history and combat.
The deeper significance of this deluge of politically charged films and their popularity, many argue, is the changing landscape of American journalism. Fairness, balance and objectivity have long been its bedrock values — and are still touted in many organizations' advertisements. But many citizens now prefer blunt-spoken, partisan talk shows to the evening news, observers note.
"Many are distrustful of traditional media," says Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "Just as many Americans turned to . . . foreign press after 9/11, we're seeing people attempting an end run around the (Dan) Rathers and (Peter) Jennings of the world."
In most European democracies, the partisan bent of news organizations is open and well-established. The ideal of "objectivity" or "balance" is not a goal of the news overseas, as it has been in America. In fact, some see the objectivity ideal as one reason citizens distrust journalists, who seem to simply repeat the spin of the campaigns.
"Politically charged media (such as these documentaries) offer voters subject matter that is usually not covered by traditional methods of campaigning," says Vince Valenti, president of JV Games Inc. and a media expert, who predicts the genre will only proliferate in the future.
Many suggest that movies such as "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Stolen Honor" will actually make people more interested in politics, and thus better informed.
Most filmmakers, in fact, seek to engage viewers this way, rather than take an objective presentation of facts.
"Our main responsibility is to be honest about who we are and what we are saying," says Joel Pomeroy of Rainlake Productions, a New York documentary-film production company. "Not to strive for some false semblance of objectivity in pursuit of journalistic purity, when, in fact, we're telling you how we see something, and asking you to watch and listen to us for a couple hours."