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Does America Need Michael Moore?

Muckraker. Prankster. Sentimentalist. The documentarian has spent 30 years exposing hypocrisy, greed, and the rotten core of our democracy in his films. But with a political climate that’s noisier and angrier than he could ever be, what place does he have now? His new movie, ‘Fahrenheit 11/9,’ answers with a cri de coeur and a call to arms.

An illustration of Michael Moore with a red face and steam coming out of his nose Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Fifteen years ago, they booed Michael Moore on his best day. It was March 23, 2003, in the Kodak Theatre at the 75th Academy Awards, and Moore was up for Best Documentary Feature for his fourth film, the anti-gun saga Bowling for Columbine. The movie, a surprise hit at the box office, was the prospective favorite to win. But there was little precedent for “popular” docs winning; not since 1970’s Woodstock had such a financially successful film of its kind won the prize. So Moore hedged his bets.

Before the ceremony began, he huddled with the other nominees in his category—seven other filmmakers who had made movies about the migratory journeys of birds, children of the Vietnam war, a German-Jewish Nazi propagandist, and an irresistible group of spelling bee contestants—and he presented them with an offer and a warning. In an act of solidarity, no matter the winner, all of the filmmakers would go to the stage and stand together in support of documentaries and democracy. But, Moore warned, should he win, he would share his truth, without a filter. Win he did, and his speech began gently.

On behalf of our producers Kathleen Glynn and Michael Donovan from Canada, I’d like to thank the Academy for this.

I’ve invited my fellow documentary nominees on the stage with us, and we would like to—they are here. They are here in solidarity with me because we like nonfiction.

Then Moore’s demeanor began to change. From magnanimous to dour, grateful to galvanizing. As the camera panned across the stage, Moore’s truth came tumbling out.

We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times.

We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elects a fictitious president.

We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons.

Whether it’s the [fiction] of duct tape or the [fiction] of orange alerts, we are against this war, Mr. Bush.

Shame on you, Mr. Bush. Shame on you.

And any time you’ve got the pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up.

Thank you very much.

The orchestra quickly played him off. It was almost exactly one minute long. Sometime between “fictitious president” and the image of Harrison Ford seated in the front row grinning like a guilty altar boy, the audience began booing, loudly. And then more people booed. More than were clapping. And as they booed, Moore began to smile; he became more excited, clutching his thumb to his forefinger and waving it not unlike the way Bill Clinton does during a speech. Moore’s voice grew more animated, too, almost singsongish—“Shame on you, Mr. Bush!” At the time, it seemed an embarrassment for Moore, a kneecapping at his pinnacle. But he was reveling. The devilish prankster, the truth-telling mischief-maker, the clear-eyed constable of the real liberal America come to speak sense once more. Moore did as he always did: He sold it, and well. And then he was hustled off the stage. A little later, Eminem and Roman Polanski were given Oscars, and Chicago won Best Picture. Simpler times, I suppose.

Moore, of course, was vindicated. Just three days before his speech, President George W. Bush initiated a military strike in Iraq, and America was at war. Moore, ever the righteous skeptic, was dubious of the war’s validity and strident in his dissent. With 33 million people watching the Oscars telecast, his speech was as widely seen a protest as one could find. The boo birds said the show was not the right venue for that kind of political rhetoric. Fifteen years later, we have a good idea of who was justified in their actions. It’s emblematic of Moore’s approach to his life’s work: Don’t wait to say what you think is right. It may soon be too late.

One year later, he would release Fahrenheit 9/11, a sweeping, grave examination of the Bush presidency and the terror attack that emboldened the president to enact a series of horrifying political decisions. It’s easy to forget now, but Fahrenheit 9/11 was a true movie phenomenon, outgrossing The Notebook in its opening weekend by $10 million in one-third the number of theaters. It earned more than $119 million. This had never happened before, a documentary becoming a central act of popular culture, and it probably won’t happen again. Michael Moore wasn’t just a major documentarian in 2004; he was a major American voice.

Fifteen years ago, when Moore won his Oscar, the political climate was performatively combative and divisive—but not like today. There are more people in this country with more access to news, more access to opinions, and more access to machines that let them convey their opinions about the news than ever before. To consume media in 2018 is to engage in a daily psychic battle, without armor or recompense. Moore has a new movie, Fahrenheit 11/9, out this week, and the timing is telling. It’s about the major political disaster of the present day, the Donald J. Trump presidential administration, the myriad factors that led us to this moment, and what can happen in the future. It is an unsparing, funny, deeply committed political act releasing six weeks before the midterm elections. It is also a return to form for Moore, who spent the Barack Obama era resembling the doomsayer in Times Square who squeals about the end-time while laughing children gallivant through M&M’s World. As usual, Moore was right while we were relaxing, squawking about a coming crisis as we kicked back and celebrated a new dawn. He warned of a likely Donald Trump win and begged Democrats to look to Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio—his turf. They didn’t.

