Writer, filmmaker and noted wit Michael Moore is as popular as he is controversial. His work is very politically-driven, and some of his critics claim that it's also more biased than a documentary-maker should be. Others accuse him of being a privileged, hypocritical 'limousine liberal'. However, to his many fans and supporters, Michael Moore is a powerful and much-needed voice against corporate corruption and political deception. This entry takes a look at Moore's films.
Roger & Me (1989)
During the 1980s, the giant American car corporation General Motors kept steadily 'downsizing' their operations in Flint, Michigan. Eventually, the company ceased its operations in Flint altogether, throwing tens of thousands of local people out of work.
Michael Moore decided that GM's Chief Executive Officer, Roger Smith, should be made to explain why he'd done this to Flint. So Moore raised funds by, amongst other things, organising bingo games at his home, and then made his first feature film.
Roger & Me is a feature-length documentary telling the story of Moore's attempts to get an interview with Smith. The film also documents the desperate condition of Flint following GM's desertion, and the sometimes bizarre remedies tried by the local authorities. 20,000 people are seen standing in line at one location to collect rations of federal surplus cheese and butter. Thousands of people leave Flint, as local unemployment reaches 25 per cent and the rate of violent crime in Flint becomes worse than those in infamous crime black spots as Miami and Detroit.
The city council's attempts to improve matters include paying a TV evangelist named Robert Schuller $30,000 to come to Flint and hold a prayer meeting to call for divine intervention to save the city. But the prayers aren't answered. Before long, the city health department announces that there are now more rats than people in Flint, and offers a bounty for every dead rat brought in by a city resident. Meanwhile, The Flint Chamber of Commerce erects billboards featuring 'morale-boosting' slogans including 'Visit Flint - And Leave the Real World Behind!'.
While all this is going on, Michael Moore keeps trying to meet Roger Smith. He visits General Motors' global headquarters in Detroit and is immediately escorted out of the building. He's also ejected from a GM board meeting, and embarks on a long search for Smith through various places popular with the rich and powerful. Then, just when his quest seems hopeless, Moore finally gets to meet Smith.
Despite its rock-bottom budget, Roger & Me became a surprise commercial success, and collected awards at numerous film festivals. Its success was fuelled by debates triggered by its content. Some of Moore's detractors have claimed that the sequencing of the film is misleading, in that the events in Flint did not occur in the order suggested by Roger & Me. But the film has been widely acclaimed for the way that it starkly exposes the human cost of cold business decisions, and its commercial success has been extraordinary. Made for $160,000, it grossed around $25 million in all formats, and became the most financially successful non-concert documentary in Hollywood history.
Michael Moore, filmmaker, had arrived.
Canadian Bacon (1995)
Canadian Bacon is a satirical comedy drama, written and directed by Moore. It concerns a US President (Alan Alda) who decides to boost his falling popularity by starting a war with Canada. Sheriff Bud B. Boomer (John Candy), based near the border at Niagara County, takes the President's anti-Canadian propaganda to heart and decides to lead his own invasion of Canada.
Although Canadian Bacon was critically acclaimed at the time of its release, it wasn't a major commercial success, and it has often been misunderstood. Moore's script satirises the stereotypical American view of Canadians. Some viewers found the exaggerated stereotypes in the film offensive, although others understood Moore's satirical intentions and found the film hilarious1. The plot device of a US-Canada war was subsequently adapted by Trey Parker and Matt Stone for their 1999 movie South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (Moore later returned the compliment in the short animated 'History of America' section of Bowling for Columbine).
Sadly, Canadian Bacon was the last film ever completed by Candy, the heavyweight star of hit comedies like Uncle Buck and Cool Runnings. He died of a heart attack before Canadian Bacon was released.
The Big One (1997)
The Big One is a documentary about the tour of America Moore took to promote his book Downsize This: Random Threats From An Unarmed American. Whilst on the road, Moore took the opportunity to investigate more corporate misdeeds, and the most famous sequence in the film is a revealing interview with Nike CEO Phil Knight.
