I figured I’d kind of missed the boat on Michael Moore. He was a really big deal when I was growing up in the 2000s – somehow becoming that most unlikely of things, a blockbuster documentary filmmaker – but I never saw any of his films. Though he’s always been divisive, over the course of Barack Obama’s presidency the tide of public opinion seemed to turn against him. We seemed to think of Michael Moore in the same category as JNCO jeans or bucket hats: a terrible fad that we are embarrassed to recall having once indulged.
So I’ve spent longer listening to Michael Moore being treated like a punchline than like a serious cultural phenomenon: Michael Moore, the manipulative liar; Michael Moore, preaching to the choir; Michael Moore, who can’t understand that things just aren’t that simple. Like the left-of-centre equivalent of Dinesh D’Souza. As I got older and my political opinions developed, I figured that Michael Moore must be a certain irritating kind of liberal, who roots for the Democrats like a football team, who, at best, was – like Jon Stewart on The Daily Show – more concerned with hypocrisy than justice. That’s not true at all, but it’s what I extrapolated as the only thing that made criticisms of Moore make sense: because if he was preaching to the choir, it must be the choir of Beltway and Hollywood and Silicon Valley liberals, who are more terrified of tax hikes than oligarchy.
Then the 2016 US presidential election happened. I remember a white board on Fox News saying that Donald Trump would have to win every swing state and flip a wall of Midwestern blue states to become president. I remember the counties that Barack Obama had won by twenty points that went to Trump. I remember the moment he won Wisconsin, and even though it was hours before it would be official, somehow knowing it was over.
I know everyone’s sick of talking about it and going over it again and again. But that election will, I think, be one of the defining moments of my political life. A lifetime of wavering between liberalism and the left snapped into focus and I learned that I couldn’t waver any longer. The moment Fox declared Wisconsin for Trump, I had a sense of what had happened, that I think has been borne out: that the Hillary Clinton campaign targeted “moderate” Republicans who, in the end, will hold their nose and vote for whoever has Republican written beside their name, and abandoned working-class Democrat voters who had been the backbone of the party, who have been ravaged by the Great Recession and the systematically uneven recovery. I worry that when I say that, it sounds like I’m trying to absolve Trump voters of racism, but that’s not it at all. It’s just that you’re more likely to buy into a demagogue’s racist lies when he’s the only candidate who looks you in the eye and tells you that your problems are real and he’s going to solve them. The people who voted for Obama twice and then voted for Trump are not unreachable. They just need someone to see their pain and place the blame squarely where it belongs: on the one percent, on the Wall Street executives and Fortune 500 CEOs and right-wing corporatists in both parties in Congress.
I spent a truly oppressive amount of time on Twitter and news sites trying to find people who were thinking about this the way I was. And then I watched Michael Moore on Morning Joe, in a segment that was meant to be seven minutes and ended up being three-quarters of an hour without any ad breaks, and I kind of freaked out. He said almost exactly what I was thinking.
Maybe Michael Moore wasn’t so bad, I thought. Maybe he was further to the left than I thought, and more thoughtful and interesting. I still kind of figured I missed the boat.
But the last time I thought I missed the boat on something it was Frasier, my favourite show in the world, which proved to me that if you want to catch a cultural boat these days it’s pretty damn doable. So early this year I put on Bowling for Columbine, figuring I’d leave it on as kind of background noise, watching it just to have seen it. I thought I knew what I was in for: it’d be two hours of Michael Moore saying “Aren’t America’s gun laws crazy? Look how crazy they are! We should bring in gun control,” and that would be fine as far as it goes, like the best possible version of any of those thousand late-night show segments about guns.
