A look at the ‘films’ of Michael Moore

Michael Moore in 'Fahrenheit 911'
Michael Moore in ‘Fahrenheit 911’

With predictions that Fahrenheit 9/11 could play a role in the November elections, Michael Moore is back in the news. He’s received plenty of criticism already but it’s all been from his ideological opponents, always right-wing types who disagree with his politics. This allows Moore to counter their criticisms on a political or ideological level, and as a result he’s never really addressed on some of the deeper flaws in his filmmaking.

Moore has been labeled a ‘rabble rouser’ by some observers, but I would question this. As political arguments, or as calls for a pro-active response to social injustice, Moore’s films have so far been ineffectual. The closed factories in Flint did not reopen after Roger & Me, and American firearm laws have not changed in the wake of Bowling for Columbine. I would argue that this is because this “filmmaker” is more concerned with getting a laugh and making a commercially successful film than with instigating any changes.

As an argument for America’s need for firearm control laws, Bowling for Columbine should be far more persuasive. Events such as Columbine highlight the need for tighter restrictions, and any serious documentary filmmaker should have had a fairly easy time putting together an honest, persuasive piece. Unfortunately, Moore’s methods ultimately serve to undermine the argument.

A good example appears early in the film. Moore goes to North County bank in Michigan, where customers receive a shotgun for depositing a thousand dollars in a new account. Moore simply fills in a form and the clerk hands him a shotgun over the counter. This allows Moore to quip “Do you think it’s a bit dangerous handing out guns at a bank?”, and the audience can marvel at this shocking exposé. They seem to be just handing out firearms to chubby Americans in baseball caps!

Crucially the bank clerks reply is not shown, and this is because this sequence has been very tightly edited. Otherwise we would have seen Moore having to produce photo identification and fill out several federal forms. Then the FBI would be contacted for background checks, then – and only then – would Moore be allowed to collect his gun.

It’s pretty stupid giving guns out to anyone, ever. Yet Moore’s triumphantly ironic suggestion – that the banks are giving firearms to people who walk in off the street and who are therefore potential armed robbers – forgets that they would have to positively identify themselves, as well as hand over a hefty one thousand dollars. Not only that, I doubt this would be ideal preparation for an armed robbery.

More important is the cut before the clerk’s response. Basically, he’s been tricked, so what Moore has filmed isn’t damning social commentary, it’s a Candid Camera– or Trigger Happy TV-style practical joke performed on an unsuspecting member of the public.

Another example is his filming of the Michigan militia. These are foolish, foolish people, and as such they have no place in any serious debate about firearms. They are, however, very easy to laugh at. Moore doesn’t even have to do any work to get some comedy out of them.

This is my main objection to Michael Moore. In many ways his films are basically light entertainment, low-brow comedy dressed up as relevant social commentary. It’s almost as if he’s using a social problem as a springboard for his brand of entertainment, gaining from it rather than making a serious attempt to bring social change.

Comparing Bowling for Columbine with Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, it becomes clear that Moore isn’t seeking a real change to American gun laws. The Thin Blue Line was so powerful and so carefully detailed, it’s hard not to become invested in the documentary’s tale – about a miscarriage of justice that (as a result of the film) caused a Death Row inmate to become a free man. Bowling for Columbine has the pretence of tackling a deadly serious subject, but delivers only a sequence of comedic set-pieces.

If this was the film’s stated intention there would be no problem, but Columbine sets itself up as a film with a serious point. What could be a more serious gesture than using actual footage from the Columbine massacre? And set to music no less?

Equally questionable is the treatment of Charlton Heston. Some might say that as president of the National Rifle Association, Heston is fair game. But like the North County bank clerk, he seems to be unfairly represented. Many of Moore’s critics have hit upon his editing of Charlton Heston’s speeches. Different speeches are re-ordered and cut together to make Heston appear more demonic and fervent than he really is. Not least among the evidence is Heston’s amazing technicolour tie that changes colour mid-speech.

Michael Moore
Michael Moore

All this may be justifiable, depending on your perspective. I believe the bank clerk and Heston are treated unfairly, but it could be argued that Moore only emphasizes the truth through his editing. The bank did give out guns, and as an example of guns in American society it’s almost valid, even though Moore’s ‘prank’ on the bank clerk means there’s a lack of verisimilitude. Similarly, Heston is very pro-firearms and while he did not say certain words in the order they’re presented, he did say them.

