Michael Moore and the distributors of his ''Fahrenheit 9/11'' are hoping for the biggest documentary release in history (they're planning to book the film on 700 to 1,000 screens), but they may not get the huge audience they want if the ratings board's ruling stands. The Motion Picture Association of America's panelists gave the film an R, which would keep kids under 17 and unaccompanied by an adult from seeing the movie. The ratings board wasn't specific about the reason for the restrictive rating, except to cite the film's ''violent and disturbing images'' and ''language.'' According to the Los Angeles Times, that citation may refer to the movie's footage of military and civilian war casualties in Iraq and the recitation of some explicit song lyrics by an American soldier.
In a statement, distributor Lions Gate called the rating ''completely unjustified'' and vowed an immediate appeal. IFC Films, which is partnering with Lions Gate on the release, echoed the statement that the rating was ''unjust'' and vowed to do ''everything within its legal power'' to overturn the rating. As Moore put it, ''It is sadly very possible that many 15- and 16- year-olds will be asked and recruited to serve in Iraq in the next couple of years. If they are old enough to be recruited and capable of being in combat and risking their lives, they certainly deserve the right to see what is going on in Iraq.''
The R rating is the latest setback for the movie and its producers, Miramax's Weinstein brothers, who bought ''Fahrenheit'' back from Disney after it became clear last month that the parent company had no intention of releasing the openly partisan film during an election year. The MPAA's ratings board seldom reverses itself on appeal unless the director agrees to re-edit the film, so it's unlikely that Moore and his distributors will get a less discouraging rating before the film's scheduled June 25 release. On the other hand, the dust-up with the MPAA certainly won't hurt ''Fahrenheit'''s publicity.