I was wrong. It’s kind of hard to express all that Bowling for Columbine is: a rich and thorough examination of America’s relationship with violence and fear; a really amazing film in a way that documentaries, in my experience, rarely are; something that completely sucked me in from the first frame and left me repeating holy shit under my breath when the credits rolled, so excited that I couldn’t keep my hands from shaking. He thinks about violence in ways that extend so far beyond school shootings: in one scene, a weapons manufacturer tells Michael Moore that the bombs they make are different from school shootings, because we don’t just bomb someone because they do something we don’t like. Cut to: montage of the US bombing people because they did something they didn’t like. Bowling for Columbine is heartbreaking and fascinating and really, really funny, and it kind of blew my mind. It, quite obviously, should have been the first documentary to get nominated for Best Picture.
I’ve watched most of Moore’s films now, and the thought of him being dismissed as a Bush-era fad that we’ve all gotten too smart for breaks my heart. But more than anything, all the insults critics and audiences have hurled at Moore and his films for decades turn out to make no sense at all. I want people to return to Moore’s films, or watch them for the first time, and to wash away any embarrassment at enjoying the work of a truly great filmmaker.
Michael Moore’s first film was Roger & Me. Bowling for Columbine might be his best film – the one where he perfected both his technique and his shtick – but Roger & Me is my favourite. Its working title was A Humorous Look at How General Motors Destroyed Flint, Michigan, which, yeah: it’s about the massive layoffs General Motors did in Flint in the 1980s to move those jobs to low-wage countries like Mexico, and all the horror and absurdity that goes along with it. Rich people tell the camera that the solution is just for the unemployed auto workers to keep their chins up and think positively, or – less generously – to just get another job (all thirty thousand of them). Meanwhile, the poor are evicted from their homes, or are selling rabbits as pets or meat, your choice, to get by.
Roger & Me received a backlash that ended up being a standard part of the response to anything Moore’s made since. In hindsight, it’s kind of quaint: it was criticised for showing events out of chronological order. For example, the final eviction in Roger & Me is intercut with a speech by General Motors CEO Roger Smith, even though those events didn’t take place on the same day. Pauline Kael called the film “a piece of gonzo demagoguery that made [her] feel cheap for laughing.”
The question is what is a documentary, and what are documentaries for? One of the problems is that we tend to think of “documentary” as a genre, in the way we think of comedy or horror as genres. But documentary is only a genre as much as fiction is, by which I mean, yeah, sure, technically, but only if you’re using the word in a certain way. My point is, there are lots of genres of documentary, and they all have different styles and different purposes. There’s no such thing as a perfectly accurate and objective documentary film – the decisions of where to place the camera and how you edit the footage alone make it something necessarily separate from “reality” – but not all documentaries are aiming for objectivity.
The documentary films of Michael Moore are arguments. It is immediately clear watching them, and would be even if you had never heard of Michael Moore in your life, that he is coming to the film with a position, and his aim is to convince you of it. It’s the difference between the news and comment sections of the newspaper: they’re both newspaper articles, but one aims to be an objective relay of facts, even if it inevitably has some kind of perspective baked in, and one is a person’s – hopefully informed – opinion. The only problem would be if it wasn’t made clear which kind of article you were reading.
Michael Moore always makes it clear what kind of film you’re watching: he never hides behind an omniscient third-person narrator, but places himself as a character in the action. He opens Roger & Me with stories about growing up in Flint, Michigan, with his dad working for GM, proud to know his grandfather was part of the 1936 sit-down strike. He tells us how he moved to California, got fired and came back to Flint to find things changed. If anyone went into Roger & Me expecting a straight-laced God’s-eye view of Flint, they’d be quickly set straight. Roger & Me is a film that puts its point of view front-and-centre, very deliberately showing us what massive lay-offs leave in their wake when you were much more likely to hear the story according to General Motors management. And the point of view that Roger & Me supplies feels just as or more vital in 2018, as it becomes clear that Flint was just a test case for something that would happen all over the western world, from Detroit to Sheffield to my hometown in the Irish midlands. There’s a famous montage in Roger & Me, where ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ by the Beach Boys plays over shots of derelict houses and boarded-up shops, and I couldn’t help but feel a tug of familiarity, even on a much smaller scale. I find it hard to disagree with Roger Ebert’s assessment:
What Roger & Me supplies about General Motors, Flint and big corporations is both more important and more rare than facts. It supplies poetry, a viewpoint, indignation, opinion, anger and humor.
