YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The highest-grossing documentary in movie history, winner at the Cannes Film Festival, hailed in Boston but banned in Kuwait, “Fahrenheit 9/11” never made it to Yokosuka Naval Base theaters — or to any movie theater located on a military base.

But the DVD version of Michael Moore’s cinematic indictment of the current commander-in-chief and his administration came in the doors at the base video store this week — and went right out again.

Employees of the store, operated by Softland Video, said all 22 copies it received Tuesday were checked out that day, and when they came back, they went out again. The movie was available for home viewing last week at most overseas military bases.

Francis Anglada, a retired petty officer first class who now works for Morale, Welfare and Recreation, got the last one in stock on Thursday around 11:30 a.m. He’d been waiting a long time to see it, and said it was a “scandal” that it never showed in base theaters.

“If you look at all the evidence,” Anglada said, “there’s no reason they couldn’t have gotten it in time.”

Whether military base theaters would show the documentary, which lambastes President Bush and his administration for almost all their policies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States, was in question for some time.

In June, when the movie came out in theaters, AAFES, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, said it was pursuing prints, and that it eschewed politics when choosing movies, basing decisions only on profits and popularity.

“If ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ proves popular in the private sector and prints are available, the movie will be shown,” AAFES spokesman Judd Anstey said in June.

By the end of July, AAFES said it was trying to get the film for overseas bases but there weren’t enough prints to go around.

But a spokesman for the Fellowship Adventure Group, formed to distribute Moore’s film in conjunction with Lions Gate Films and IFC Films, said it told AAFES in mid-July that prints of “Fahrenheit 9/11” would be available, and that “from that point on, they were unresponsive.”

In August, AAFES said it was not going to show the film. Anstey said then that the movie’s Oct. 5 DVD release didn’t give AAFES enough time to draw sufficient audiences to the theaters.

Those responsible for films shown on naval bases said in July that a decision whether to air the movie was “under review.”

“I will contact you when that decision has been made,” said Ingrid Mueller of the Navy MWR Communications Group in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes. No further communication was made.

A Department of Defense civilian in Naples who corresponded via e-mail in June with a decision-maker at the Navy Motion Picture Service in Tennessee had no better luck. When the civilian asked if the movie would play at overseas bases, the NMPS official said no decision had been made. “Why do you have such an interest in this movie?” the NMPS official asked, according to an e-mail. The civilian agreed to share his correspondence with Stars and Stripes but asked that his name not be used.

“I think it’s reprehensible they’d practice this kind of censorship,” the DOD civilian said.

Last month, the official again told the civilian no decision had been made, adding, “There’s not a great deal of ‘wanna see’ on the part of our customers — actually you seem to be the most interested party. Our survey of the field is informal — asking ships, base theater managers and CO’s if they have had requests,” the official’s e-mail said.

Anglada, getting his copy on Thursday, said that view didn’t seem grounded in reality, based on the huge success of the movie in the United States.

“The population on the base reflects the population you have stateside,” he said.

Some overseas military members did see “Fahrenheit 9/11” on the big screen, however. It played in Japan — where Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said he did not plan to see it — and in South Korea as well as in European cities. Some servicemembers saw it when they went home on leave.

According to a review in the New York Times, the movie mixes “sober outrage with mischievous humor … blithely trampling the boundary between documentary and demagoguery, Mr. Moore takes wholesale aim at the Bush administration, whose tenure has been distinguished, in his view, by unparalleled and unmitigated arrogance, mendacity and incompetence.”

Although even the film’s admirers have pointed out inaccuracies — and when it showed in France many theaters had a list of those problems with the movie for patrons’ review — it’s been seen by many as a politically galvanizing force.

“It almost made me want to throw my ID away,” said one petty officer third class who saw the movie while he was home on leave in Florida. “It shows how Bush reacted (when he was told about the 9/11 attacks). He just keeps reading. It shows how he tries to cut the veterans’ benefits. It shows they don’t care about us.”

The sailor’s words, spoken in the Yokosuka video store, got the attention of Petty Officer 2nd Class Mark Dutton. Dutton had just said he didn’t know much about the movie and that he’d rather see “Van Helsing” or “Troy,” also new releases. But after hearing his fellow sailor’s recommendation, Dutton changed his mind.

“I want to see it now. In fact, I might buy it,” Dutton said. “Anything that makes the government look bad, they don’t want us to see.”

Capt. King Dietrich, the base commander, said he’d probably rent it too, even though he expects “parts of it” to irritate him.

Southland Video representative Merion Elliott said no renters so far had offered an opinion on the film, although when she asked one man what he thought, he called it “interesting.”

Elliott said Southland was interested to see how well the movie did as a DVD rental and thought it might be popular because so many on the bases had not seen it.

According to a Reuters report, the movie sold about 2 million DVD and VHS units on its first day in release, making it the most successful documentary ever released on home video.

Even retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks had something to say about the film. In August, while lamenting the apparent extremes of political thought in the country and the resulting polarization, he said, “We’re at a point in our country where it’s either all about ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ or it’s all about ultra-conservatism.

“My experience in this grand democracy,” Franks said, “has been that life in America is somewhere between those two poles, and so I try to stay away from the hyperbolic in this thing — that ‘Well, Michael Moore had it all right’ or ‘He was a lyin’, cheatin’, no good son of a gun.’ I mean, there’s fact and there’s fiction involved in that particular piece, just like there’s fact and there’s fiction in the other extreme … ”

Patrick Dickson contributed to this report.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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