They're stealing headlines from summer blockbusters. They're being accused of trying to influence elections. Heck, they're even playing on two screens at the mall! The documentary, once art-house film's dowdier stepsister, is suddenly hot. What happened?
Two words: Michael Moore. Fed by the reality TV craze and led by Moore's advocacy approach (pioneered in ''Roger & Me''), documentarians are taking a page from the portly provocateur's handbook and infusing their films with punchier writing, flashier editing, and hipper soundtracks. Movies that wear their agendas on their sleeve are resonating with media-savvy audiences who want some passion and POV with their popcorn. Here are some higher-profile projects in theaters, and plenty more are in the works.
CONTROL ROOM Fed up with what she considered biased media coverage of Iraq, Jehane Noujaim set out to deconstruct Arab satellite news channel al-Jazeera and ''get at the human beings behind the headlines.'' Working on a tight budget (''We seriously put the whole thing on credit cards''), the Egyptian-American filmmaker had the (mis)fortune of arriving in Qatar three weeks before war broke out. OUTLOOK Since opening May 21, the film has grossed a healthy $1.25 million in just a handful of theaters.
THE CORPORATION With 40 heavy-hitting commentators (including Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn), Canadian filmmakers Jennifer Abbott, Mark Achbar, and Joel Bakan trace what they call the moral decline of big business back to 1868, when a new law allowed a corporation to attain legal status as an ''individual.'' OUTLOOK Though the film's a huge hit in Canada, its 2-hour, 25-minute run time could be a deterrent.
THE HUNTING OF THE PRESIDENT FOBs Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry adapted Gene Lyons and Joe Conason's 2000 New York Times best-seller about the alleged right-wing plot to besmirch the Clintons: ''It had good guys, bad guys, and everything an old-fashioned B movie would have,'' says Thomason. The directors spliced archival footage with new interviews; Whitewater convict Susan McDougal is especially candid. OUTLOOK Its small-scale opening saw little boost from Bill Clinton's book tour.
AMERICA'S HEART & SOUL Stitching together stories of human triumph (blind mountain climbers!), first-time director Louis Schwartzberg accentuates the positive in his rousing celebration of American hope and energy (''Those are the stories I love!''). OUTLOOK Earning $135,000 its opening weekend, Disney's conservative film proved a weak countermeasure to ''Fahrenheit.''
METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER Having lobbied to see heavy metal group Metallica's ''gentlemanly'' side, ''Brother's Keeper'' directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were invited to film the band members working out their anger issues with a $40,000-a-month ''performance enhancer/therapist.'' OUTLOOK With a guaranteed audience of headbangers and a trailer before ''Fahrenheit,'' this just-opened doc is sure to rock.