Michael Moore: Cinematic Historian or Propagandist? A Historians Film Committee Panel Presented at the 2005 American Historical Association Meeting

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Introduction: Historians on Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11

JOHN E. O'CONNOR, CO-FOUNDER OF FILM & HISTORY New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University

AT the American Historical Association meeting in Seattle in January 2005 the Historians Film Committee was pleased to present a panel on a film which has recently produced its share of controversy. Panelists included: Robert Brent Toplin (University of North Carolina-Wilmington), Steven Mintz (University of Houston), Ron Briley (Sandia Preparatory School) and Ken Nolley (Willamette University). These four historians presented and discussed their views of the Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and the issues which it raises for historians and other scholars. As an extension of that discussion we print their comments here, hoping both to illuminate and focus what has become an interesting debate among scholars who saw the film become an issue in the 2004 presidential election. In fact, the historians proved themselves able to preserve at least some of the decorum which press commentators from right and left seem to have lost completely as the election neared.

Whether reasonable or not, people on both ends of the political spectrum seemed to expect that Fahrenheit 9/11 would have an impact on the ways people voted in 2004. Moore denied that this was his purpose for making the film in the first place. In an interview on National Pubic Radio in mid October he told Terry Gross that when they started production he "didn't know even if it would get done before the election." But once the film was released and won immediate commercial success unusual for a documentary, Moore and others recognized its potential to dramatize for viewers/voters what they saw as the importance of denying George W. Bush a second term in the White House. On the other side, fearing the ability of Moore's film to move voters, Republican critics did their best to void its influence. They pressured theater chains not to screen the film commercially, sought to ban its advertising and, among other "dirty tricks," did all they could to cancel or otherwise foil Moore's planned appearances on college campuses.

The situation provides an interesting reminder of the original definition of documentary film proposed in the 1930s as productions that would move audiences to social or political action. The film also raises the old debate about how appropriate it may be for filmmakers to use the tools of their craft to manipulate documentary images-in effect to manipulate their audiences.

The methodology we have at our hands as historians seems particularly appropriate in dealing with a political documentary such as Fahrenheit 9/11. First, historians ask questions about content: what does the film have to say? In addition to its overall point of view, Moore's film is peppered with examples of the "creative" uses of visual language. Some of these do a wonderful job of riveting our attention, but they can also confuse a film's message. Second, historians raise questions about production: in this case questions about a rather iconoclastic filmmaker known for his "gotcha journalism." Moore likes to make people squirm. In Roger and Me ( 1989) he surprised General Motors Chairman Roger Smith, confronting him on camera with the charge that by contracting out certain aspects of auto production he was personally responsible for joblessness in Detroit. And in Bowling for Columbine (2002) he caught National Rifle Association President Charlton Heston off-guard by insisting to his face that Heston was personally at fault for contributing to America's irresponsible gun culture. Finally, there are questions about reception: How should the obvious political intent of a film shape our evaluation of it as an indicator of the public's state of mind at the time? Hopefully publication of these four pieces will help people focus on the key issues in an important political and historical discussion. …