Fahrenheit 11/9 will open in 1,719 theaters across the country Friday, by far the most ever for one of his movies. But do people—the same people who think about the crisis of American politics all day long—need Michael Moore to tell them what they think they already know?

For the past 30 years, Moore has presented in his films and television a voice that is fearless and pugnacious in the face of power; a defender of organized labor; an advocate of socialized medicine and immigration; and, as a Flint, Michigan, native, a credible fighter for American middle-class values. In the opening frames of his first film, 1989’s Roger & Me, Moore is seen as a young boy in Michigan playing with toy guns, admiring his General Motors-employed father, and aspiring to the promise of the American Dream: nuclear family, steady career, pension, maybe even a lake house. Roger and Me, Moore’s quest to find and confront Roger Smith, the General Motors chairman who oversaw a sweeping series of plant closings and eliminated jobs throughout Michigan and specifically in Flint, announced the filmmaker as a disrupter in documentaries. His dive-bombing, first-person style was new; he had more in common with Ken Kesey, Studs Terkel, or George Orwell than the Maysles brothers. There was no objectivity, only objection.

After working in local independent journalism in Flint (the birthplace of General Motors and home of the United Automobile Workers union’s famed sit-down strike), followed by a brief stint running a magazine in San Francisco, Moore set out to tell the story of his hometown, a symbol of a withering ideal. He cut a shabbily gallant figure. With his crooked grin, trucker hat covering a pile of reddish straw on his head, and the waddling gait of a man running late for a dentist appointment, Moore wasn’t slick. But he was a showman. As he stormed the gates of GM in the 1989 film, he began to set a template for his movies: one part social justice truth-mongering, one part corporate activist raid, one part prank-playing Loki. Roger and Me earned nearly $7 million at the box office, a staggering number at the time for a doc from an unknown guy stalking an executive. But Roger and Me is so much more than the way it can be described in capsule. Take the infamous “pets or meat” encounter with a woman, Rhonda Britton, who breeds, raises, and butchers rabbits in Flint as a way to make ends meet in the financially strapped town. It’s a Flannery O’Connor story come true.

Moore is the star of all of his movies, the swashbuckling goober with a chrome-plated hubcap surrounding his heart. But he has a knack for finding characters—the beleaguered local, the unwitting corporate stooge, the dimwit pageant queen. His movies are littered with interviews with sorrowful, downtrodden folk and the people who engineered their sorrows. It’s one of his great journalistic gifts, putting often unseen people on screen and forcing them to say what they think about the shittiness of the world. And his tactics are glorious too. He would ceremonially deliver oversize checks for 7 cents to the offices of businesses that had shipped jobs overseas; with an aw-shucks demeanor he would harangue spokespeople about the cowardice of their fat cat bosses hiding on the top floor of their skyscrapers; he would even do business at local banks just to get the free gun the branch had on offer with a new savings account. In the direst of situations, Moore seemed to be having a ball. He was a mordant mortician.

Over the course of his career, Moore, like most iconoclastic successes, has become a target and sometimes a self-parodist. To right-wing media, he is both a worthy adversary—Moore never misses an interview opportunity—and also a stand-in for all that is wrong with the left. (There is an entire subgenre of independently produced documentaries aiming to expose Moore’s lies that you can find littered across streaming services.) He’s become a fixture of the political chattering class, and self-aggrandizing at his worst. So much so that he did and why he mattered in the first place has been obscured over the years. I was alerted to a new way of seeing the world with his earliest work, Roger & Me; his second film, the rollicking book tour diary The Big One; and his television series TV Nation, a kind of newsmagazine satire that predicted The Daily Show and Da Ali G Show years before the respective Gotcha! comedy strategies those shows employed. I even liked his maligned narrative comedy, Canadian Bacon. Moore was an inspiring figure in his way, ruthlessly efficient in his work, but also pretty damned funny. When Noam Chomsky and Lies My Teacher Told Me were too dry for cynical AP History students, Moore was like a cool glass of lemonade.

Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 11/9 spraying a hose in front of a Flint Water truck
Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018)
Briarcliff Entertainment

Bowling for Columbine was Moore’s bridge to the mainstream, the film in which Marilyn Manson memorably emerges as the voice of reason in the gun control debate. Moore’s final-act sitdown with octogenarian NRA advocate Charlton Heston devolves into a cringeworthy, heartbreaking metaphor for the ways powerful people evade responsibility. Reexamining all of Moore’s work recently, Bowling for Columbine still feels like his magnum opus, an issue-driven story that expertly balances the sublime, the ridiculous, and the gut-wrenching. The pervasiveness of gun violence is no less a concern today, and it is reckoned with in detail in Moore’s new film too. Its tension is in its staying power. Like the best of Moore’s work, it’s about the past and the future.

