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The Decline of Michael Moore

The filmmaker is a Midwestern populist whose heart, if not his head, was often in the right place.

In these atomized times, we are accustomed to consuming content in isolation rather than as part of a group, but I remember one cinematic experience that convinced me communal moviegoing was still possible. In the summer of 2004, I saw Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 in the company of several hundred others at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland. There may have been scattered admirers of George W. Bush present, perhaps to escape the sweltering heat in air-conditioned comfort, but everybody else was there because they objected to the direction of America in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11.

From the film’s opening credits, in which Moore presented footage of assorted Bush administration figures being primped ahead of TV appearances, the audience was united in antipathy for those public officials who pursued American entanglements overseas following 9/11. Moore’s arguments on the origins of the War on Terror often rested on the sort of vague innuendo that would subsequently animate the left’s (and Moore’s) anti-Trump propaganda, yet Fahrenheit 9/11 did not pretend to present a deep analysis of the issues as much as an emotional appeal from a Midwestern populist whose heart, if not his head, was often in the right place. Just because it’s easy to generate laughs by showing clips of Ashcroft singing “Let the Eagle Soar” doesn’t mean that we’re wrong for laughing. 

Sitting in the theater on that day, I might as well have been in a pew. Back then, the cheapness of Moore’s methods seemed less important than the fundamental worthiness of his cause. Allowing oneself to get whipped up by Moore’s sometimes-glib filmmaking, singsong speaking voice, and undeniable gift for finding clips in which his subjects look like fools seemed to me then no less legitimate than tearing up while listening to Peter, Paul and Mary singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” If the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were really, truly wrong, then the tendentiousness of his techniques were forgivable.

What has happened to Moore’s congregation? In retrospect, the War on Terror seems a kind of ominous foreshadowing of the present coronavirus panic. In both cases, a terrible event—a terrorist attack or a deadly respiratory virus—inspired a bout of madness among the ruling class, a madness that proved catching in a sometimes-gullible and certainly ill-informed American public. Then our leaders warned ominously of a Saddam Hussein wielding weapons of mass destruction. Now another set of leaders issue similarly over-the-top warnings about overrun hospitals and indefinitely multiplying variants.

Logically, the audience with whom I watched Fahrenheit 9/11 eighteen years ago should be attuned to the overlaps between that moment and ours. Yet the moviegoers who laughed so loudly at Bush and became so worked up about the Patriot Act have not shown themselves to be reliable. I have a sneaking suspicion that many of those who were appalled by 9/11-era incursions on civil liberties are untroubled by pandemic-era restrictions, and many of those who were dismayed by the march to war in the Middle East are comfortable with the distressingly martial language used by the mainstream media in covering the present Ukraine conflict.

Maybe I am saying nothing more than that people can be hypocritical. A Republican president initiated the War on Terror, so Democratic voters were staunch in their opposition. It was easy for the left to line up behind Fahrenheit 9/11 two decades ago. Who could have predicted that the agenda advanced by that film has, to some extent, been taken up on the Trump-led right?

Born in 1954 in Flint, Michigan, Moore came by his populist instincts naturally. His father, Francis, toiled on an assembly line at General Motors, and an uncle named Laverne partook in the famous Flint sit-down strike. Moore recalled in an exchange with Studs Terkel included in his film The Big One (1997), “I think about how all of us gained from that and all other labor actions that came after that: how the standard of living, healthcare, Social Security, child labor—all these things came as a result of the struggle that those people participated in.”   

Emboldened by this rabble-rousing heritage, Moore left the University of Michigan–Flint after one year and embarked on a journalism career. He launched his own magazine, the Flint Voice (later the Michigan Voice), before being tapped in 1986 to run the venerable Mother Jones. Like his college career, Moore’s time at the helm of the magazine named for union activist Mary G. Harris Jones was transitory. He was given the boot after four months. That led to a most fortuitous switch in medium, from magazines to movies. 

Moore’s 1989 debut documentary Roger & Me centered on GM’s decision to maximize its bottom line by shuttering plants in Flint and opening plants in Mexico. It’s the oldest story in the corporate-greed playbook, but Moore anthropomorphized the company’s callous pursuit of profits in the form of CEO Roger Smith, whom the filmmaker amusingly pursued at such spots as the Detroit Athletic Club. He also illustrated the human wreckage on the ground in Flint, playing the noxious sermonizing of visiting televangelist Robert Schuller (“You can turn your hurt into a halo”) over contrasting images of upbeat billboards (“Flint Is Auto This World!”) and anti-GM graffiti (“Assholes Drive Imports”).

