[25 September 2009]
What’s the difference between Michael Moore and Fox News? Both are fair and balanced. Or craven, manipulative demagogues. It just depends on whom you ask. And you’re likely to get an argument either way.
As polarizing as the right’s Ann Coulter or Glenn Beck, the filmmaking Moore has been the left’s loudest voice and largest silhouette for about 20 years — since “Roger & Me,” his satiric assault on General Motors for the closing of auto plants in Flint, Mich. And those were lean times for liberals.
“He was rain in a dry desert,” says documentarian Rick Caine, who, with his wife, Debbie Melnyk, made the Moore critique “Manufacturing Dissent.” For that movie, Melnyk says, it was difficult getting anyone to talk about Moore, good or bad.
“Think about it,” Caine said. “You had both houses of Congress controlled by the Republicans, no Democrats were really saying anything. He was the left’s hero. But with Obama, those days are kind of over.”
Or are they? Not if Moore has anything to say about it, and he’s never at a loss for something to say. “Capitalism: A Love Story” is Moore’s sixth theatrical documentary and a full-frontal assault on the right’s golden calf itself — free enterprise.
That Moore hasn’t changed his style — a style that has been quite profitable, thanks — is apparent immediately, in the bloated analogies, the faux-avuncular voice-over, the attempt (replete with a roll of police tape) to declare Wall Street a crime scene. But what also seems clear is that, at 55, Moore has lost his timing.
It happens to comedians and home-run hitters and Moore has been a little of both: The financially well-upholstered anti-capitalist documentarian has made three of the five all-time top-grossing nonfiction films (“Bowling for Columbine,” “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Sicko”) and done so by making big, complicated political issues palatable through humor — or, one might also say, making nonfiction comedies that exploit the resentments and fears of the left.
It took him a long time to find the formula: “Roger & Me,” because it concerned Moore’s hometown and its abandonment by General Motors, had a level of genuine pathos, something the filmmaker has tried to re-create in his other films, without much success. But it was followed by the lamentable fiction comedy “Canadian Bacon,” which imagined a war against Canada, and then “The Big One” (1998), a chronicle of Moore’s book tour in support of the 1996 “Downsize This!” during which he launched haphazard commentary on American economics and helped unionize a Borders bookstore.
Where Moore found his stride, though, was via the programs “TV Nation,” a “60 Minutes” knockoff, and “The Awful Truth,” which satirized corporations and politicians. This segued into “Bowling for Columbine” (2002), which is probably Moore’s best film and a trenchant examination of firearms and gun violence in the United States. Inspired by the 1999 Colorado high school massacre, it ranged far and wide in surveying Americans’ fascination with firearms and violence, and showed that Moore could be as ruthless as the National Rifle Association: His predatory interview with enfeebled NRA spokesman Charlton Heston put even Moore’s supporters off, but the film became the highest-grossing doc of its time.
It was with his next movie, “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) — still the top-grossing doc ever — that Moore’s propagandist credentials not only came into serious disrepute, but he began to be seen as a potential liability. An attack on the Bush reaction to 9/11 and the state of America, post-bin Laden, “Fahrenheit” was timed to tip the 2004 presidential election to John Kerry, but as usual, Moore was preaching to the converted.
Not only that, his film was seen as helping mobilize the right: In a well-publicized nose-tweaking, citizensunited.org erected a billboard on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood thanking Moore and other left-leaning entertainers for the re-election of George W. Bush.
“Fahrenheit’s” problem wasn’t just timing — Moore, after all, never makes any Obama-like gestures across the aisle — but it certainly didn’t help. Likewise, “Sicko” (2007) — if one wanted to effect change, wouldn’t a film about the state of American health care be released right now? And wouldn’t a film about the economic collapse of 2008 have been more timely in 2008?
“For 20 years,” Moore says during “Capitalism,” “I’ve been warning GM that this day would come.” For America’s self-appointed Cassandra, he’s something less than prescient.
But Moore won’t be moving to any socialist nations anytime soon. “What did ‘Sicko’ make?” asked Bingham Ray, who bought “Bowling for Columbine” for United Artists. “Thirty-six million dollars? His audience is out there.”
And they’ll likely have a love affair with “Capitalism,” which tells them what they want to know. Although not necessarily when they needed to know it.