In amongst the busy book signings and confrontations with corporate security guards is a sequence in which music fan Moore gets to jam with Rick Nielsen, guitarist with the band Cheap Trick.
The title comes from Moore's suggestion that 'The Big One' would make a good new name for the United States of America!
Bowling For Columbine (2002)
Bowling For Columbine begins with Michael Moore visiting a bank to open an account. He leaves the bank happily brandishing an unusual free gift: a rifle, one of the range of guns this bank offers as an inducement to new customers. From that beginning, Bowling For Columbine becomes steadily more shocking...
The inspiration for Bowling For Columbine was the Columbine massacre, the 1999 tragedy in which two youths took guns to Columbine High School in Denver, Colorado, USA and killed 15 people. Footage taken from the school's security cameras showing the killers in the school during the massacre is included in Bowling For Columbine, although none of the fatal shootings are shown. The film's title comes from the macabre fact that the two killers went bowling on the morning of the tragedy, before heading to the school to kill their classmates and themselves.
Moore uses the Columbine horror as a starting point for a broadly-based investigation into the American relationship with guns. Bowling For Columbine asks why there are so many more fatal shootings in the USA than in other nations. Moore points out that the startling statistics on gun-related killings can't simply be explained by the high rate of gun ownership in the USA, since Canada has a similarly high proportion of gun owners in its population but a much lower murder rate. He suggests that the shocking number of shootings in the USA may be caused by peculiarly American cultural factors, such as the bloodthirsty nature of American news coverage and the widening gap between rich and poor in America.
The film contains several highly memorable interviews. Marilyn Manson, who was criticised after the Columbine massacre for allegedly being a bad influence on the killers, offers a strikingly eloquent self-defence and analysis of the tragedy.
Moore also interviews Charlton Heston, the veteran movie star and spokesman for the National Rifle Association, the American pressure group that lobbies against restrictions on gun ownership in the USA. When asked why there are so many shootings in America, Heston shockingly cites 'mixed ethnicity' as a prime cause of the problem.
Bowling For Columbine was a massive critical and commercial success, enjoying a long and successful run in American cinemas and entering the UK box office Top 10 - an almost unheard-of feat for a documentary. It was showered with awards, among them the Academy Award (or Oscar) for Best Documentary.
Moore hit the headlines after the Academy Awards ceremony in March 2003 when he used his Oscar acceptance speech to deliver a blistering attack on President George W Bush. His statement was all the more controversial because it came during the war in Iraq. While other Oscar winners mentioned the conflict, none were as outspoken as Moore.
Unsurprisingly, the film and the Oscar acceptance speech made Moore some new enemies, and some of the claims Moore made in Bowling For Columbine were hotly disputed by his critics. Moore made a detailed response to the criticisms of Columbine in an article posted on his website.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
After Bowling For Columbine, Michael Moore was both high-profile and highly controversial, and he took on even more emotive subject matter in his next film. Its title, Fahrenheit 9/11, alluded to the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001, and also to Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury’s classic sci-fi novel about repressive governments.
Fahrenheit 9/11 became the subject of a bitter dispute even before its release. The film had been scheduled to be distributed by Miramax, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Corporation. Alarmed by the movie's contentious content, Disney executives ordered Miramax to withdraw from the deal. As the much-publicised Fahrenheit 9/11 distribution dispute escalated, Moore claimed that he was being censored. The row continued during the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, at which Fahrenheit 9/11 was premiered to huge acclaim, winning the Palme D'Or - the Cannes Festival's top prize.
Alternative distribution was found, and Fahrenheit 9/11 received its US release in late June 2004. Right-wing groups lobbied cinemas to boycott the movie, and some cinemas did indeed refuse to show it. Critical and public opinion on the film was sharply divided - but even so, Fahrenheit 9/11 became a huge commercial success. In its first weekend on release, Fahrenheit 9/11 shot straight to Number One in the American box office listings - the first documentary ever to achieve this feat. It was a similar story when the film was released in the UK in June. Again, the reviews were mixed, but the controversy and publicity didn't seem to hurt ticket sales. More records were broken as Fahrenheit 9/11 entered the UK box office listings at number three.
