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Using Laughter as a Political Weapon: Michael Moore

By Michael Rose

From Michael Moore's <em>SiCKO</em>. Courtesy of Weinstein Company

There is something larger than life about Michael Moore––besides the fact that he is a big guy. His documentary films have earned well over $100 million (four are among the highest grossing docs of all time), an Academy Award and the Palme d’Or at Cannes; his books are best sellers; and he’s become a favorite whipping boy of both wings of the political spectrum.

He aims his lens at big targets—the auto industry, the gun lobby, the war machine, the US Presidency and the health care system—with the rage of a muckraker and the humor of Chaplin, Groucho Marx and Will Rogers.

In a recent poll of IDA members, three of his films—Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11—were voted among the 25 Best documentaries ever produced. All of this he accomplished during a film career that spans only 18 years. We wanted to find out how a working class guy from Flint, Michigan could storm the cultural bastions and climb to the top in such a short time and why he decided to make that trek.

Over a two-week period we tracked him down as he was putting the last details on the refurbished 101-year-old State Theater he’ll be opening in December in Traverse City, Michigan. His goal is to bring alternative cinema to the hinterlands, and he plans to show one of the first films that was screened at the theater when it first opened in 1906—Cecil B. DeMille’s Intolerance. But Moore sees the mission of his theater to spread tolerance, not intolerance.

Revitalizing the theater grew out of the Traverse City Film Festival, which he founded three years ago. The fest, held in this bastion of conservative Republican voters, attracts 80,000 people

The festival and now the theater give him a platform to promote documentaries and independent media in general. Last year as the US government was starting to make noises about bombing Iran, Moore added an Iranian section to the festival and brought in an Iranian filmmaker. “He explained to the people here that the people of Iran want freedom and democracy as much as everybody else, and let them take care of it,” says Moore. “So the good people of this area who voted for Bush responded overwhelmingly to him in the weeks after, not only about his films but about Iran.”

In some ways Moore seems to be using his theater as a local church, with a pulpit that allows him to dispense his views on morality to the congregation of film lovers—not surprising, given his long-ago ambition to be a priest. It was 1968 and he was very affected by priests/activists Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, whose messages resonated with Moore. “At 14, I convinced my parents to let me leave home and go to the seminary.” By the time he was 15, however, he’d decided that being a priest “wasn’t the right thing for me.”

That didn’t mean he’d abandoned his idealism. “My parents raised me to be a person of conscience and to believe that we’ll be judged by how we treat those who have the least,” Moore maintains. “Those lessons are with me today.”

A career as a documentary filmmaker wasn’t in his sights, but the persona that would end up on screen was clearly beginning to take shape. “My last week of high school, my senior class voted me class comic and that same week I became the first 18-year-old in Michigan and one of the first 18-year-olds in the country to be elected to public office,” Moore reflects.

By the time his tenure on the Davison school board was over, he’d helped to oust the school principal, and he’d discovered a world of alternative cinema while a student at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus. It started in a film class and then through weekly treks to Detroit to the art museum’s film program. Finally, after growing tired of that long schlep, Moore set up his own cinema series on campus every Friday and Saturday night. He brought in documentaries like Harlan County, U.S.A., Hearts and Minds and works by Frederick Wiseman and Albert and David Maysles. And he began to question some of the assumptions of the old guard of documentary makers.

“They’re just a fly in the wall; they have no agenda,” Moore muses. “And I thought, ‘That just isn’t true, because it’s so clear you’ve made such profound films about the institutions, or whatever, that you clearly believe something here. Who are you trying to fool?’ And I remember thinking that it might be better to really be upfront and honest about who I was and what I believed in, and clear about what my agenda was.”

He had thrown himself into the world of advocacy print journalism while his ideas about documentaries were percolating. His newspaper, the Flint Voice, morphed into the Michigan Voice, which eventually led to a short stint as editor of Mother Jones magazine. It was while he was licking his wounds after being fired from that job that he had an epiphany. “I was watching TV one day, unemployed, and Roger Smith [then chairman of General Motors] came on and said he was eliminating another 30,000 jobs.  And I thought, I should make a movie about that.”

