Michael Moore fills seats on both sides of the aisle.

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Michael Moore fills seats on both sides of the aisle.

Squeezed into Cinemark's jam-packed Palace Theater like a beef sausage in its casing, the Strip marveled at how the liberal crowd reacted on the opening night of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11.

There were cheers from the lefties, for example, when a Marine corporal fresh from fighting in Iraq tells Moore that he'd rather go to prison than be shipped back to a war where, he says, poor people are being killed for no good reason.

But that reaction was dwarfed by the moment when Moore focuses on John Ashcroft's run for a U.S. Senate seat in 2000 against Mel Carnahan. Missouri voters, Moore reminds everyone, had "preferred the dead guy."

The local crowd erupted in a rousing display of self-congratulation.

There were other moments that must have made the conservatives in the room uncomfortable, but it was hard to tell if any had bothered to show up.

By opening night, right-wingers had already been given plenty of reasons not to. The massive prelaunch negative-publicity blitz directed at Moore's film, particularly by Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, (Disney-owned) ABC's Good Morning America and, most puzzlingly, liberal journalist Christopher Hitchens, had produced a steady drumbeat that tried to paint Fahrenheit 9/11 as a propagandistic, dishonest anti-Bush screed filled with lies that would send conservatives running from the theater with their hair on fire.

Hitchens, for example, said it would be too good to the film to call it "crap" and heaped scorn on the lack of seriousness in Moore's chaotic romp through the Bush presidency. Hitchens ought to know what makes for kick-ass, serious investigative journalism: He was featured in The Trials of Henry Kissinger, a terrific documentary based partly on killer material he had uncovered for a book and his articles in Harper's Magazine suggesting that the secretary of state under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford should be tried for war crimes.

Yep, Hitchens is a smart fella. And in the nearly two years since its debut, The Trials of Henry Kissinger has grossed a grand total of $516,726 in box-office receipts.

So much for sober journalism.

As much as its critics hate it, Moore's film has turned out to be a phenomenon. Taking in $24 million by the end of its first weekend, it became the top-grossing documentary of all time and was the week's top moneymaker. All that, even though it opened in a relatively modest number of venues (about 860 theaters).

In fact, Fahrenheit 9/11 had the biggest opening ever for any kind of film playing in fewer than 1,000 theaters.

Considering those numbers, a few Bush supporters must have gone to see the film. But how did they react to it?

The Strip was particularly amused by a review that showed up in the Terror Dome.

Located at KCForum.net, the Terror Dome is a fascinating case study in male pack behavior, an online forum where (mostly conservative) Kansas City men who listen obsessively to sports-talk radio go to abuse each other for not exhibiting enough testosterone in their opinions. They scream obscenities at "newbies" and tear into each other with all the homoerotic overtones of a towel fight in the high school locker room.

Michael Moore is not very popular in the Terror Dome.

But one of the regulars, a man who goes by the name Battle Cat, took it upon himself to take one for the team and see Fahrenheit 9/11 so the rest wouldn't have to.

Just to reassure everyone at the forum that by simply viewing the film, he wasn't revealing pinko tendencies, Battle Cat made sure to point out that he bought tickets to see Shrek 2 and then sneaked into the theater where the documentary was playing.

Ooh. Take that, Michael Moore.

Before the film rolled, Battle Cat put himself into the right frame of mind: "I was getting ready to watch one big retarded commercial for the John Kerry campaign," he writes. He then trashes the film point by point, snearing at Moore's replay of the 2000 elections, objecting to Moore's thoughts on Bush's slow reaction to the World Trade Center attack, and ranting about the film's use of Iraq war footage.

In other words, Battle Cat hated the movie, right?

"Overall, it was a decent movie," Battle Cat concluded. "I give this movie a B rating."

Say what?

The Strip was flabbergasted by Battle Cat's reaction. Had Moore really found a way to make Bush look like an idiotic slacker beholden to Saudi oil interests and still entertain the president's biggest supporters?

To test that theory, this cinematic sirloin went back to the theater four days later with its most passionate Bush-loving friend, Trevor.

Even on a Tuesday, every seat at the Plaza theater was filled.

A little background on Trev: He grew up in an impoverished town in Ohio and joined the Army at 17. He served for eight years as a combat engineer, the sort of soldier who clears land mines and builds bridges so front-line fighters can do their jobs. Now he's an engineer of a different sort, working on civic projects. He and his wife are raising a young daughter in a big, new home in Johnson County. He votes Republican, and he expected to come out of Fahrenheit 9/11 talking trash about Michael Moore.

Instead, he looked stunned. "I'm surprised," he said. "Moore did a really good job. I didn't expect it to be so entertaining. All of the laughing in the theater really was a surprise."

But not everything in the film is mirthful. Some conservatives have railed at Moore's use of war footage in particular, suggesting that it's unconscionable to juxtapose footage of Iraqi civilian casualties with shots of young American soldiers grinning as they describe how amped they get cranking up the tunes as their tanks roll.

So the Strip put it to Trev: Some of the moments in the film portray American soldiers as ruthless cowboys, but other moments show them as shellshocked and disillusioned. Overall, what did the former military man think?

"It's very accurate," Trevor answered. In fact, he said, it was the most accurate portrayal of the military experience that he's ever seen in a movie theater. Following a patrol on Christmas Eve, for example, we get to see the soldiers disarming their weapons after a harrowing night of interrogating some locals. "It's the kind of thing you never see in a Hollywood movie. The sound of gunfire wasn't Hollywood. It was all very real. How they looked. How young they are," Trevor said.

But was it unfair, as some conservative pundits have declared, to show the soldiers bragging about their destructive powers? "That part was real. Moore showed the Billy Badass attitude that some guys have. But I think I'd lose that Billy Badass attitude after I saw my first dead infant."

Trevor admitted that he didn't expect the film to hit him so hard. "That part of the movie certainly had a major impact." Especially when, for a moment, his old Ohio unit was actually on-screen. Trevor nearly jumped out of his seat when he recognized the familiar patch that some of the soldiers were wearing -- during the scene in which U.S. troops put hoods on Iraqi prisoners and jab at a dead Iraqi in a way that couldn't help but remind viewers of the abuses in Abu Ghraib prison.

Later, Trevor insisted that the movie would have no impact on how he feels about the war in Iraq (he says he's always been ambivalent about it) or his support for Bush (which remains strong).

But when his meaty friend asked about other Republicans telling people to stay away from the movie, he replied, "If you're so insecure in your beliefs that you can't go see Moore's version of things, then you're on the wrong side."

Hmm. That sounded like a subtle dig at the Democrats. But whatever. The Strip will just assume this is what Trevor really meant to say: Don't be a pussy. Go see this movie.


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