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The Michael Moore Test

George W. Bush has rarely if ever said a discouraging word about Hollywood, but Hollywood is unloading every gun and bomb bay on George W. Bush. Earlier in the summer, we had the cartoonish science-fiction film "The Day After Tomorrow," in which the clueless Bush stand-in president somehow freezes from global warming, and the Cheney stand-in vice president confesses he should have listened to the Greenpeace gang, for they have all knowledge and wisdom.

At least that malarkey was pitched as fiction, raising further questions about Al Gore's political sanity for roundly endorsing it.

The main exhibit now is Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9-11," a film full of flagrant fouls on the facts, posing as a nonfiction documentary. In Moore's alternative universe, President Bush went to war not to fight terrorism, but for oil riches. He went to war not to defend America's honor and security, but to enrich defense contractors and keep the poor people in the ghetto (or exploit them as cannon fodder). He went to war not to defeat Osama bin Laden, but as a monstrously cynical wink-wink deal between the Bush family and the bin Laden family.

How inaccurate is it? Entire corporate dairy farms don't have this much manure. Moore critics could write a book the size of a dictionary chronicling the second-by-second lying and fact-mangling in this movie, starting from the very first minutes in which Moore suggests Bush couldn't get anything passed in his first eight months in office. (Major tax cut, anyone?) On and on the conspiracies tumble out, yet surprisingly he leaves out his best one: the theory that Bush has Osama stowed in some Saudi attic for safe-keeping.

Then consider how low it stoops in its mean-spiritedness. The Bushes and the bin Ladens plotted September 11 together? Think of every supposed Republican campaign atrocity the news media have drummed into our heads in the last 20 years, and compare it to Moore's bubbling cauldron of hate.

The Willie Horton ad? "Romper Room" stuff. Pat Buchanan's 1992 convention speech? A day in the park with Mary Poppins. The "RATS" ad? Get serious. Even the nastiest liberal ads in 2000, like the sleazoid NAACP commercial with James Byrd's daughter insisting George W. Bush dragged her daddy to his death all over again, look like Barney the Dinosaur next to this tripe.

Even in its smallest notes, "Fahrenheit 9-11" is full of cheap and sleazy laughs, such as showing Paul Wolfowitz combing his hair down with his own spit. Let's hope Moore knows he's just setting himself up for elongated hidden-camera closeups of him trying to eat, or clips of him interspersed with cartoonish clips of the morbidly obese man buried in a piano case. That's the level of childishness indulged in this prank-umentary.

For the Left, this film is a test to separate the wheat from the chaff, the honorable from the dishonorable, the serious from the unserious. In the Clinton years, conservatives needed to step away from the unsubstantiated videos that talked in conspiratorial tones about all of Clinton's heinous secret crimes. To be taken seriously, every liberal today should criticize "Fahrenheit 9-11" as an affront to journalism and civil discourse.

To their credit, a number of liberal pundits and journalists have been passing this test: PBS's Gwen Ifill on "Meet the Press," William Raspberry and Richard Cohen in the Washington Post, and Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, to name a few. ABC and NBC, after promoting Moore and the film for days, also greeted the film's debut with a "truth squad" feature pointing out a few inaccuracies. Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball have done the same.

Unfortunately, the nation's film critics are almost universally failing this test, raving about the greatness of the movie and leaving the matters of accuracy and civility by the wayside. Editor & Publisher found the vast majority of newspaper movie critics, nine out of ten, recommended the film. Their message boils down to this: "Hey, as cinematic art, it's great and never mind the intellectual dishonesty of it all. Great flick."

Other critics are even worse, actually trumpeting this garbage as tremendously factual: "Its trajectory is guided with pinpoint accuracy," wrote Desson Thomson in the Washington Post, and it "obviously skews facts to its own advantage, but that's what the game is all about. What counts is the emotional power of Moore's persuasion."

That common argument - facts, schmacts, how about the emotional impact? - is too distressingly vague, an argument critics would not accept if the artwork were Leni Riefensthal's Nazi propaganda works, or D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation." The message matters. The next test for theatre owners and movie critics is Mike Wilson's forthcoming film "Michael Moore Hates America," which should be finished later this year. Let's see what they have to say then.