Michael Moore in the Age of the Popular and Politicized Documentary Essay
Michael Moore in the Age of the Popular and Politicized Documentary
The box-office of success of a number of documentaries indicates the increasing polarization in the American political landscape, wherein the battlefield has extended to this media form that had been often reserved for classrooms and public television. Michael Moore’s darkly comic, sensationalistic and suggestive style has prompted a number of documentary film directors and critics to reexamine how and why such movies are produced. Moore unapologetically takes a side, previously seen as something of a minor sacrilege in the industry. It is not that previous films presented information “objectively,” in fact many of the great documentary film makers such as D. A. Pennebaker and Errol Morris established political positions but did so with less fanfare and perhaps less self-righteously. Moore has been criticized for cutting corners by not presenting both sides of the story, he has been accused of manipulating situations on screen to present a skewed picture of events, and his disinterest in complexity in favor of simplistic emotional appeals has garnered some of the most severe criticism (Pereboom and O’Connor). There are certain expectations of documentary films, i.e. that they “document” rather than inspire or inflame, or that they function historiographically rather than narratively, and if these are the characteristics that Moore’s films are judged by then the consensus seems to be that his work operates more in a propagandist, emotivist mode (Nolley). It is of course an open question as to whether or not the concept of documentary must be restricted in this sense, and indeed a further question as to where Moore’s work fits in this paradigm. In an attempt to deal with these questions, this paper will analyze a number of Michael Moore’s films from a number of different perspectives: politically, rhetorically and thematically. Though references will be made to Moore’s robust filmography, this inquiry will be restricted to primarily Sicko (2007) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). These two movies are especially good choices because they represent Moore’s most mature efforts and interestingly enough two rather different filmic strains in his oeuvre, as will be shown.
One of the most vexing issues in dealing with the work of Michael Moore is its relation to truthfulness or reality. We differentiate documentary from standard film fare based explicitly on the assumption that a documentary is meant to represent reality (Nolley 13). The arrival and ubiquitous nature of postmodern theoretical sensibilities has tended to make such a restriction laughable if not highly suspect. However, there is some sense that there is a reality “out there” to be represented and a documentary film makes has some responsibility to at least respect such an admonition. But Moore seems to flirt rather recklessly with this notion, often walking the tightrope between a healthy postmodern suspicion about the nature of “truth” and outright filmic manipulation. In one instance, Moore’s production company contacted a journalist in regard to selling footage of American soldiers openly criticizing the war; the journalist suggested that he “should come out to Iraq and as a documentary film-maker-see things with his own eyes before making up his mind” (Beckman 136). Moore declined the invitation and the journalist declined to sell the footage. Moore also plays fast and loose with journalistic integrity by being confrontational and aggressive with many of the people he interviews; for example, his badgering of Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine holding him personally responsible for America’s out of control gun culture or surprising Roger Smith, CEO of GM, and confronting him on camera finding him guilty of causing the high unemployment rate in Detroit in Roger & Me (Pereboom and O’Connor).
These “gotcha journalism” tactics have garnered significant criticism from scholars and pundits. The tight relation between Moore and his work is detrimental to the experience of the film as primarily representational as we are forced as viewers to mediate our experience through our feelings towards Moore. Moore, unlike many documenters of the past, is not interested in falling behind the camera, in many scenes Moore’s physical presence is often front and center, and while interviewing people we often see Moore. Furthermore, in many of the movies his droll and slightly nasally voice is omnipresent as narrator. This “auteur” mentality is of course a financially strategic move, a documentary that is advertised as a Michael Moore documentary will bring in millions more in box-office receipts than if it were not. However, this constant presence means that our approval of Moore himself is concomitant with our approval of the movie as a whole. This clearly has its faults as a documenter; it even has faults as a propagandist. If Moore was just interested in “brainwashing” his viewers, then his presence is counter-productive as the best propaganda films are successful at manufacturing objectivity, manufacturing a version of reality that conforms to the director’s idea of reality without letting his or her unsuspecting viewers become aware that they are being mislead. As we are almost constantly aware of the director’s presence in Moore’s films, we are almost constantly aware of the particularity and singularity of the film’s stance.
