Box Office Shepherds

Mel Gibson and Michael Moore made very different movies with the same message: The truth shall make you free

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However fiercely they believed in what they were doing, there were times early on when Gibson and Moore both thought they might be turning out fairly humble products. "A small film" is what Gibson once called his picture. "Another little documentary" is how Moore says he thought of his. It's understandable. Neither film seemed like box-office gold before it opened. Fahrenheit 9/11 would have graphic footage of Iraqi war casualties and no stars, unless you count the President and Moore himself. The Passion of the Christ was an even longer shot. Not only would it have no big stars but it would have a 9-min. whipping scene and dialogue in Latin and Aramaic. Not exactly a date movie, unless your date is the type who thinks flagellation and subtitles make a movie kind of cool and European.

As it turned out, of course, The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 were very big projects. While ticket sales are not what made them important, their grosses--that perfect word for Hollywood's most tireless preoccupation--made the world outside Hollywood pay attention to them. By now, The Passion of the Christ has earned more than $370 million in the U.S.--the ninth highest domestic take of all time--plus an additional $240 million abroad. It's not that cynicism about religion didn't also continue to sell this year. So did knuckleheaded sensationalism. (You have heard, perhaps, of The Da Vinci Code?) But Gibson recognized that there was an audience, particularly in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, for simple, direct piety, with no trace of irony or insubordination. For Fahrenheit 9/11, the box-office figures are lower but still out of the ballpark for a documentary--$119 million at home, $101 million outside the U.S. That's enough to make it the 13th highest-grossing film of the year.

As everyone everywhere probably knows, both films benefited hugely from prerelease controversy. Moore saw his film dropped by its distributor, Disney, after Disney's embattled chief, Michael Eisner, decided he didn't want his company too closely associated with a picture that went after the President with the gloves off. For three weeks--during which it won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival--Fahrenheit 9/11 was a movie orphan but also, by the end of that time, a much publicized one. And once it opened, Moore was subjected to criticism, and not just from the right, that he had glided over the malign nature of Saddam's regime to show pictures of kite-flying Iraqi children and that he had clouded the presentation of his claims. For one thing, if you left the theater with the erroneous impression that scores of Saudis flew out of the U.S. in the days right after 9/11, when civil aviation was grounded, you weren't the only one.

The Passion of the Christ, which was also turned down by the major studios, was surrounded by an even more toxic dispute, about whether it vilified Jews. Certainly the Jews are the film's heavies, howling for Christ's blood and led by their high priest, Caiaphas, a sneering villain. But is the film anti-Semitic? Truer to say that it's guilty in many places of reckless indifference to the impressions it creates.

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