DES PERES, Mo. — Before the movie started, Leslie Hanser prayed.
"I prayed the Lord would open my eyes," she said.
For months, her son Joshua, a college student, had been drawing her into political debate. He'd tell her she shouldn't trust President Bush. He'd tell her the Iraq war was wrong. Hanser, a 41-year-old homemaker, pushed back. She defended the president, supported him fiercely
But Joshua kept at her, until she prayed for help understanding her son's fervor.
Emerging from Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," her eyes wet, Hanser said she at last understood. "My emotions are just.... " She trailed off, waving her hands to show confusion. "I feel like we haven't seen the whole truth before."
That's the reaction Moore hopes to provoke with his film, which explores the ties between the Bush family and Osama bin Laden's relatives, the president's response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq. Moore has said he aims to shake the apathetic, move the undecided -- and inspire voters to deny President Bush a second term.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 02, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie venue -- A photo caption in Sunday's Section A identified a New York theater showing the movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" as the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. It was Loews 19th Street Theater.
Riding a week of enormous publicity, and controversy, "Fahrenheit 9/11" was a hit at the box office. Opening Friday on 868 screens, the movie grossed more than the farces "White Chicks" and "DodgeBall," even though those films showed on far more screens.
Industry sources estimated that the weekend gross for "Fahrenheit 9/11" could approach $20 million. That's close to the $21.6 million that Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" -- until now, the highest-grossing documentary ever -- took in during its entire run.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" got a shot of free publicity when Walt Disney Co., concerned about the movie's partisan edge, barred its subsidiary from releasing it. The buzz only grew last month when the film won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Yet its appeal seemed to take some by surprise: In the heavily Latino and Asian community of Downey, theater manager William Vasquez was surprised at the line -- which was so long, he decided to show the film on two screens simultaneously Friday night. "I don't know of any documentary that has created this kind of stir," he said, noting that even teenagers seemed "glued to the screen."
In many cities, and even in conservative suburbs, the crowds were predictably (and loudly) liberal, hissing and hooting their reactions to Bush on screen.
Here in suburban St. Louis -- in a multiplex catering to well-off neighborhoods that were flocked with Bush/Cheney signs in 2000 -- the rowdy throng cheered when a man in back stood to shout an appeal for Democratic Party volunteers. "Anyone here for [Ralph] Nader?" another man called out. He was booed.
Across the country, in another conservative neighborhood, the audience at an Orange County multiplex chanted: "Throw Bush out! Throw Bush out!" as the lights came on.
College student Jebodiah Beard, 25, summed up the crowd this way: "I think we're preaching to the choir."
Moore acknowledged as much -- but saw no need to apologize.
"It's good to give the choir something to sing," he said at a politician-packed premiere in Washington last week. "The choir has been demoralized."
If so, the movie was an electric wake-up call.
Outside a sold-out screening Friday on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, activists stamped hands with peace signs and passed around petitions calling for universal healthcare, gay rights and the repeal of the Patriot Act.
"I can't imagine anyone coming out of [the movie] and not working their brains out to get rid of this administration," said Mimi Adams, 70, who was holding a sign that said: "No One Died When Clinton Lied."
In theaters nationwide, many viewers said they couldn't imagine loyal Republicans coming to see a movie the Bush administration had dismissed as a twisted montage of misleading innuendo and outright falsehoods. But for all the partisan hooting, the movie did appear to draw at least a strong smattering of the Republican and the undecided voters that Moore most desperately hopes to reach.
And some of them said they were deeply moved.
Moved enough, perhaps, to consider voting for Kerry in November.
For Richard Hagen, 56, it was the footage from Iraq: the raw cries of bombed civilians, the clenched-teeth agony of wounded American troops. A retired insurance agent from the wealthy River Oaks neighborhood in central Houston, Hagen described himself as a lifelong Republican. But then, standing by his silver Mercedes, he amended that: A former lifelong Republican.
"Seeing [the war] brings it home in a way you don't get from reading about it," he said. "I won't be voting for a Republican presidential candidate this time."
Mary Butler, too, may not bring herself to punch the ballot for Bush.
She didn't vote for him in 2000. But Butler, 48, said until this weekend, she was leaning strongly toward supporting him this year. "In a war situation, I figured it was too hard to switch horses mid-stream. I thought the country would be too vulnerable," she said.