WASHINGTON – Michael Moore's (search) record-breaking documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" is a pop culture phenomenon that is raising public interest in the Iraq war just as the United States is attempting a crucial handoff of power to Iraqis.
The movie, an indictment of President Bush's leadership and his decision to go to war in Iraq after the 2001 terrorist attacks, took in $23.9 million to become the first documentary to debut as Hollywood's top weekend film. Theater owners in cities large and small reported sellout crowds.
The heightened public interest generated by the film and the controversy surrounding it is likely to increase the reaction to what happens in Iraq — good and bad, analysts say.
"We haven't seen anything like this before," said political scientist Thad Beyle of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "I can't recall anything this large" coming out during an election year.
Political analysts are watching to see whether the movie attracts undecided or politically inattentive voters, but say it's too soon to say how it will influence the presidential campaign.
"What will matter most is what's happening on the ground in Iraq," said Robert Shapiro, a Columbia University political science professor who specializes in public opinion.
Most people who don't already oppose the Iraq war as Moore does are unlikely to see the movie, said Kathleen Jamieson, a specialist in political communication and director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center (search). "But if they are undecided, this type of extended communication is the form most likely to persuade."
Other analysts said they'll be interested to see whether the huge crowds continue beyond opening weekend.
Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, said she doubted the film's "extraordinarily impressive" weekend box office numbers will influence the campaign between Bush and John Kerry (search).
"The election is still four months off," she said.
Recent polls suggest public sentiment is souring on Iraq with a majority saying last week for the first time that the war was a mistake. By a 2-to-1 margin, those surveyed said the transfer of limited power to Iraqis was not a sign of the success of U.S. policy because it was on schedule, but a sign of failure because Iraq is not stable.
The United States on Monday turned over limited sovereignty to Iraqis, two days ahead of schedule.
The heavy interest in the movie is more likely an indication of growing opposition to the war, said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution.
The liberal political group MoveOn.org (search) hoped to mobilize potential voters interested in the movie at house parties around the country Monday night, with an online discussion featuring Moore as the main attraction.
But it was far from clear whether the movie will mobilize young voters to take an anti-war view, or stir up old feelings from middle-aged liberals.
"From the lines that I've seen outside the movie, it looked like the same group that was celebrating Earth Day in the 1970s," said Tom Rosenstiel, who studies media influence on public opinion.
People in Little Rock, Ark., flocked to the movie, but Art English, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, said "it seems to be a reinforcement film."
English said because some of the movie's claims are "over the top," some people are likely to think it lacks credibility. "But it's definitely getting more attention than I thought it would get," he said.
The controversy surrounding the film has helped stir interest, with some Republican-leaning groups attempting to block its distribution. The White House has dismissed the film as "outrageously false."