(On Cable TV, September 2016) Film essayist Michael Moore will forever be linked to his biggest success Fahrenheit 9/11, so it’s fair to wonder if he has peaked both in creative success and in influence. After a few strong years in which he delivered a string of films highly critical of the Bush administration, Moore seemingly retreated from high-profile filmmaking in the 2010s and Where to Invade Next is his first documentary in six years. It doesn’t feel like it’s breaking new ground: Annoyingly structured around the conceit of invading other countries to steal their ideas, the film seemingly reprises elements of Sicko and other films by showing Moore being amazed by how other countries manage to hold their own even when they’re not following the American template. (The most obvious suspects, such as Canada and the UK, are thankfully exempt from his invasions.) It doesn’t help that Moore’s faux-naif shtick blatantly cherry-picks and misrepresents what’s going on in other countries. (For instance, claiming a thirteenth pay for holidays when it’s really an artifact of being paid every four weeks rather than monthly: I wonder if Moore knows people who get paid—gasp—once every two weeks and what they can do with those extra two paychecks per year!) Still, grandstanding annoyances aside, Where to Invade Next is at its best when it manages to honestly show that the American model is imperfect, and that other perfectly workable ways to live exist. The last half of the film is more interesting in how it piles up the absurdities of American society and shows that it doesn’t have to be this way, that there are no natural laws dictating a lack of paid holidays, drug criminalization, harsh prisons, militarized police forces and business-focused education. By the time Moore shows how radical change can happen seemingly overnight, or how America’s best ideas are not necessarily welcome in America, Where to Invade Next has revitalized itself, away from disingenuous claims and toward a convincing argument to question the unacceptable flaws of American society. As for relevance, well: Moore may never be as vital to the national discourse as he was back in the Bush administration, but as long as American society has flaws, he’s going to be there pointing them out.
(In theatres, October 2009) I don’t need to be convinced by Michael Moore’s message: I see his movies as political entertainment, not doctoral thesis. While his grandstanding and simplifications are often grating, he is bringing a much-needed perspective to an American political discourse seemingly incapable of questioning its own axioms. Capitalism: A Love Story stakes out a rather daring position in questioning the accepted “free market” mantra that seems to run unchallenged throughout much of the US media. Moore’s film brings together a lot of known material, but there are occasionally a few good stories in the mix, and a few reminders of things that should outrage us still (such as “dead peasant insurance”). Much of the archival footage is interesting, and it’s to Moore’s credit that he’s able to mix diverse material (from personal sob stories to cool analysis to overarching theories) in such an entertaining fashion. Still, Capitalism may be tackling too broad a subject: the picture runs from one thing to another, outrageously simplifies complex issues (letting slide the false opposition of capitalism and democracy, it’s useful to remember that capitalism is always regulated in some fashion; the only question is where the draw the line) and doesn’t quite seem to deal with recent history fairly. The election of Barack Obama may have been felt as change, but as far as his financial policies go, it features a lot of the same players Moore sombrely denounces. (Kleptocracy, or plutocracy, would have been a better subject for the film.) The appeal to bailout conspiracy theories late in the movie is also a bit too cheap and easy considering the systemic complicity of everyone (including, especially, the viewers) in sustaining all kinds of get-rich-quick schemes. Ultimately, it also feels as if Moore fails to connect the pieces of his argument as efficiently as he did elsewhere: at times, viewers may feel as if they’re seeing bits and pieces of a much grander theory sketched in Moore’s previous films. It’s a bit ironic that when it comes to the dangers of amoral capitalism and industry captures of regulatory instruments, Moore has best able to express himself in the now-classic documentary The Corporation. Sure, Moore fans and viewers of a left-leaning persuasion will get their red meat’s worth of rhetoric. But there isn’t much here to persuade reluctant viewers to take another look at the unquestionable goodness of the free market.
Penguin UK, 2002, 281 pages, C$16.00 tpb, ISBN 0-141-01190-4
I know, I know: Even if you’re an avowed liberal, chances are that you don’t like Michael Moore. Can’t say I blame you, really: If Moore can be bitterly amusing to watch, his loose relationship with truth has hurt his cause over the past few years. With his cultural stature after BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE and then FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (to say nothing of books such as Dude, Where’s My Country?) everyone feels entitled to a pot-shot or two in his direction. He’s fat; he lied; he got sued by that guy; he said this or that silly thing. As one of the most preeminent voices from the American left, he gets the enmity of conservatives and the dubious glares of the liberals trying to appease the centre. Ah, the wages of success…
One of the sparks for that celebrity was the publication of a book called Stupid White Men, back in the woolly old days of 2001. Riffing on turn-of-the-century America, Moore offers observations on the “sorry excuses for the state of the nation” and targets the Bush administration before it actually had the chance to turn ugly. The UK edition of the book, here reviewed, offers a post-9/11 introduction and epilogue in which Moore bravely portrays himself (and the book) as nearly-censored victims of a timid publisher. Otherwise, Stupid White Men has already become a quaint time capsule from a pre-“War on Terror” period.
