Home / Politics / First you laugh, then you cry – The ambivalence of Michael Moore

First you laugh, then you cry – The ambivalence of Michael Moore

“The essence of tyranny is the denial of complexity.”
Jacob Burkhardt

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In 2002 Michael Moore earned worldwide fame with Bowling for Columbine, winning an Academy Award for best documentary by making a polemic against the right to bear arms in USA and accusing his fellow-countrymen of having a deeply rooted lust for violence and power. In the speech he gave during his nomination he attacked George Bush, saying, in a triumphant tone, that “we like non-fiction and we live in fictitious times, where we have fictitious election results that elect fictitious presidents”. He continued to express his opposition to the war in Iraq, and addressing Bush himself, said “Shame on you Mr. Bush, shame on you”. All this sounded almost humble, like something that had to be said a long time ago, and at the same time audacious and bold. I too was swayed by his directness and militancy.

But let’s start at the beginning. His first directorial effort was Roger and Me (1989) which showed his efforts to “talk things over” with Roger Smith, Chairman and CEO of General Motors, during the company’s decision to pack up and leave his hometown (Flint, where Moore was born) and the chaos that the decision led to. The face of capitalism the film portrays is a frigid one, with GM moving to Mexico for cheaper labor and tax reasons, leaving behind around 30,000 fired workers, while Smith denied Moore’s invitations.

Only, that’s not exactly the way things happened. One year after the movie was released, Premiere magazine (May issue of 1990) revealed that Michael Moore had talked with Smith and, moreover, it provided the transcript of the conversation where, in interview form, Roger Smith replies to Moore’s questions for 15 minutes! The incident is confirmed by Jim Musselman, Moore’s collaborator until then, who saw the relevant material on the editing room floor. They also exchanged words a second time, during a GM shareholder’s meeting, footage of which Moore conveniently left out of his film. He didn’t stop there though, editing some footage so as it would appear like he was cut off from speaking during the meeting. Perhaps if he hadn’t, the movie would loose its villain.

The poster of Roger & Me
The poster of Roger & Me

 

This is where truth becomes fiction. Michael Moore throughout his entire carrier systematically distorted facts, put words in other people’s mouths (and judged them on these very words), performed “creative editing”, abused witnesses, lied. Even in Flint, people’s opinions on Moore are divided. Many say he hurt the town by overestimating the town’s dismay and therefore scaring investors away.

In one of the most memorable scenes of Bowling for Columbine Michael Moore visits a bank that gives you a gun for opening an account. When someone sees the scene an impression is given that whoever wants to, can simply walk in a bank and, just by opening an account, can walk out holding a brand new gun. Moore asks a teller at some point how many guns the bank has at any time. The conversation goes like this: “We have at least 500 firearms at all times” says the cashier. “You have 500 guns in your vault?” he asks. “In our vault” she replies. But it’s not like that. As it turns out, in order for someone to acquire a gun from that bank, a month of background checks has to pass, and this when in the US you can get a gun in a parking lot without any background checks. Moreover, it may be indeed that the bank has guns in its vault, but Moore fails to mention that the vault is 300 miles away (arrangements were made specifically for Moore’s documentary and this particular rifle that is depicted). But he presents himself entering the bank empty handed and after some paper signing leaving the bank waving over his head one of the 500 rifles the tellers keep behind the desk. He distorts the truth wanting to show that anyone can easily get a free rifle after a quick bank transaction.

My objection doesn’t relate to the right to bear arms. To argue against this right is quite easy. But does a lie constitute an argument? Does one have the right to accuse another for something they haven’t done, just because they are on the side of the opponent? Given that in the US it is legal to bear arms, is it immoral for a bank to issue guns to select customers, or is it merely ridiculous? Especially when it is actually safer to have a bank issue a rifle, rather than having it treated almost like any other transaction? I think that Moore, by altering the facts, just weakens his case against the right to bear arms; that for the sake of surprise and for a laugh he sacrifices his reliability.

He later indicates some numbers – gun-related deaths in several countries compared with US. But even these numbers appear to be deceptive (point 6).

He continues by attacking the NRA, the larger organization in defense of the right to bear arms, and even ends up linking it to the KKK. Somewhere in the middle of the film: “In 1871 that KKK became an illegal, terrorist organization, another group was founded, the NRA. It was a great year for America, the KKK and the NRA. Of course, they had nothing to do with each other, and this was just a coincidence.“ By the irony in the tone of the narrator in the last phrase, we are called to believe that when the KKK was disbanded, its members founded the NRA. This, though, has nothing to do with reality. There isn’t a shred of evidence to support this claim, and I am sure that if forced to answer, even Moore would have a problem uttering the words, otherwise he would have used directness in his film instead of irony. But, like Roger Smith in Roger an Me, the NRA is now supposed to play the role of the villain. And what better than a dark, criminal origin story to haunt the villain? In reality, the NRA has accepted African-Americans and Hispanics as members, something the KKK obviously would never do.