At that point his only experience with filmmaking had been to help Kevin Rafferty (The Atomic Café) and Ann Bohlen (With Babes and Banners) on a shoot interviewing some neo-Nazis at a convention held outside of Flint. So he called them and they volunteered to help him get underway. He was guided by his belief that “a documentary or nonfiction film should first and foremost be a good movie.” He didn’t want his film to be seen as a “bastard art form” that would be shunted aside, and he didn’t want to be told, “Don’t make too much noise.”

The result, the very noisy Roger & Me (1989), introduced Moore to the world and launched his film career. Ironically, Moore’s great success can be partly attributed to the Bush family. Not only has the dangerously stubborn President George W. Bush provided him with unending fodder for films and books this decade, but one of Bush’s cousins is none other than Kevin Rafferty. “If it weren’t for the Bush family, I never would have been a documentary filmmaker,” chuckles Moore.

Moore’s quixotic tilt at the GM windmills didn’t inspire the giant auto company to reverse course, but it did demonstrate that there was an audience for documentaries in theaters—particularly for documentaries with a sense of humor.

 “This is where you get on the wrong nerve with the old school of documentary,” explains Moore. Some believe that documentaries “should be medicine you should take because it’s good for you, and that being funny trivializes the subject matter.” But historically, “Some of the best comedy comes out of being on the flip side of some pretty intense anger at what you see around you.”

Being funny isn’t the only thing that makes him controversial. Some decry his interviewing techniques, for example. His interview with actor Charlton Heston (then president of the National Rifle Association) is often cited as being particularly unfair. Heston agreed to be interviewed for Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, which examines gun violence in America, but he walked out midway through the interview, and many think that Moore pushed the cinematic legend too hard—especially in light of his later disclosure that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

“If he’d had Alzheimer’s, I would never have interviewed him,” Moore says. “He did not have Alzheimer’s, and he was still the president of the NRA. What is the problem here? This is the most powerful lobby in the United States and you’re supposed to treat him with kid gloves?”

While vigorously defending his actions, Moore says there has been “a certain evolution” in his desire to “reach out across the aisle to those who don’t necessarily agree with me or my way of thinking.”

He cites a sequence in his most recent film, SiCKO. One of his most vociferous critics is forced to shut down his “Hate Michael Moore” website because he doesn’t have the money to keep it going, since he needs to pay for his health care. Moore writes him a $12,000 check because, as he says in the film, “I was personally offended by the fact that he was not going to be able to express his First Amendment protected point of view if he didn’t have health insurance.”

He explains how this grew out the values imparted by his parents. “I was brought up [to believe] that the true test of those beliefs is if you are willing to apply them not to your own but to others—whether the others are Iranians or hard-core Republicans.”

Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean he’s lost his taste for battle. But he’s also working to pass on what he’s learned and to inspire the next generation. “I do hope that bringing films to Traverse City that young people wouldn’t be able to normally see will help to create a film literacy here, and maybe some young person will be inspired to pick up a camera and make their movie.”


Michael Rose is a former IDA Board member.

Career Achievement Award

1985 Pare Lorentz
1986 Fred W. Friendly
1987 Richard Leacock
1988 David L. Wolper
1989 Jacques Yves Cousteau
1990 Frederick Wiseman
1991 Bill Moyers
1992 Walter Cronkite
1993 Robert Drew
1994 Albert Maysles
1995 Marcel Ophuls
1996 Ted Turner
1997 Henry Hampton
1998 Sheila Nevins
1999 Michael Apted
2000 Charles Guggenheim
2001 Jean Rouche
2002 Ken Burns
2003 Sir David Attenborough
2004 William Greaves
2005 DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus
2006 Haskell Wexler

Michael Moore
Select Filmography

Roger & Me (1989)
Pets or Meat: The Return to Flint (1992)
TV Nation (1994-95; TV Series)
The Big One (1997)
The Awful Truth (1999-2000; TV series)
Bowling for Columbine (2002)
Fahrenheit 911 (2004)
SiCKO (2007)
Captain Mike Across America (2007)