The two sides of Michael Moore
Festival-bound Michael Moore is one of the world’s most provocative filmmakers. Two Belfast Telegraph writers assess his career to date
Controversial: Moore pokes fun at American law and Bush
Michael Moore may be a flawed film-maker, but he’s streets ahead of any contemporary when it comes to focusing on the dark side of the USA.
True, he dovetails his material into his political argument — although hardly to the extent of the average US network news report or mainstream documentary on Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11, race relations or a myriad of other topics. Consider British TV coverage of the recent riots and looting, and the sharp political response of the government and Metropolitan Police. It cried out for a Michael Moore wandering the streets of Tottenham.
On the other hand, his parading round the offices of his targets, bellowing through a bullhorn is just irritating. Once was more than enough.
He can be slapdash. Taking a group of seriously ill Ground Zero rescuers who couldn’t afford medical treatment in the US to within sight of Guantanamo Bay and inviting them to believe that the internees were receiving top-notch medical care was crass.
But his bending of arguments can be seen as bending the established narrative straight.
Moore has taken on topics of huge social significance of which no other high-profile US documentary filmmaker dares touch. For that alone, he deserves to be celebrated. Would debate in the US on gun laws (Bowling For Columbine), health care (Sicko) or the system of economic organisation (Capitalism: A Love Story) be better or worse if Moore were not on the prowl?
He is upfront about his prejudices. Politicians from the main parties sometimes literally run when they see him coming — always a good sign. Current affairs journalism should challenge the consensus and seek to hold power to account. Moore fulfils that duty admirably.
He has effected change. By staking out a position to the Left of either of the main US parties (not difficult, admittedly), he has altered the balance and broadened the parameters of political debate.
Listening to leading Republicans rejecting his critique of capitalism, what was most striking was their acknowledgement that the system has a name, that it’s not just the natural way of things — a major shift in the allowable discourse.
And if some of his work is as shambolic as his appearance, well that’s artistically superior too to neatly-packaged offerings from men wearing ties, masquerading as neutral commentary.
Michael More, for all his faults, is not only a valuable film-maker, he’s necessary for the political health of his nation.
To attack Michael Moore for his strident campaigns against the violence within America and its interference in the Middle East and elsewhere would be akin to pinching candy from a baby.
It would be grossly unfair to quarrel with his conclusions about the darkness within the national psyche or the blatant ineptitude of many of America’s political leaders, but the way he presents them so relentlessly becomes tiresome and repetitive.
In his Oscar-winning documentary Bowling For Columbine, he illustrates the Americans’ deadly love of firearms and their stubborn insistence on exercising their right to armed self-defence. In doing so he uncovers the absurd ease with which Americans can obtain guns, to the point where he was issued a free firearm as a bonus for merely opening a bank account.
Moore interviews gun-toting citizens, ranging from the deranged to those upstanding Americans who believe it is their divine duty to arm themselves.
While Moore highlights the horror of such events as the Columbine High School massacre, he fails to explain why the Americans are so gun-happy compared to other nations.
His technique is as subtle as tabloid journalism. For example, he features Louis Armstrong singing What a Wonderful World as a background to a grisly list of American military invasions in various parts of the world and their casualties. His final session with the late Charlton Heston shows the President of the National Rifle Association not as a commanding figure from the movies, but as a bewildered and rather sad old man with nothing to say in his defence. The interview merely confirmed the point that there is no rational argument for the retention of the crazy US gun regulations.
The same battering intensity is evident in Moore’s celebrated Fahrenheit 9/11, a 2004 film which became the highest- grossing documentary of all time. He dismantles the presidency of George W. Bush and pours scorn on Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
Moore is rightly critical of the rationale for the Iraq conflict, just like millions of others around the globe. Again there is the same obvious technique — Christmas carols playing when an American patrol invades a home to take captive a suspect (although there is no detailed explanation as to why they wanted this man, or what happened to him afterwards).
This is film-making where the facts are presented in your face to back up every point. Bush and co are unmitigated ‘baddies’ which we all knew anyway, but there is no space for the viewer to make up his or her own mind — everything is black or white.
Yet, if there was no Michael Moore, someone would have to invent this dogged and somewhat gauche crusader for truth. I cannot quarrel with his main conclusions or the sincerity of his missions, but his technique just leaves me exhausted.