My focus in this essay will be on Michael Moore's four documentaries--Roger and Me (1989), The Big One (1997, Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)--with most of my attention being given to the first and third of these, and least to the second. These four films are significant and worth studying for a number of reasons: (i) The size of the audiences they have succeeded in reaching; (ii) the political impact they have had (on which, among other things, see Robert Brent Toplin's useful book on Michael Moore's "Fahreneit 9/11": How One Film Divided A Nation ); (iii) and the extent to which they helped prepare the reception for such recent political documentaries as, for example, Errol Morris's The Fog of War (2004), Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's The Corporation (2005), Alex Gibney's Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight (2005), David Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth (2006), and Chris Paine's Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006). It may not be redundant to rehearse some of the facts. If Roger and Me was more successful at the box office than any documentary that preceded it, Moore went on to break the same record on two subsequent occasions--first with Bowling for Columbine, then with Fahrenheit 9/11. And as far as the latter is concerned, we get some sense of the excitement that was generated when it first screened in the US by the Foreword that John Berger wrote in 2004 for The Official "Fahrenheit 9/11" Reader (while the film was "still playing in hundreds of theaters across America" (1)). He begins with these words:
Fahrenheit 9/11 is astounding. Michael Moore's film profoundly moved the artists on the Cannes Film Festival jury, and they voted unanimously to award it the Palme d'Or. Since then it has touched many millions of people. During the first six weeks of its showing in the United States the box office takings amounted to over 100 million dollars, which is, astoundingly, about half of what Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone made during a comparable period. People have never seen another film like Fahrenheit 9/11. (ix)
"Astounding" seems to me exactly the right word. It is astounding, first of all, that a documentary (and a political documentary at that) could ever have attained such popularity. And it is even more astounding if we consider when it made its appearance: at a time when (in Berger's words) "the daily wall of lies and half-truths," "the conspiracy of silence, [and] the manufactured atmosphere of fear," seemed impenetrable--at least "within the realm of the mass-media" itself (x, xi). It was precisely at that moment that Moore's film achieved its "breakthrough," nothing less than "an effective and independent intervention into immediate world politics" (x, ix).
But for all the commercial success of his documentaries, and all the praise they have received, Moore's stature as an artist is still something that needs to be argued for. And this is true in spite of what Quentin Tarantino (who headed the Cannes jury that gave first prize to Moore's film) states on one of the featurettes on the Fahrenheit 9/11 dvd. "Know[ing] all this political crap would be brought up," he whispered the following in Moore's ear:
"I just want you to know it was not because of the politics that you won this award. You won it because we thought it was the best film that we saw." And he [Moore] said, "That means more to me than anything ... If I had wanted to make political statements I would run for office. I want to make movies."
Though Moore seems here to be accepting the rigid distinction between art and politics that Tarantino proposes, my own view is that such a distinction applies to only one of his documentaries so far--to The Big One, which has no particular cinematic ambition and is all political statement (even if of an often entertaining and by no means negligible kind). On the other hand, both Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 aspire to be--and largely succeed in being (unlike Roger and Me, which has the same aspiration but whose success is more qualified)--both the best films available on their subjects and, simultaneously, powerful political statements.
My guiding assumption, then, is that Moore implicitly asks to be taken seriously both as an artist and also (in John Berger's apt wording) as a kind of "People's Tribune" ("Foreword," xi). My argument will be that this is how he deserves to be regarded. My aim is to develop the discussion Moore says he wants: of his films, of course, but also (and at the same time) of some of the issues the films deal with. And since the first one, Roger and Me, opens with Moore introducing himself to us, that is where I will start.
Roger and Me (1989) I thought companies lay off people when they hit hard times. GM was the richest company in the world and it was closing factories when it was making profits in the billions. --Moore (just over 5 minutes into Roger and Me)
The first ten minutes: Self-Portrait of the Artist
The credits are minimal: on an otherwise blank screen, we first see the words "A Dog Eat Dog Films Production," then the title "Roger & Me," then the information "A Film By Michael Moore." The first image is from a family video of children (one of them Moore) at a party, and in voice-over we hear Moore informing us, jokingly, that he "was kind of a strange child. My parents knew early on that something was wrong with me." We see film (again in colour) of someone we assume is his mother as he tells us that "It all began"--that is, began, presumably, to go wrong--"when my mother didn't show up for my first birthday party...." This is followed by a black and white photograph of Moore's father and of Moore himself as a tiny tot whom the camera slowly zooms in on (he's in a high chair, a birthday cake with one candle on it in front of him), while the narrative voice explains that "My Dad tried to cheer me up by letting me eat the whole cake," and follows this with the mock-serious confession: "I knew that there had to be more to life than this."