Moore’s portraits of dispossessed Michiganders—including the spouse of an auto worker who has charted a new career as a “color analyst” for Amway and a woman whose only sources of income are a government check, raising Doberman pinschers, and offering rabbits for sale as either pets or tonight’s dinner—are not so much funny as Sisyphean: these people are gallant but no match for Roger Smith, or capitalism itself. Moore has an eye for the ordinary Americans betrayed by big business and ignored, dismissed, or condescended to by the elite—in other words, the same sort of Americans described by J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy

Roger & Me yielded a cascade of opportunities for Moore, including a feature-length comedy (1995’s regrettable Canadian Bacon), a pair of TV series (TV Nation and The Awful Truth), and eventually his best known film, for which he won the Oscar for Best Documentary, 2002’s Bowling for Columbine about the 1999 school shooting. Moore is at his worst in that film, inserting a dumb animated segment arguing that American history is uniquely racist and violent. As an on-screen personality, he is insufferable. An aging, gracious Charlton Heston is not nearly as unlikable a foil as Roger Smith.

At the same time, Bowling for Columbine tentatively, perhaps reluctantly, ponders the idea that violence flows not just from firearms but from the sad and confused lives common in late-20th-century America. South Park co-creator Matt Stone sensibly argues that the pressure to succeed in high school can instill in troubled students the idea that failure at that level is tantamount to failure forever. “You wish someone just could have grabbed them and gone, ‘Dude, high school is not the end,’” Stone told Moore, referring to the student killers. Here, Moore allows himself to consider a deeper spiritual sickness, one not easily addressed by left-wing policy solutions.

The best segment in Bowling for Columbine attacks media hysteria, strikingly presaging the state of perpetual frenzy preferred by the media during the overlapping Trump administration and plague years. “If you turn on the evening news, America still seems like a pretty scary place,” says Moore, introducing a compilation of clips in which the media hypes Y2K, killer bees, deadly candy on Halloween, and a purported epidemic of mental illness. “The media, the corporations, the politicians have all done such a good job of scaring the American public it’s come to the point where they don’t need to give any reason at all,” Moore says, introducing a clip of George W. Bush referencing, rather vaguely, “a blanket alert . . . in recognition of a general threat we received.”

There is plenty in the hours and hours of film Moore has exposed that no conservative could ever embrace. But enough of his basic sensibility as expressed in his earlier films aligns with the priorities of Trump’s Republican Party to give Main Street conservatives reason for a fresh look. 

The real question is whether Moore or his audience will ever make the leap of logic required to admit that part of their agenda—a fundamental part—has been taken up by the right. If Moore objects to the exporting of American jobs to other nations, the exporting of American troops overseas, and the exporting of hysteria from the media to the public, why not make common cause with Trump or someone like him? 

For a fleeting moment, it seemed as though Moore was tempted to follow his instincts. In a widely circulated segment from 2016’s otherwise-pitiful panegyric to Hillary Clinton, Michael Moore in TrumpLand, the filmmaker displayed an intuitive understanding of Trump’s appeal. “They see that the elites that ruined their lives hate Trump. Corporate America hates Trump. Wall Street hates Trump. The career politicians hate Trump. The media hates Trump, after they loved him and created him and now hate him.” With their enemies all lined up on one side, “On November 8, you, Joe Blow, Steve Blow, Bob Blow, Billy Blow, Billy Bob Blow, all the Blows, get to go and blow up the whole goddamned system because it’s your right.” 

And so they did. But not Moore, who in the same film said that Hillary might be “our Pope Francis” and later made the 2018 documentary Fahrenheit 11/9, which adopted all the usual anti-Trump talking points in a boring fashion unworthy of the wit who made Roger & Me

I sometimes wish I could go back to that movie theater showing Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004 and tell the audience: One day there will be a political figure who agrees with you about the wrongness of this war, the greed of corporations, and the wild exaggerations of the media. He’ll have weird hair and say rude things sometimes, but you will have a lot in common.

Peter Tonguette is a contributing writer to the Washington Examiner magazine.