Fahrenheit 9/11, by contrast, seems expired, like a dash of history. It’s not exactly shocking. Moore’s movies are made for the now; they are usually urgent documents. The Bush presidency is hardly a beloved time in our country’s history, but in this film Moore’s style began to morph for the worse. It is maudlin rather than sincere, brutalist rather than bomb-throwing. In the work that would follow, 2007’s Sicko and 2009’s Capitalism: A Love Story, you can feel Moore stroking his chin, questing for just the right issue to unpeel and expose to the world. There are stretches of Capitalism that feature among the most incisive commentary of his career, as he returns to the original sins of the Reagan administration and later those of the Clinton administration. He cleverly positions Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech about greed overwhelming our country as a turning point in the American disposition, before it curdled into full-blown Gordon Gekko bacchanalia in the 1980s. Later in the same film, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren appear as voices of reason in the face of big banks run amok, several years before their respective rises to national prominence. Sometimes Moore can see the future, and sometimes his movies can help mold the future.

But this is Moore’s blue period—monochromatic and predictable. Throughout these films, Moore returns to the same tricks: an opening personal reflection about his youth set to a cheery ’60s pop song; repurposed 1950s instructional videos; crudely animated sequences; a dramatic doom-scene montage set to German or Austrian classical compositions; shtick-y gotcha moments with buffoonish corporate types; all pitched under a cheekily written voice-over script that is somehow both bemused and snarky. Over time, it wore thin. People noticed. Since Fahrenheit 9/11, each of his films has made less money than the last.

After Capitalism, it would be more than six and a half years before Moore released a new film in theaters. By the time 2016’s Where to Invade Next arrived, we had lived through two terms of Obama and the agenda of a liberal rabble-rouser seemed passé. Moore countered with a return to the lighthearted, stunt-driven approach that he pioneered. It doesn’t work. Moore’s tour of foreign countries and the ways in which people there live healthier and more sophisticated lives than Americans do was more clever and more apt when he did it Columbine, Capitalism, and Sicko. During this period, Moore’s father—a North Star for much of his humor and philosophy—died. He also divorced his wife and longtime producing partner, Kathleen Glynn. He had been diminished in the public eye, and his influence was visibly waning. By the time of Invade, I anticipated Moore’s interviews on late-night talk shows more than his actual films. He was becoming just another pundit, a take artist swearing up and down that Trump would win when we all knew better.

Fahrenheit 11/9 is no grand stylistic reinvention for Michael Moore. The doom scene scored by operatic music? The interviews with regular folk besieged by tragedy caused by corporate influence? The hammy voice-over? It’s all there. But there is something different—wider and more desperate—about Fahrenheit 11/9, which, in inverting the title of his biggest hit, references the date on which Trump was officially declared the 45th president of the United States of America.

Fahrenheit 11/9 opens as you would expect, with a clever gallows-humor-ish bit about Trump’s rise that involves NBC’s salary structure, Gwen Stefani, and the most important fake press conference in the history of our country. It’s all very Moore and also very modern for our discourse, like a particularly energetic episode of Pod Save America. But then Moore shrinks down his viewfinder to his hometown. The water crisis that has wracked Flint for the better part of this decade is an almost absurdly fitting issue for Moore to examine. It features all of the key themes of his work—corporate greed, political heartlessness, disenfranchised victims, civic shame—captured in the space of 34 square miles in the heart of Michigan. In his film, Moore talks to doctors, activists, and the sick and suffering who were poisoned by their own city. Moore zeroes in on Governor Rick Snyder, the former Gateway Computers chairman who facilitated the water crisis when he was elected in 2010, and reveals Trump’s relationship to him. The filmmaker exposes corruption at the highest level, dragging a highlighter over news we’ve known for years.

Moore is an equal-opportunity activist in the film, too. When he visits Flint in 2016, Obama is shown to be a callow, ineffective leader with a penchant for misplaced gags about the water’s drinkability. Hillary Clinton is also in Moore’s sights, as are Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and the rest of the Democratic establishment attempting to use old-world Capitol Hill strategy to right the ship for their broken party. Moore juxtaposes them with women like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, two insurgent democratic socialist candidates running for U.S. House seats this fall. The film then begins to veer further from Trump and from Flint and from broad politics, and travels down to Parkland, Florida, where Moore spends time with the teen survivors turned activists of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. In a series of bracing moments of emotional protest, Fahrenheit 11/9 starts to seem like something essential, and the strands of his previous films begin tying together.

It’s here where Moore’s idea grows bigger and more ambitious. He’s mapping the future—one in which there are more women, more young people, more people of color who will vote in elections. His big thesis is that America is, historically and presently, an inherently liberal nation. It’s the politicians—and their systems—who are not. He’s belittling and ditching Democratic mummies clinging to their posts. He’s not passing the torch so much as trying to get high off the vapors of a younger generation. It’s a savvy move for the 64-year-old Moore. No one at the Oscars is going to boo him now. But he knows it’s better if the world starts to cheer someone else, someone with a little more to lose and a lot more life to live.

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