From this intimate glimpse into his personal history (this private photograph of father and son), Moore then begins to introduce a more public history as he cuts abruptly to an old film of a TV show in which we see three smiling women introducing a smiling and singing Pat Boone, while the narrator tells us: "When I was a kid, I thought only three people worked for General Motors: Pat Boone, Dinah Shore" (here we see her on film) "and my dad" (who we see here again). With this transition in place, the next word we hear spoken is "Our," as, while we see early black and white film of people in the streets, Moore tells us where we are and begins to spell out in more detail the importance of General Motors in his life: "Our hometown of Flint, Michigan, was the birthplace of General Motors, the largest corporation in the world."
Where we are, then, is back in a moment of time when Flint was enjoying "a prosperity that working people had never seen before" and, out of a feeling of gratitude to the company, the town had thrown a birthday party, "for the people of General Motors on their fiftieth anniversary." Here we see excerpts from a film General Motors made of the celebration the town held in its honour, accompanied by Moore's voice-over telling us that this was Flint as he remembers it, "where every day was a great day." In other words, he remembers it through rose-coloured glasses. But the memory of the parade celebrating GM's 50th anniversary is now followed by a very different kind of memory.
As we reach the film's three-minute mark, we see first a photograph of Moore's extended family (parents, grandparents, etc.), then a photograph of his uncle, then old film of the strikers and the National Guard, and all the while we are hearing this:
My dad worked on the assembly line at GM's AC Spark Plug in Flint for thirty-three years. In fact, as I grew older, I discovered my entire family had worked for GM: Grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins. Everyone but me. My uncle Laverne was in the Great Flint Sit-Down strike. Just before the year's end in 1936 he and thousands of other GM workers took over the Flint factories and barricaded themselves inside, refusing to budge for forty-four days. The national guard was called in, and the eyes of the world were on Flint. On February 11, 1937, General Motors gave in and the UAW was born.
As he makes clear a few minutes later when he declares his mission, Moore thinks of this truly radical political act as an achievement to be proud of, to celebrate, and to retain as a model worth trying to live up to (if not necessarily directly imitate). But in the opening of Roger and Me, instead of dwelling on this incident, Moore quickly moves on with his personal narrative, explaining that the assembly line wasn't for him and that his "heroes were the Flint people who'd escaped the life in the factory and got out of Flint," people like "Flint's most famous native son, Bob Eubanks, host of TV's hit show The Newlywed Game." For a moment, at least, Moore would have us believe that Eubanks (who later in the film reveals himself to be a real sleaze-bag) was his model as, after ten years of editing his own paper in Flint, he left to work on a "muckraking magazine in San Francisco."
But it soon turns out that the glamour of San Francisco was not for him, and for an interesting reason. Jokingly filming a straight-faced barista towering above him as she recites a list of coffee options, while claiming that "trying to get a simple cup of coffee in San Francisco" had become "a nightmare" for him, Moore portrays the dilemma he found himself in as follows:
I went to work and announced that I was going to give a monthly column to a Flint auto worker. The owner [of the magazine] instead told me to run an investigative report on herbal teas. I told him I had a better idea. Let's put the auto worker on the cover. The owner wasn't amused and declared that California and I were a mismatch ...
Of course, the conclusion we as viewers are being encouraged to reach is that the real mismatch is between two conceptions of radicalism: the middle-class one Moore lampoons with that reference to herbal teas and the working-class one he champions.
Still only just over five minutes into the film, Moore brings his personal narrative to an end with his return to Flint, just "a few days" before "the bad news hit." We hear the latter as it is delivered first by Dan Rather in an excerpt from CBS Evening News ("Good evening. General Motors confirmed it today. It is going to close plants employing almost 30,000 workers") and then by GM chairman Roger Smith ("Today we are announcing the closing of eleven of our older plants"). At this point, though Moore never raises his voice, his commentary starts to become increasingly sarcastic ("So this was GM chairman Roger Smith. He appeared to have a brilliant plan. First close eleven factories in the US, then open eleven in Mexico, where you pay the workers seventy cents an hour ... Roger Smith was a true genius"). Film of Roger Smith announcing the bad news is then succeeded by a brief sequence in which we see the last truck going down the line (Moore and his friends having posed "as a TV crew from Toledo" in order to get inside the factory and film it), which is in turn followed by groups of workers telling Moore what they think of Roger Smith. Not surprisingly, they think that he is the one who should be fired. But not everyone in Flint is of this opinion. Tom Kay, for example, the "spokesman and lobbyist for GM" whom we hear from next, is "sure that Roger Smith has a social conscience as strong as anyone else in the country." Prompted by Moore ("Have you ever …