All documentaries, [the filmmakers] agreed, manipulate factual material in order to make a point, and they imply by their style and tone what kind of a point they are making. Some hope to give you an accurate view of a situation, and you can tell that while you’re watching them. Others might be poetic, elegaic, angry or funny. You can tell that, too.
I can’t help but think there’s something bizarre and condescending in some film critics going out of their way to point out in concerned tones that Michael Moore is actually quite biased. Because the obvious answer, one any adult can give, is duh, I know. The sense of voice, of presence and place, is one of the very best things in Moore’s work. He’s “manipulative” just like any filmmaker is: using sounds and images to create an experience, one that, he hopes, will lead you to thinking war and capitalism are bad.
Which brings us to the “preaching to the choir” issue. The point here, I guess, is that Michael Moore’s films aren’t particularly aimed at the right, and the right are unlikely to watch them (we’ll discount hate-watching). But the problem with that is that Michael Moore made the highest grossing documentary of all-time twice on the trot with Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, while advocating beliefs that were – until recently – well outside the mainstream of American politics. So who exactly are Moore’s choir?
The stock answer is “liberals,” but Moore’s films position him at the very least significantly to the left of the Democratic Party. He’s as eager to criticise the Clintons as the Bushes. “Capitalism is an evil, and you can’t regulate evil,” he says at the end of Capitalism: A Love Story, “You must eradicate it.” I assumed the choir was composed of the kind of rich liberals that work in Hollywood or Silicon Valley, but Moore is surely positively at odds with them, having been famously booed at the Oscars for saying the Iraq War was bad.
We tend to reflexively imagine the media elite, especially in Hollywood, as a kind of progressive stalwart, even when it necessarily requires some mental gymnastics. “We are a bit out of touch in Hollywood… It’s probably a good thing,” George Clooney said in his Oscar speech, “We’re the ones who talk about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn’t really popular… I’m proud to be out of touch.” Just a year after #OscarsSoWhite, Meryl Streep gave a speech about how Hollywood is made up of foreigners and outsiders while taking a bizarre jab at mixed martial arts, to a rapturous reception. Even as the waves of sexual harassment and abuse scandals in Hollywood and the news media should have burst that self-image permanently, it lingers. The American media is extraordinarily deferential to power: look no further than the existence of the White House Correspondence Dinner, where – pre-Trump, who refuses to attend – a cabal of journalists and the politicians they report on would go out for a lavish evening of booing comedians for criticising them or the president, from Stephen Colbert saying the Iraq War was bad to Larry Wilmore saying Obama’s drones were bad. Overtly liberal establishment outlets peddle warmongering, neoliberal economics and a pace of incremental change so slow it isn’t change at all. On MSNBC, the most liberal cable news network, Brian Williams kept talking about how “beautiful” missiles that bombed Syria were. It’s shocking.
Except that it’s not shocking, because we’ve seen it all before. One of the astonishing things about watching Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2018 is realising how utterly the establishment at large has failed to learn any lessons at all. We’ve entered an era of Bush revisionism, and at times even nostalgia: just recently, The Guardian published this bizarre article about a photograph of the former presidential families where they off-handedly describe Trump as “the very opposite of a Bush Republican.”
But he’s not. Trump is the next stage of a Bush Republican’s evolution. George Bush launched a war of aggression and massively curbed civil liberties in order to enrich himself and his buddies, and the pundit class cheered him on, just as they insist on cheering on Trump every time he fires off a missile. “He knows war is one of the few things that gets bipartisan and mainstream media support,” Cody Johnson said recently. It’s true.
