“I just wanted to make something that I knew the Hillary campaign would never endorse,” said Michael Moore in New York on Tuesday evening. He was speaking at the premiere of Michael Moore in TrumpLand, a movie none of us had even heard of a week ago. There wasn’t much time to promote it: It was filmed less than two weeks ago, on October 7, in the small town of Wilmington, Ohio — the “TrumpLand” of the title. Moore took to the small stage of the Murphy Theatre that day with nothing more than a microphone, an easy chair, a desk, and his reputation for stirring up shit.
“I’ve never voted for Hillary,” Moore confesses early in his act. “I am not a Hillary voter.” Bill never got his vote, either. But the times have changed, and so has he. That’s the subject of Michael Moore in TrumpLand, which, over the course of just over an hour, argues for our national duty to elect Hillary. Moore jokes, soliloquizes, and moralizes, waxes mock-nostalgic over the increased irrelevance of white guys, and stutters excitedly over Beyoncé’s “shit-kicking boots.” He occasionally turns to fake newsreels and campaign commercials that imagine America’s terrifying future under Trump. “Who wins on a low turnout day?” Moore asked at the film premiere. “The one with rabid supporters.”
Hence his own desire to rouse support for Hillary in a documentary that has the makings of an HBO comedy special, but cheaper; a stump speech, but weirder; an attempt at incisive political comedy, but less useful than it ought to be. The stakes, of which Moore is urgently aware, are high — and this project falls short. Much of what would have made it compelling is reduced to a backstory about Moore’s thwarted first attempt to perform his show. From his attitude, you would think the movie was staged before rabid, virulent Trump stans; the crowd we see in the constant reaction cutaways is decidedly more placid, men and women in straw hats and baseball caps. They are voters of all ages who span the full political spectrum; according to Moore, half of the crowd is made up of Hillary supporters. The rest are Bernie loyalists, undecided voters, and, of course, Trump fans — but not the hostile legions you see in footage of Trump’s rallies.
You almost miss the crazies. It’s a movie called Michael Moore in TrumpLand — where are the pitchforks? There’s no danger here. Perhaps because of that, Moore performs free of the nervousness or tension that might have made the project contentious or brave, or which might have made his low-hanging satirical jabs more risky and discomforting. The act is rife with questionable stunts you’d expect Cartman to pull on South Park, such as when Moore and his producers separate Muslims, Mexicans, and “Mexican-looking” people to the balconies, “just so the Trump voters wouldn’t be made uncomfortable.” As he says it, producers emerge with huge boards to sequester the so-called “Mexicans” (one woman cries that she’s Guatemalan) and a drone hovers above the heads of the Muslims. “Trump Voters Welcome,” promised the marquee. Here’s the proof.
Moore’s act travels from the warm but workmanlike humor familiar from his documentaries — you can sense how he’s gotten so many of his interviewees on their good side, but also why so many slam the door shut as soon as they see his face — to interactive feats of understanding. At one point, he asks the audience to say something nice about Hillary — and, as a trade-off, compliments George W. Bush. He tells personal stories about the Clintons, recounting how a recent trip to a hospital in Estonia for his last documentary, Where to Invade Next, reminded him of Hillary’s role in the health care fight during her husband’s presidency. We know how that story ends — the failed health care plan that would be only the first in a series of humiliations for the future senator — and Moore recounts the story well, even movingly.
Not quite as well as he did earlier in his career in Sicko, however, or — regarding the other evergreen political issues surrounding this election — as he did in Roger & Me or Bowling for Columbine. That’s the strange thing about TrumpLand. Moore has been one of our more prescient political thinkers in recent memory, predicting the success of Trump in the Republican primary (and the election at large). Even before that, he suggested that the white working class, long-ignored by the politicians and businessmen they’re often beholden to, might some day play a serious hand in upturning the political future of our country. His earlier movies emphasize the interpersonal, the communal: His one-on-one style has long been a resonant counterargument to the data-fetishizing of contemporary politics. As a performance piece, TrumpLand seems like a swerve from those earlier formats.
But the persona at the center is consistent. Moore emphasizes the lives of the people he’s talking to, even as he does most of the talking. It is of course all a construction — an illusion. Editing does more than its share of the work in TrumpLand: Who knows whether the audience is actually moved from stolid skepticism to a rousing standing O, as is shown in the movie. What’s clear either way is that the movie’s recurring shots of the faces in the crowd attempt to tell a story. Moore’s ethnographic impulse in his earlier work — walking and talking, getting to know a people and a place — resonates here despite the movie’s stagey format. The impulse is clear. Moore wants to give us a read on how this group of Ohioans feels, whether it’s being swayed, and whether — by proxy — Hillary doubters can be swayed, too.
That may come as a surprise from the guy who’s been a vocal critic of Clinton since the start of her campaign — who demands, even in this documentary, that she go on an apology tour for supporting the Iraq War, and who remains suspicious of her Wall Street ties. It would seem to be the classic conversion narrative — from dissenter to begrudging supporter to avid advocate — that is an especially attractive weapon of choice for men, particularly of the white, middle-aged demographic, who have lately felt the urgency of imminent disaster many of us at the margins have felt since Day 1 of Trump’s campaign. Rather, it would be, if Moore himself seemed to feel that fire. But lest we be confused, a vote for Hillary, so far as he is concerned, is not a vote on her behalf, but a vote against the “human Molotov cocktail,” as Moore describes him, that she’s running against.
For all his hooting and hollering — for all his heartfelt reminiscences about Clinton’s humiliations or the difficult histories of smart, outspoken women looking to lead political careers in our country — Moore is still prone to describing a vote for Hillary like taking your medicine. Trump winning, Moore tells the crowd of Ohioans in a sober moment, would be “the biggest fuck you in human history.” It would be using the ballot like “an anger-management tool.”
Voting for Clinton would be better than the alternative, he suggests — but he knows it ain’t easy. The folly of his project is never greater than when, late in the act, he mimics a begrudging voter who has to use one hand to overpower and contort the other into marking the X next to Clinton’s name — the most honest gesture in the movie. “It’s a sacrifice,” he told the audience after the premiere, as if that’s as good as it gets.