The film begins with a reminder of the bitterly disputed 2000 US Presidential election, then focuses on the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The attack on the World Trade Center is presented with sensitivity and imagination: the screen goes blank as the sounds of the planes hitting the twin towers are heard. When the picture returns, the horror of that day's events is shown through the reactions of those who were close to what would become known as Ground Zero, and then through the grief of the bereaved.
Fahrenheit 9/11 then shows President George W. Bush being told of the attack, whilst reading a book called My Pet Goat during a visit to a school. For several minutes, Bush does nothing in response to the news, carrying on reading with a frozen half-smile on his face. According to your point of view, he appears either extremely calm in a crisis or bewildered and helpless in the absence of his advisors.
The film then examines the business links between the Bush family and that of Osama bin Laden, and asks why members of the bin Laden family were allowed to leave the United States shortly after the '9/11' atrocities, when all other air traffic in the USA was grounded. It questions the morality of the Bush dynasty's links with the rulers of Saudi Arabia, given that country's poor record on human rights - a point graphically illustrated with (long distance) footage of a public beheading.
After briefly examining the war in Afghanistan, Fahrenheit 9/11 goes on to a much longer look at the war in Iraq. It discusses the effects of the 'war on terrorism' on civil liberties in America, and then deals with the Iraq conflict primarily by examining its impact on those most directly involved. There is harrowing footage of the dead and injured from both sides. In one of the most controversial parts of the movie, Moore interviews American soldiers at various stages of the conflict. Their responses generally suggest an initial excitement and determination followed by a rapid descent into disillusionment with their mission.
The film follows military officers as they look for potential new army recruits in a downmarket shopping complex. Noting that most recruits come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, Moore goes to Washington to ask the politicians if they'd like to pass on recruitment literature to their own children. Unsurprisingly, there are few takers.
Finally, Fahrenheit 9/11 tells the tragic personal story of Lila Lipscomb, a patriotic American proud to come from a military family, whose soldier son is killed in Iraq. We see Mrs Lipscomb visiting Washington to vent her grief and anger at the administration that, as she sees it, has wasted her son's life.
One of the most effective aspects of Fahrenheit 9/11 is the way that it seeks to damn George W Bush with his own words, and largely refrains from mocking some of his better-known weaknesses. Only at the very end of the film is there an example of Bush's celebrated tendency to mangle the English language; but there are images of Bush behaving in ways that many might find shockingly insensitive and inappropriate. Bush is seen looking strikingly relaxed, happy and at home when addressing a gathering of prosperous people whom he describes as '...the haves and the have mores', adding that while some might call such people the elite, 'I call you my base'. The President is also seen out on a golf course, delivering a stern lecture to the nations of the world about the need to combat terrorism, then returning to his game with the words: 'Now watch this swing'.
Fahrenheit 9/11 was attacked for being partisan, a charge that Moore didn't dispute: he made no secret of the fact that one of his aims in making the film was to try to influence the outcome of the 2004 US Presidential election. Some of those who criticised Moore at the height of the storm of publicity whipped up by Fahrenheit 9/11 were left-wing commentators who might have been expected to be more supportive, but who claimed to find Moore's methods and his personal style unpalatable.
Great care was taken over the accuracy of the actual information used in the film; Moore employed a team of highly-qualified fact-checkers to try to ensure that every specific claim in Fahrenheit 9/11 could be verified. That didn't stop some of Moore's many bitter detractors questioning various aspects of its content, but those who attacked the film were often reduced to accusing Moore of presenting the truth in a biased way, rather than suggesting that he was actually lying.
What was beyond dispute was that Fahrenheit 9/11 was a huge international hit, and that it made Michael Moore more famous, controversial and influential than ever before.