Whatever you think of Michael Moore — whether you love him, hate him, or (like me) believe that he’s an ingeniously captivating big-picture muckraker who can truly be great when he sticks to reality (which he often does), but is anything but great when he proves overly willing to bend it — few would deny that he’s the most prominent, incendiary, and headline-grabbing, the most influential feature documentary filmmaker of our time. (I would say that the other pre-eminent nonfiction Big Cheese is Ken Burns, who works on PBS in what is by now almost a form of his own.)
But who, exactly, does Michael Moore influence, and how? The conventional wisdom, which I’d pretty much bought for most of his career, is that a Michael Moore film — take, for instance, Bowling for Columbine (2002) — inevitably preaches to the converted, but that, in addition, it probably makes a number of converts as well, and that by showcasing an issue like gun control on a major, widescreen canvas (in the form of an immensely entertaining, audacious, and revealing movie), Moore ultimately helps to bring that issue to light.
My feelings about all this began to shift in the aftermath of Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). The movie was, at the time, the most present-tense and white-hot lightning rod of Moore’s career, an attack on a sitting president at a moment when many of the actions Moore was attacking were still warm. And so it was almost bound to provoke a counter-reaction as furious and vehement as the movie itself. In many ways, the film completed Moore’s evolution from controversial liberal-left filmmaker to scandalous leftist poster child in the new culture wars.
Here, though, is what started to nag at me. With Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore made one of his angriest but also his most recklessly sneering and brazenly propagandist films. He scored some sharp points, and he had a vengeful good time thumbing his nose at George W. Bush’s sins, but he also left himself open, more than usual, to the charge that he’d become a creator of factually slippery agitprop.
And that, in its way, was a gift — pure candy — to the embattled, spoilin’-for-a-showdown right wing. I can’t prove this, of course, but what my intuition told me at the time, and still tells me, is that when President Bush was re-elected less than six months after the release of Fahrenheit 9/11, one of the many reasons for his victory is that Michael Moore had won Bush more votes than he’d cost him. Moore may well have been preaching to the “progressive” choir, but in taking out the broad brush, he had alienated the cautious center, composed of voters who really don’t take to the notion of a filmmaker who’s a little too willing to mess around with, you know, the truth.
We now live in a Punch-and-Judy political culture. Sure, you can say that it was kicked off by the right wing — not just by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, but by the godfather of it all, Republican political operative Lee Atwater. He’s the one who proved, back in the 1980s, that you could get away with anything, even brazen lies, as long as they were crafted as cleverly prejudicial advertising bites. For years, folks on the left have defended Michael Moore, even in his excesses, by saying: You have to fight fire with fire. That is, if the folks on the right — Karl Rove, Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, etc. — are going to speak in a louder-than-life voice, are going to distort the issues in order to win the day, then there have to be voices on the other side who respond in kind.
The trouble is, it may ultimately be impossible to fight distortion with more distortion. If you do, then all you’re left with is a kind of pro wrestling mat of the mind in which one exaggerated, cartoon version of the truth squares off with another. The result may officially be a draw, but the real victor is…distortion. Cartoon thinking. The sheer loudness of the volume. What’s more (and this is what’s so insidious), a “draw” is always going to be, in effect, a victory for the forces who oppose “big government.” For if nothing ends up getting done, then they’ve effectively won. They’ve lodged a monkey wrench in the system.
How will Michael Moore’s new film, Capitalism: A Love Story, play in Peoria? I predict that some of it will go over well. Yet the movie, as I said in my review, is three-fifths of a great indictment. When Moore deals with the economic crisis by attacking the entire system of “capitalism,” throwing out the baby with the corrupt bathwater, he leaves himself open to the charge of a kind of knee-jerk anti-Americanism. And in doing so, I think it’s at least possible that he hands the right wing a weapon every bit as powerful as he wants his movie to be.
So what do you think? At this point, does Michael Moore truly influence people toward his own causes? Or, after 20 years of activist filmmaking, has he become the unintended, unacknowledged king of backlash?