It's hunting season at the cinema

Michael Moore hyped "Fahrenheit 9/11" as if it were the culmination of a cresting wave, but he hardly has the field to himself this summer. There's a growing number of nonfiction films on current affairs, which usually means politics in this election year. They're diverse enough to prove Mr. Moore's brand of muckraking isn't the only way to bid for attention.

You might think Bush's Brain satirizes a president whose campaign never focuses on the number of books and newspapers he's read. Yet people with the last name Bush make only fleeting appearances in this movie, adapted by Joseph Mealey and Michael Paradies Shoob from the eponymous 2003 book by James C. Moore and Wayne Slater.

It's about the brain behind the brain: that of Karl Rove, the strategist who's been engineering Republican campaigns for decades. He was the first person hired for George H.W. Bush's national run in 1980, and has been guiding George W. Bush since his 1993 gubernatorial run.

Despite his fondness for working quietly behind the scenes, Mr. Rove is such a close adviser to Mr. Bush that some observers rank him with Vice President Dick Cheney in governmental power.

All of which means we should learn everything we can about Mr. Rove, a prevailing force in modern politics whose accomplishments range from deposing once-unshakable Texas governor Ann Richards to politically wounding former Sen. Max Cleland (D) of Georgia by associating this Vietnam hero (a multiple amputee) with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden in TV ads.

"Bush's Brain" takes argumentative approaches long used by agenda-driven documentaries, relying on talking heads to support the filmmakers' points of view. You may disagree with the movie's take, but you'll always know where it stands, and you may be surprised by how many Republicans seem eager to spill vituperative beans on a politico who considers himself in the same camp. The film concludes with a two-word note from Rove to the filmmakers, refusing to give his side of the story.

Uncovered: The War on Iraq, directed by Robert Greenwald, takes an implicit cue from legendary reporter I.F. Stone, who said he built his eye-opening revelations on material already in the public record, free to anyone caring to look up the facts and connect the dots.

As in "Bush's Brain," media quotes are used to supplement talking-head interviews, focusing here on the Iraq war and its ongoing aftermath. What amazes me most is how many former intelligence analysts, Republican officials, and military officers Mr. Greenwald has assembled to make the case that Middle East policy has been bungled for many years. While the film contains little that's really new, the dots it connects etch vivid, articulate pictures that I've seen absolutely nowhere in the print and broadcast media.

An explanation for the near-invisibility of these perspectives could be that so many media outlets are owned by such a small (and shrinking) number of corporate outfits - and that the independent ones are too cowardly to challenge the resulting "official" views.

The same factor may explain why so many concerned people now spread their messages on movie and home-video screens instead of fighting a losing battle for airtime and column inches. Doing an end run around elitism, This Ain't No Heartland consists almost entirely of conversational interviews with ordinary citizens in middle America, conducted by Andreas Horvath, an Austrian filmmaker.

Some of the comments he records cut straight to the bone of current debates about terrorism, the Iraq war, and the overall fabric of contemporary life. What emerges most strongly, though, is a staggering degree of ignorance among everyday Americans about the basic meanings of democracy, liberty, and national security. The most modestly made of all the movies mentioned here, this is also the most urgent and alarming wake-up call.

More political pictures are heading to theaters, from the one-note documentary "Persons of Interest," about foreigners rounded up after the Sept. 11 attacks, to John Sayles's drama "Silver City," about skulduggery among fictionalized Texas power brokers.

Who said movies and escapism were synonymous? This year is heading the opposite way, asking us to analyze, ponder, and agree or argue with the pictures we see.

These films are not rated; all contain adult material.

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