Reading Stupid White Men five years after its original date of publication is often an exercise in futility. Moore’s denunciation of the way Bush won the 2000 elections seems so passé, much like his warnings about various members of the Bush cabinet. Over and over again, readers will want to grab a phone line to early 2001 and tell Moore that he hasn’t seen anything yet. That whatever outrage he musters over this or that minor incident should be marshaled for even worse abuses to come. On the other hand, Moore seldom shies away from criticizing the Clinton administration, which is an useful reminder that Bill only looks good in hindsightful comparison.
And yet Stupid White Men isn’t completely past its expiration date. One of the greatest tragedies of an era where terrorists are hiding behind every security checkpoint is that this single-minded obsession with one particular (and relatively rare) problem has sweept everything else under the rug. Education, wages, racism, environmentalism, corruption: these are all valid issues, except that no one has been paying any attention to them when the GWOT swats everything else aside. Stupid White Men, at its best, it a reminder that -oh yeah- there are other, far more prevalent issues to solve.
Alas, to get to those points you will have to wade through a lot of misplaced humour. Moore’s style has often relied upon buffoonery to make a point –-much to the dismay of everyone who would like to take Moore seriously. It’s not that Moore is incapable of being funny: it’s that he seldom seems to know when enough is enough. Stupid White Men is filled with passages where Moore keeps going farther away in absurdity when more restraint would have served his point a lot better. It’s difficult enough to balance the demands of hyperbolic humour with the factual accuracy of political commentary, but Stupid White Men is often too goofy for its own good. It doesn’t help that Moore’s satire can be so convoluted as to be indistinguishable from actual conservative rhetoric.
This tension between class-clown humour and loftier social criticism eventually takes its toll: The cheap shots, the silly lists, the name-calling can be fun in small column-sized doses, but they get tiresome over the course of a full book. Even those who are on Moore’s side may come to appreciate what his opponents are claiming. In the political exposé/satire genre, Al Franken was generally more successful with Lies and the Lying Liars that Tell Them, reaching a better balance between facts and humour (though TeamFranken probably had a lot to do with the careful research.) It’s also worth noting that Moore’s follow-up, Dude, Where’s My Country?, is also generally better that Stupid White Men. So take heart, all Moore doubters: there’s still hope for him yet.
Warner, 2003, 249 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-53223-1
2001-2003 have been a couple of weird and wonderful years for Michael Moore. From a relatively obscure documentary filmmaker (ROGER AND ME, etc.) with one rather poor fiction film (CANADIAN BACON) to his credit, he has now become, thanks to BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, Stupid White Men and a well-received Oscar acceptance speech (heh-heh), a leading figure of the American left-wing movement. His scathing denunciations of the Bush administration continue to leave few indifferent.
And so Dude, Where’s My Country? comes along as the book-length expansion of Moore’s shtick over the last few years. By now, he’s got the “everyday man” routine down to a science: Ask superficially silly questions, be angry from time to time and don’t let a lot of research deter you from speaking at your audience’s level. I’m not doubting his honesty; on their other hand, he does make a good foil to similar tactics as practiced by other figures on the American right.
What is discussed in Moore’s latest book shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who follows the news: The Bush response to September 11th, the frantic race leading to the invasion of Iraq, knee-jerk paranoia to whiffs of potential terrorism, America’s counter-productive foreign policy and Bush’s billionaire-friendly actions are all discussed. If you’ve been following left-wing blogs on the web, you’ll find a lot of the same material here, maybe packaged with a little more coherency but not radically new information by any case. Good? Bad? It depends on your level of understanding of today’s American political spectrum. Someone like me may already know all of this stuff already, but unplugged Americans may read this and feel the scales come off their eyes.
So think of this as “2003-liberalism 101”, rehashing why Bush is bad, bad, bad for everyone and how to take back the political system from the far-right interests. For non-Americans, it’s important to note that Dude, Where’s My Country? is published in a rabidly polarized political context, in which both left and right are trying to grab pre-electoral mindspace, to the delight of publishers. (This has been going on for at least ten years, and reams of writing now exist on how Republicans have been remarkably successful in translating this polarization into political power)
That Moore’s book is published by none other than Warner Books is sign enough that there’s a lot of money to be made by fanning the flames of political discourse. In this context, Moore is neither better or worse than Ann Coulter, Al Franken or Rush Limbaugh: All of them are not exactly contributing to a culture of compromise and understanding, not when Coulter and Franken are trading off “traitor!” and “liar!” as casual greetings. This being said, Moore includes a rather amusing pair of chapters (9 and 10) in which he argues that deep down, America is liberal, and then gives out tips on how to convert a conservative brother-in-law to liberal thinking (hint; it’s all about what good for him). Jolly good stuff, and already a step closer to a gentler, more inclusive brand of politics.
Voluntarily provocative, smoothly readable, often laugh-out-funny, Moore’s book was nevertheless dated even before it came out. It wouldn’t be out of place to wish it a rapid descent to historical curio, a sign of a troubled time where partisan debate ruled over reasonable policy-making. If I may be so corny, let’s hope that all Americans end up finding the country so poignantly wondered about in the book’s title.