He continues against the then president of NRA, and former Moses, Charlton Heston. He is presented to host, 10 days after the abhorrent shooting at Columbine, an NRA event; and raising a rifle over his head proclaiming threateningly “over my dead body”. But Moore cuts to some intervening shots where he narrates that after every gun-related violent incident that attracts media attention, the Association holds a conference in the city it takes place in, against the residents’ will. He continues the scene with a shot of Heston during a meeting saying “The mayor tells us not to come here? We are already here!”. But the two excerpts belong to two different events! Moore just edited two phrases delivered in different cities, a year apart, creating new context.

The imaginative editing of Charlton Heston's speech (source)
The imaginative editing of Charlton Heston’s speech (source)

Later in the film he claims that the American government had given 245 million dollars in 2000 and 2001 to the Taliban, showing what is supposed to be the result: 2 planes hitting 2 towers. There is no evidence to support anything of the sort. In reality, the 245 million had been given as humanitarian charity to Afghanistan through the UN and several NGOs, for hunger relief. Maybe he wants to tell us that the UN was conspiring with the American government in giving money to Bin Laden to fight against the Soviets.

The Academy that awards the Oscars (AMPAS) defines a documentary as “a non-fictional movie”. According to this definition Bowling for Columbine shouldn’t even be nominated.

The villain of Fahrenheit 911 (2004) is, of course, George Bush. This film strikes an artistic turn for Michael Moore, as he himself barely appears in front of the camera and the jokes become scarce. On the contrary, the film is presented as a somber labor of patriotism and liberalism, as the auteur tries to add credibility to his premise. But we can easily see the premise to be misguiding.

He claims that after the attack on the twin towers and while all planes were grounded nationwide, relatives of Osama Bin Laden were helped by the government to exit the country, without even having investigated whether a connection could be established between them and the attack. Lie. The “911 Commission” report illustrates that the Saudis in question were investigated by the FBI and found to be irrelevant to the event, were not helped to exit the country but chartered a plane on their own, and indeed only after the grounding was lifted. But Moore insists on linking the Bin Laden family with the Bush family, using companies and people as links to be found so weak that only a conspiracy theorist would take seriously.

He goes on to accuse Bush of being overzealous in declaring war against Afghanistan and Iraq while a few minutes later he accuses him of not sending enough soldiers and relying too much on non-violent diplomacy, causing deaths of American soldiers. He presents Iraq as a peace-loving country where children fly kites and shop-keepers smile in front of their establishments, conveniently avoiding to illustrate everyday horrors of the regime, such as Saddam executing a civilian for owning a satellite dish, forcing his family to watch the execution, and having them join him if they refuse to cheer. Let’s not agree that the solution to this is to have the US level the entire country, but I think that we, viewers and readers, have the right to be respected and taken seriously. When any journalist shows pictures that aren’t real, when he discontinues a quote with three dots altering its context, he has betrayed his profession.

Michael Moore assuming the part of the muzzled contrarian (source)
Michael Moore assuming the part of the muzzled contrarian (source)

 

Later in the film, Moore stands outside the Congress (where support of the declaration of war was voted) and asks its members before entering if they will help him convince more government members to send their children to war. He implies that Congress members are not as committed to the supposed common goal as the rest of American are asked to be. He fails to mention that there actually were members of Congress that voted for the war while their children or other family members were in the army and were sure to serve in Iraq. To be more precise, the Congress men and women were statistically more likely to have a family member serve in Iraq than the general American population was. For example, Mark Kennedy, Tim Johnson and Jon Ashcroft were some of those who had more to lose from a war than Michael Moore ever did.

At the end of the movie he quotes George Orwell from something “he once wrote”. But it looks like Moore didn’t even bother to read Orwell’s 1984, as the quote supposedly taken from the book, belongs to the movie adaptation rather than the book itself, and is actually a rephrasing of a monologue. One cannot miss the irony, when Moore pretends to speak through Orwell’s mouth by saying “It is not important if the war is not real or if it is…This new version (of history) is the past, and no different past could ever have existed”. Here, Moore warns us of the dangers of propaganda and the altering of history as a means to control the masses. He probably should remind himself of these warnings…

Obviously, Michael Moore thinks the end justifies the means. He doesn’t hesitate to alter quotes and speeches, to hide his intentions, to exaggerate, to take liberties with the truth and to blatantly lie. He may or may not do these things for the right ends, but I don’t think what we need is a new Sergei Eisenstein or another Leni Riefenstahl. I’d rather have a Christopher Hitchens or an Adam Curtis. Moore betrays the movement he has joined and silences the voices of those who try honestly and rationally to offer alternatives to the unrelenting overreach of the military industrial complex and the failing corporatism of our times, by removing any gravity from anyone who presents himself as a contrarian. The end does not justify the means.

P.S. due to lack of space I couldn’t expand on Sicko; whoever wants to start on that can visit the two last links in the sources section.

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