However, such stretching of the truth has limits. Following a sequence on the school shooting of young Kayla Rolland in Michigan, Moore misleads viewers into thinking Heston held a pro-gun rally just 48 hours later. It’s cut so that footage of Moore comforting Kayla’s distraught teacher is followed by a headline that reads “48 hours after Kayla Rollands was pronounced dead” which is then followed by Heston at an NRA rally. Moore is clearly saying Heston held a pro-gun rally in Michigan 48 hours after Kayla was pronounced dead, seemingly as a direct response to events.

It’s now known that Heston and the NRA didn’t come to Michigan until many months afterwards. Worse, the full text of the headline reads “48 hours after Kayla Rolland was pronounced dead, Bill Clinton is on The Today Show telling a sympathetic Katie Couric, “Maybe this tragic death will help.”

Bowling for Columbine zooms into the text very quickly, obscuring everything but the incriminating “48 hours after..” headline.

Michael Moore seems to be a sort of 21st Century Sergei Eisenstein, except that where Eisenstein made it appear that the statues were reacting to events in Battleship Potempkin, Moore makes it appear that individuals have said and done things that they have not.

Why does Moore do this? I have no sympathy for Charlton Heston, especially not in his role as NRA figurehead, but it’s worth asking why Moore has chosen to victimise him. The answer lies in the film that launched Michael Moore’s career; Roger & Me.

The film was about the General Motors plant closures which had decimated Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan. But to avoid being just another worthy documentary about economic depression, Moore had given the film a narrative. His repeated attempts to interview General Motors CEO Roger Smith, and Smith’s constant refusal to grant him an audience, allows plenty of room for Moore’s wryly amusing voice-over. Made for just $160,000, Roger & Me made nearly $7 million at the box office, launching Moore as a media personality.

However, since Roger & Me was released in 1989, Moore had found another commercial success hard to come by. To make this style of documentary filmmaking work, Moore needs a villain to anchor all his less focused antics. In The Big One, Moore attempts to cast Nike CEO Phil Knight in the Roger Smith role, but is ultimately frustrated. He must have been short of footage for the final edit because there’s a sequence that shows Moore playing a practical joke on a member of his own staff. Knight seems to be too media savvy for Moore, probably having seen Roger & Me, he’s ready for him, and successfully gives him the brush-off.

Bowling for Columbine could easily have been called Charlton & Me as Moore has now cast Heston in the Roger Smith role. While much of the film is a series of stunts loosely linked by the theme of firearms, the figure of Heston ties it all together. However, in Bowling for Columbine, Moore gets an interview with Heston.

This is where it all falls apart.

Heston is revealed to be a fragile and confused old man who has basically been ambushed by Moore. You can’t help but pity Heston as he sits down for an interview he assumes to be with a member of his organisation, but is instead confronted with several difficult (even impossible) questions. For example, he is asked why he held a rally so soon after the shooting of Kayla Rollands. We know now that he didn’t, but in the context of Bowling for Columbine we are led to believe he did. He cannot answer this question satisfactorily. Once Heston realizes he’s been set up (and it takes a while) he cuts short the interview. Moore takes this as a moral victory.

Moore counters by piously leaving a picture of Kayla Rollands outside Heston’s house. Despite Moore’s best efforts, this is the moment where you can really see the shallowness of his intentions. It attempts to cast Moore as the caring everyman who’s so moved by this little girls death, but it’s really a self-serving stunt and a self-important attempt at moral one-upmanship.

The Heston interview underlines why Roger & Me was successful. To portray Roger Smith as the uncaring villain he wants him to be, Moore goes to great lengths to ensure he won’t be granted an interview. A great example is when he gatecrashes the lobby, telling security he’s going up to see Roger Smith. He knows it doesn’t work like this, it’s all for our entertainment. More tellingly when security ask him for identification, our intrepid filmmaker doesn’t produce his respectable journalistic credentials (Moore had been a political journalist in Michigan for many years prior to being a filmmaker) he produces his Chuckey Cheese card, an absolute guarantee that he won’t get an interview.

This underlines the point that Moore’s films are not the investigative documentaries they may be mistaken for. He has been called a ‘rabble-rouser’ in sections of the press, but do these films really inspire any political activism? The contrived comic set-pieces that make up a Michael Moore film serve no purpose other than to entertain, and in doing so make Michael Moore a little richer every year. How else can we explain the endless procession of Michael Moore books that drop off the conveyor belt each year?

It remains to be seen exactly what Fahrenheit 9/11 is like, but advance word is that he’s cast Bush as the villain and himself as the voice of the people once more. In many ways Moore has taken the safe, commercially sensible option. Bush is a prime target, high profile and easy to mock.

However, with it being so close to the elections and with Bush already unpopular with many, it really could be the case that for the first time one of Moore’s films, no matter how one sided and self-serving and full of practical jokes dressed as social commentary it is, could produce a real, tangible and lasting effect.

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