Drones, Docs and Dan Rather: Scandal and Politics Invade TIFF Lineup

Truth Still - H 2015
Lisa Tomaestti/Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Truth Still - H 2015

Michael Moore’s latest bomb-throwing documentary joins pics about sex abuse, climate change and cutthroat political operatives in perhaps the festival’s most controversial slate ever.

With a cluster of hot-button films, Toronto 2015 might go down as one of the most controversial on record. As the 40th annual festival kicked off Thursday with provocateur Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next, the tone was set for a charged atmosphere to rival a Donald Trump press conference. From the priest sex abuse scandal drama Spotlight to the Dan Rather downfall pic Truth to the thinly veiled satire about political strategists Our Brand Is Crisis, this year’s festival promises 10 days of heated debate.

But Moore issued the first salvo on Thursday with his Opening Night film that takes aim at the problems he sees as eroding the America Dream and looks to Europe and other liberal cultures for solutions.

"I was tired of being the poster boy for Fox News," Moore told the frenzied premiere crowd, explaining his six-year absence from filmmaking. "After Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, I thought it was important to re-enlist and be part of what's happening."

Moore's opening night fireworks only set the stage for a steady stream of controversy to come. The Tom McCarthy-helmed Spotlight also features a storyline likely to court controversy. Based on the true story of the Boston Globe journalists who uncovered Catholic priest pedophilia, the film screens Sept. 14 with its real-life subjects — winners of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize — on hand for a post-premiere Q&A. The drama, which shines an unflattering light on the Church’s role in keeping the scandal from surfacing, comes at a time when Catholicism is enjoying an improved image thanks to charismatic Pope Francis. But Spotlight financier Participant Media, the company behind socially minded films like An Inconvenient Truth, is quick to point out that the film is an indictment of the city more than the church.

“I don’t see the film as anti-Catholic,” says Participant executive vp Jonathan King, noting that he was sensitive to Church-bashing given that he was raised Catholic. “This is more a movie about every powerful institution in Boston basically colluding to keep this powerful story secret.” Similarly, Johnny Depp’s Whitey Bulger drama Black Mass, playing Sept. 14, details how Boston’s FBI office enabled the famed mobster.

With Our Brand Is Crisis, director David Gordon Green kept real-life inspiration James Carville at “arm’s length” for legal reasons. “We were shooting in New Orleans where he lives, and I was very tempted to say, ‘Hey let’s go grab dinner. I’d love to rack your brain,’” Gordon Green says of his film, inspired by the political campaign tactics of Greenberg Carville Shrum in the 2002 Bolivian presidential election. “But I think there were enough very valid reasons that we thought we should probably keep a little distance from some of the truthful characters.”

Other potentially polarizing films in this year’s festival mix include hot sales title Eye in the Sky, a cautionary tale about drone warfare, and admonitory climate change documentary This Changes Everything, produced in conjunction with Naomi Klein’s best-seller of the same name.

But nothing will get the right wing more agitated than Truth and Where to Invade Next. With renowned liberal Robert Redford in a sympathetic portrayal of Rather, who was fired from CBS after questioning George W. Bush’s military record, the James Vanderbilt-directed drama is certain to spark a backlash with conservative critics. Ditto for Where to Invade Next, with Moore returning to the style of his Bush indictment Fahrenheit 9/11 and anti-gun Oscar winner Bowling for Columbine.

Ironically, one buyer who saw the film said Invade is lacking something that other Moore docs have featured. “There’s no villain,” the buyer says. “That’s a big problem.”

And that omission may provoke a debate of its own.

Etan Vlessing contributed to this report.