It is this singularity that offers some legitimacy to Moore’s controversial style, insofar that his willingness to sacrifice any appearance of neutrality does give him a pulpit from which to offer his analysis of a situation. His usage of clever and subtle film cuts, like for example in Fahrenheit 9/11, his juxtaposition of Bush’s pre-speech antics in front of the camera with the announcement of the bombing campaign in Iraq utilizes the fact that the scene, the framing of the shot and even the president’s clothing is the same and it is quite possible that the footage is all taken from that very speech; however, the cut is certainly there and the direct implication is an accusation that the chief executive lacks gravitas at points of solemn importance is highlighted even made primary. The issue for critics here is that there is no opportunity to judge appropriately the president’s décor and mood, the immediate cut forces a conclusion on his audience. Documentaries must utilize images and the dialogue or narration over the image must support those images to quickly and effectively draw a point. A documentary, especially one designed for popular distribution, cannot seek to rally a large number of arguments that are constructed slowly and cohesively to reach a modest conclusion, it must be visually engaging, and it must make its point quickly so not to lose the audience. Moore is highly aware of this fact and some might suggest overuses this concession in order to justify particularly outlandish or controversial claims. Yet, another tool in Moore’s arsenal is the use of third-party footage; third-party footage has the advantage of being seen as outside the director’s control, i.e. that the director can only present what he or she is originally given. However, as seen from the story regarding the footage of dissenting soldiers; it is often the case that what is most important is what is not shown by the director. In another scene from 9/11, Bush is speaking to a well-dressed audience where he claims that while they may be referred to as the elite he calls them his base. This is intended to reveal something about Bush’s political and social leanings; but, what is not shown or explained is that this particular event was also attended by Al Gore and that the event had a sort of comedic edge to it (Nolley 15). Thus, the comment still has yet another interpretation as a sort of self-directed humorous jab at the media’s perception of Bush’s socio-economic preferences. Regardless, Moore does not enlighten us to the possibility leaving only one interpretation.
What this shows is that the role that truth has in a documentary relies much more on the intentions of the director than in any inherent feature of the genre. The genre depends on the integrity, or at least perceived integrity of the director, as a documentarian; in other “traditional” less politicized documentaries the viewer gives the director the benefit of the doubt when it comes to certain directorial licenses that one must take in order to make such a work entertaining as well as edifying. Moore takes full advantage of this charity in order to construct scenes in which only one possible interpretation suggests itself, even though Moore can claim a sort of innocence under the guise of these genre-specific exigencies which would preclude him from presenting all of the relevant details lest the film stretch on ad infinitum. Naturally, these concerns are not restricted to just documentaries, any history one reads, includes one set of facts at the cost of another and the quality of the historiography depends on some degree what we think the aim of the historiographer is and the validity of the justifications she uses to account for the facts that are used.
Another element of Moore’s filmmaking that has been the subject of discussion is the role of humor and comedy in his films. Many if not all of his major works take the form of cynical satire (Fleischmann), which not only serves to entertain and keep the audience’s attention, but functions rhetorically to emphasize and reinforce a issue. The success and popularity of such shows on television as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report reveals that such a discursive mode has traction in American popular culture. What is subject to greater speculation is the effectiveness that such a sardonic mode of delivery can have in actually spurring individuals to action. Those who would propose that this satiric method diffuses social tension and reduces the imperative to act hold that laughing functions as a proxy for genuine resistance or political action (Fleischmann 71). The act of laughing sublimates the anger one would otherwise use to respond to the injustices that Moore exposes on-screen. Left-leaning critics admit that at the end of the day, while humor and comedy have their place, sober and thoughtful reflection is required to deal with the serious problems facing this country and therefore while Moore’s documentaries expose important issues they are in the final analysis, counterproductive. Right-leaning critics hold that such a comedic presentation makes light of serious incidents that are often the fare of Moore’s movies. More neutrally, one can see that Moore’s presentation allows audience members to disassociate themselves from the state apparatuses that Moore mocks, sharing with Moore his cynical eye. This collusion of self-righteousness can in fact be liberating, even empowering among some. By introducing this comedic distance individuals can see themselves as independent agents, who are capable of acting and reacting outside the dominant strains of ideology that allow these injustices to be perpetrated. Though it should be mentioned at this juncture that Moore operates on a number of comedic registers, there are moments of “slapstick” that function only on the level of entertainment, as in the case where President Bush is on the golf course commenting on some serious military issues facing the nation and then in the next scene asks the reporters to watch him hit a golf ball. Or more darkly and thought provokingly comic scenes such as in Sicko when we meet a 22 year-old women diagnosed with cervical cancer, who is denied treatment because someone at the insurance company thought she was “too young” to have the disease (Gawande). These various comedic registers are designed to psychically charge the viewer, getting the viewer excited and excitable. Once the audience is “charged up” then it is possible for that stored energy to be converted from humor to anger.
Interestingly, in Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore never shows the footage from the disaster, and while the whole narrative swirls around this incident, Moore is careful not to engender the feelings of sadness and more important paralysis associated with that footage. In an interview shortly after Roger & Me was completed, Moore notes, “If you’re depressed, you can become paralyzed. You don’t want to go out and do anything to affect social change. If the humor can help the anger come to the surface, I’m pleased” (Fleischmann 72) . Not only does Moore recognize the possible backlash his movie might receive if the placement of that World Trade Center footage was “too close” to some moment of levity in the film, he also recognizes that it does not serve his purposes in getting that anger to come to the surface, as those shots often cause people to stop in their tracks at the sheer horror and magnitude of the destruction. By deftly avoiding that paralyzing scene the emotions that Moore can precipitate can transform into action more smoothly.
