Filmmaker Michael Moore began his career as a champion for the “little guy”, that downtrodden American everyman who sees his dreams constantly denied him at the hands of powerful corporate interests. Beginning with his landmark film Roger and Me, Moore positioned himself as an ordinary man with nothing to lose, the one person willing to seek out shadowy figures in ivory towers and thrust a microphone in their faces, all in search of some noble truth. Results may have negligible, but both Roger and Me and Moore’s subsequent show TV Nation were a watershed event for not only documentary filmmaking, but also for that most uncommon breed of activist: the political prankster.
Confronting political issues with satire has a long and varied history since humankind organized itself thus. Moore’s more immediate predecessors include Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies, whose deadpan theatrical tricks involved things like dropping of fistfuls of money onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in order to watch the brokers scramble — a prank which would have fit right in on Moore’s show. Of course, Moore carries none of the fiery, acid-fueled charisma of Hoffman, and, accordingly, his stunts are somewhat low-key in comparison. However, in his earlier work Moore possessed a savvy awareness of the power of kindness, and a straightforward way of dealing with people that very often got him results. Rather than setting out to ridicule his targets, Moore attempted to use their logic against them. He played by the rules in order to expose the inherent fallacies of them.
At least, that’s how it used to be. In recent years, Moore has repeatedly come under fire, even from his former supporters, for letting his personal agenda dominate his work, at whatever cost to its journalistic integrity. Even worse, he’s also been accused of twisting the truth through clever editing or by staging interviews in order to get the reactionary footage that he needs. These charges, though advanced by his right-wing opponents, have nevertheless been given some credibility by people like Sgt. Peter Damon, an Iraqi war vet who’s currently suing Moore, saying his participation in Fahrenheit 9/11 occurred without his permission and, accordingly, misrepresented his opinions. Both Fahrenheit and Bowling for Columbine were critically acclaimed, commercially successful, incendiary pieces of filmmaking lauded for their bold takes on gun control and the government’s involvement with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, respectively. Unfortunately, their reputations as works of investigative journalism have been sullied by the aforementioned accusations, accurate or not. Moore, once the champion of the working class everyman, has in the years since Columbine been cast in some circles as that most modern of villains: the America-hating liberal.
Prior to his status as the sworn enemy of the far right, however, Moore was just a filmmaker with a grudge against big business. The Awful Truth, Moore’s short-lived television series produced by the UK’s Channel Four, was filmed just prior to Columbine, in the dying days of the Clinton administration, and as such its focus is more often cast on the evil that corporations do rather than upon those fat cats on Capitol Hill. The first episode of the series harkens back to those halcyon days in 1999, just after the failed impeachment attempt on Clinton had fallen apart, and Moore openly gloats with his studio audience about “the downfall of the Republican party”. It seems bitterly nostalgic, in these times of well financed, highly organized right-wing resistance, to revisit the days when our nation’s greatest enemy was seen as little more than the lone independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, and as such the episode’s staging of a fake “witch hunt” — complete with fainting Puritan women following Republican congressmen and histrionically accusing them of being “sinners” — seems downright quaint. If only we had known then what an innocent time we were living in, and how quickly that all was to end.
Moore certainly had no idea what the future would bring, and as he preaches to his choir here he positively glows, gleefully declaring that his show represents the “People’s Democratic Republic of Television” to thunderous applause. But though the progressive mood of the latter 20th century eventually gave way to the Patriot Act and seemingly interminable war in Iraq, and Moore accordingly saw his reputation change from latter-day Robin Hood to vilified liberal figurehead, The Awful Truth saw its share of triumphs, although most of them on a personal scale. In that same first episode, Moore also helps a man in need of a pancreas transplant who is refused treatment by his HMO. Staging a fake funeral outside Humana headquarters complete with a coffin and bagpipes, Moore succeeds in reversing Humana’s policy, and the man is seen triumphantly standing in the studio audience at episode’s end. Moore pledges to make that kind of life-changing difference in every episode, but even in this “best of” compilation, his success rate is considerably lower.
The only time he comes close to replicating that kind of dramatic result is with a group of illegal immigrant workers unfairly dismissed by Holiday Inn for attempting to unionize. Told that the chain was “just trying to comply with the law”, Moore organizes a team of health and building code inspectors to record every violation in the hotel and then turns them over to the authorities. He also confronts the corporate spokesman, a British man, and demands that he produce his green card, calling the INS when he doesn’t comply. As a result of Moore’s persistence, the hotel chain reverses its decision and allows the workers to stay.
Much of Moore’s strategy is based on this sort of “shock and embarrass” tactic, and when it works, it’s a thrill to see evil big business types confronted with the living, breathing statistics they find so easy to ignore. Conducting a group of laryngectomy survivors in “singing” Christmas carols via voice synthesizers, Moore reduces at least one employee of Philip Morris to tears. When a tobacco lobbyist admonishes him for using Christmas as a cynical publicity stunt, Moore counters, “What’s cynical is telling people you can’t get cancer from smoking.”
In a similar episode, he brings an American autoworker who lost his job to NAFTA to the new Mexican plant that deposed him. Unaware of the ploy, the glad-handing studio chief proudly proclaims, “Not one American worker has lost his job as a result of this plant opening,” after which Moore introduces him to just such a worker. The cancer victims don’t get their larynxs back, of course, and the unemployed autoworker doesn’t get his job back, either, but the realities Moore presented in their stories, juxtaposed with the willful ignorance of each company’s PR spin, resonate.
As the show progressed, however, Moore began to show hints of his future staginess, and The Awful Truth, too, became less about righting wrongs and more about the publicity stunts of which he was often accused. The second season episodes featured here have Moore cut adrift from his studio audience, significantly removed from the common people, and staging intros and interstitials in the middle of Times Square. His segments and interludes become almost as garish and overbearing as the neon signs above him. Though undeniably comic, there’s few salient points to be made, for example, by sending a giant talking purple pistol to children’s classrooms to have it snidely ask, “Who here wants to show me how to beg for your life?”
Fluffier still is the genuine stunt Moore pulled during the 2000 election, where he sent a flatbed truck filled with unruly teenagers to each candidate’s headquarters and challenged them to get in a mosh pit to earn the show’s endorsement. Though it affords the opportunity to see Alan Keyes bodysurfing to Rage Against the Machine — and results in a hilariously out-of-touch rant by Gary Bauer — there’s not much substance, here. The incident, like Moore’s successful campaign of running a ficus plant against every unopposed congressman, may make a valid and funny statement about voter apathy and the marketing of candidates, but it does little to offer solutions, and indeed it does come off like a cynical ploy for publicity.
There are seeds of Moore’s burgeoning, more focused agendas to be found here, however, and one gets the sense he only needed to break free of the instant gratification of television and return to long-form storytelling to be as incisive as his films show he could be. The segment on gun control, with its brief examination of the school shootings that would eventually be expanded into Bowling for Columbine is one example, and his confronting of HMOs in the first episode is obviously what inspired his current work-in-progress, Sicko.
Elsewhere, in perhaps the series’ most prophetic moment, Moore is admonished by then-Governor Bush to “find some real work”, much to the delight of Bush’s campaign supporters and other members of the press. Cut to Moore on the phone with his father, asking if he has any “oilfields or major league baseball teams [he] could run.” It’s in this one throwaway gag that we glimpse Moore’s uncanny ability to cut through the bullshit and get right to the uncomfortable and yes, awful truth. All he needs is a target worthy of his imagination. And boy would he ever zero in on it.