The fact is that Michael Moore has spent a career advocating leftist ideas in a country that, in media terms, and especially in film and TV terms, did not have a left. Michael Moore began his film career in the era when both parties embraced an economic consensus of tax cuts for the rich and public service cuts for the poor. The two most ever-present ideas in his documentaries are that war and capitalism are evil, whether it’s the inseparability of personal, structural and international violence in Bowling for Columbine or the targeting of poor black men by army recruitment officers in Fahrenheit 9/11, while the two major US parties overwhelmingly agree that war and capitalism are very good, actually.
“Simplifications are Moore’s stock-in-trade,” the Hollywood Reporter wrote about Capitalism: A Love Story, and it’s an idea that you’ll see again and again if you read reviews of Moore’s films. It’s never really explained. “The handgun psychologically equivalent to the B-52? A little glib,” Peter Bradshaw wrote in the Guardian, and I’m not really sure what he means. “The idiocy of this statement is hardly worth engaging,” AO Scott said about the line in Bowling for Columbine that says Osama Bin Laden used his CIA training to carry out 9/11. I’m not even sure I disagree that Michael Moore simplifies things or makes connections that aren’t intuitive, although I don’t think that those things are inherently bad. But this hand-waving of “it’s not all that simple” gets my back up a little, because I’ve heard that before, just like any young person who’s significantly left of centre has. “It’s not all that simple” explains why we can’t have single-payer healthcare, why some people have to be homeless, why you can’t regulate the banking industry so it doesn’t hurt ordinary people so badly. No more explanation is needed, except maybe “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
We spend a lot of time convincing ourselves that political questions are incredibly morally complex, or sometimes, operating outside of morality altogether. We treat public policy questions as a matter of data and charts instead of values and belief systems. American liberalism was captured long ago by a technocratic impulse, believing earnestly that the difference between them and their opponents is knowledge, not opinion, finding themselves “unable to imagine or countenance any ambition beyond tinkering with the present hell.”
In Brianna Rennix & Nathan J. Robinson’s article in Current Affairs on the trolley problem, they write, “once you get away from the world of ludicrous extremes in which every choice leads to bloodshed, large numbers of moral questions are incredibly easy. The hard thing is not ‘figuring out what the right thing to do is’ but ‘mustering the courage and selflessness to actually do it.’ In real life, the main moral problem is that the world has a lot of suffering and hardship in it, and most of us are doing very little to stop it.” We’ve tricked ourselves so thoroughly into thinking this isn’t true that I – a person who literally believes that morality is an objective, existing thing – was taken aback to see it stated so baldly. But it’s true.
What I love about Michael Moore is that he insists on looking at the world with that kind of baldness. All of Moore’s films have a definite political viewpoint, but at his best, he simply points his camera at an injustice and asks us if we’re willing to live with it. He has filmed so many evictions at this point, but they break my heart anew every time. The way Moore films these evictions manages to make them both so horribly momentous for the families involved and so horribly commonplace in the context of the film and our economic system. That’s what it really means when people say his films simplify things: they recognise good and evil when they see it, and refuse to pretend it’s all a haze of grey.
In Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore positions capitalism as incompatible with democracy and Christianity. That might seem too simple, but it’s true: capitalism threatens parliamentary democracy by allowing the rich undue power over elections, and consistently resists or flat-out shuts down the democratising of the workplace through unions and worker-owned cooperatives. Capitalism is at odds with Christianity because it is idolatry, and actively incentivises a multitude of sins, most notably greed. And it’s an idea that – particularly in America – not a lot of people get to hear. Moore’s made a career on saying simple, true things that not a lot of people get to hear – that war is evil, that no-one should live in poverty, that we don’t have to accept the world as it is. He did this while making films that are entertaining and funny, that played in multiplexes, that were accessible to broad audiences and which broad audiences flocked to. There’s a reason Borat essentially apes the structure of Bowling for Columbine. Michael Moore makes popular, populist cinema, in the best possible sense: reclaiming the documentary as an art that can speak to mass audiences, that can be as entertaining as narrative film, and that can say those rarely heard, simple, true things. Maybe it’s less that Michael Moore preaches to the choir, and more that he asks people sitting in the church doorway if they want to come in and get warm.