The Documentary Films of Citizen Activist: Michael Moore; A Man on a Mission or How Far a Reinvigorated Populism Can Take Us

By Watson, Garry | CineAction, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Documentary Films of Citizen Activist: Michael Moore; A Man on a Mission or How Far a Reinvigorated Populism Can Take Us


Watson, Garry, CineAction


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 [2006]); (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:

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

    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). …

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