Many of Moore’s films deal with a handful of issues, the exploitation of the lower class, the role of Big Money and Big Government, and his general attack on Conservative ideology. The reception his movies and the statements he makes in his movies often split down clear political lines, with leftists and liberals generally agreeing with his conclusions, even if they disagree with his methods and conservatives typically disagreeing with his message and his method. Fahrenheit 9/11 is likely the most divisive and controversial of films in terms of its ability to politically polarize its viewers. In Sicko he takes a slightly different tack. The central claim in this film is that health care in the United States is essentially broken and does not operate effectively and efficiently. This point is fairly uncontested by both the left and the right as evidenced by the various campaign promises on both sides of the aisle to perform a major overhaul on the health care industry. Moore also and unsurprisingly blames big insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers and the government’s mismanagement of Medicaid and Medicare. While Moore is especially vitriolic many agree that the dominance of insurance companies is troublesome and needs to be reexamined. Many of the criticisms levied against Moore fit under the umbrella critique of “manufacturing dissent.” This phrase actually names a documentary released this year about Michael Moore and it suggests that Moore aim is to generate discontent by sensationalizing or simply lying about the conditions of the state in order to foment dissatisfaction with the status quo for the sake of dissatisfaction, rather than a genuine concern for the conditions of the citizens of this country. Sicko in a very different way feeds off the ample dissatisfaction that is already there, and instead of relying on suggestive visuals, Moore is out to introduce us to people who have suffered under this faulty and broken system (Gawande). Moore then presents alternative systems, France, the UK and Canada as if to show that there is another way, though despite his waxing poetic about the excellent healthcare available in these countries-he does not offer any concrete suggestions about adopting certain features of these systems, which some research will show are full of their own problems and perhaps do not mesh well with American sensibilities. Again he relies on the power of conjecture rather than concrete argumentation to construct a way out of this mess. Moore of course cannot leave dramatics totally to one side and he becomes more of the interposing interlocutor as the movie continues culminating in the Guantanamo Bay scene where he transports a number of citizens unable to afford various treatments to Cuba where they receive free quality healthcare (Kelly). This is less about documentary and more about theatrics, really a docudrama.
In recognizing Michael Moore’s exciting and highly controversial vision, a number of documentaries have utilized some of his methods and have capitalized such as Supersize Me and Spellbound (Higgins 21). He remains in spite or because of his detractors the single most important documentary filmmaker in the world today, and his ability to convey a story more than his adherence to particular rules of documentary filmmaking; have allowed the film-industry to accept the documentary as a meaningful and profitable form. That latter point bears some further scrutiny, in an interview Moore admitted bemusement at the fact that he was producing a movie in Roger & Me that essentially went against every ideal that big industry had and that Warner Bros., the company that distributed the movie, was contradicting its own ideological commitments in the name of making a dollar. He remarked, “The irony upon irony is that they produce entertainment for those very masses that they helped to disenfranchise” (Tibbetts 88). He went on to say that the reason that such companies would do so, aside from their moneyed blindness, is that they believe that at the end those disenfranchised classes would not do anything based on the urgings of one movie, he again offers, “Once the public starts doing something, once the people start putting the power back in our hands, Once that starts to happen, you won’t see me anymore” (Tibbetts 88). This perhaps is the sad unfiltered truth about society that makes individuals like Michael Moore needed, even if not liked, as it is his continued presence which suggests that we as a civilization have not done enough to make him go away.
Beckman. “Michael Moore: Hero or Villain?” New Statesman 22 October 2007: 136.
Fleischmann, Aloys. “The Rhetorical Function of Comedy in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.” Mosaic 40/4 (2007): 69-85.
Gawande, Atul. “Sick and Twisted.” The New York Times 23 July 2007: 21.
Higgins, Lynn A. “Documentary in an Age of Terror.” South Central Review 22.2 (2005): 20-38.
Kelly, Richard T. “Sicko.” Sight & Sound December 2007: 91.
Nolley, Ken. “Fahrenheit 9/11: Documentary, Truth-telling, and Politics.” Michael Moore: Cinematic Historian or Propagandist. American Historical Association, 2005. 12-16.
Pereboom, Maarten E. and John O’Connor. “Introduction: Historians on Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11.” Michael Moore: Cinematic Historian or Propagandist. American Historical Association, 2005. 7.
Tibbetts, John C. “An Interview with Michael Moore.” Film & History 34.2 (2004): 86-88.