As a caveat, let me say that I haven’t seen any of Michael Moore’s documentaries, for two simple reasons: one) high school has taught me to rebel against peer pressure, and the overwhelming peer pressure to agree with everything Moore says by his legion of sycophants is intolerable; two) I have no interest in documentaries. Having said that, from all that I’ve read, heard, and seen of the man, I believe Michael Moore to be very much a part of the Establishment (in this case, the Leftist Establishment), and as such I do not buy into his “Everyday Joe” shtick. And besides, on a purely personal basis, I find his personality to be obtuse and overbearing.
Having said all of the above, there’s little about Michael Wilson’s “Michael Moore Hates America” that interests me, and as a result the film works best when it’s steering clear of its subject matter. The film is most interesting when it offers up a blunt look at the making of documentaries, with some very frank and surprising behind-the-scenes view of Wilson and his crew as they go about making their film. In most of his interviews with pro-Moore people, Wilson does his best to hide the film’s title, sometimes even lying about the subject matter, knowing full well that such an inflammatory and seemingly biased title like “Michael Moore Hates America” would either make people clam up or spout anti-Moore propaganda.
It’s when the film takes a stab at answering its own question that “America” stumbles mightily. There are the prerequisite interviews with anti-Moore pundits, some offering up what seems like spur of the moment pop psychology on everything from Moore’s vanity to self-loathing to the filmmaker’s seemingly venomous distaste for his own country and a guy name Charlton Heston. And then there’s the lengthy interview with a wounded soldier who found himself an unwitting star in Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11″. It’s a painful interview to watch, especially since you can’t help but feel that the soldier is showing very obvious misplaced bitterness. To be honest, the whole segment made me squirm, and I couldn’t help but feel that Wilson was using the soldier to make his point, in the same way he’s criticizing Moore for having used the soldier in the first place.
As he crisscrosses the country in search of his elusive subject, Wilson gets a break when Moore literally lands in his backyard. At one of Moore’s many University speaking engagements, Wilson finally gets the chance to request an interview with Moore in an auditorium full of Moore fans. The result is predictable: Wilson is shouted down by Moore, who launches an immediate counter offensive that aims to deflect questions by attacking the questionnaire. If you’ve ever seen any of Moore’s TV appearances where the anchors ask anything that even remotely surpasses blind devotion, you will have seen this uncanny talent at work. In fact, it’s almost scary how easily and quickly Moore turns the tables on his would-be detractors.
Again, the best moments of “Michael Moore Hates America” has nothing to do with Moore at all. It’s the discussions about what constitutes a fair and honest documentary that really earns the film points, including a long sit-down with a very foul-mouthed (but surprisingly insightful) Penn Jillette (the speaking half of the magician act Penn and Teller), and an interview with Albert Maysles, the so-called “Godfather of documentaries”. The film does get in some good jabs at Moore, especially the fact that Moore has become a millionaire many times over by doing a lot of complaining about what’s bad about America, seemingly oblivious to his deriding of the so-called “American Dream” while living it himself. (A college dropout from small town America becomes a millionaire through hard work. Hmm. Sounds like the American Dream to me.) And then there is Moore’s continued support of loser political candidates, including a funny 1992 footage of Moore viciously deriding then-candidate Bill Clinton.
And if it is Wilson’s contention that Moore doesn’t play fair, then Wilson is determined to play it honest. In one of the film’s more honest moments, Wilson’s cameraman prods Wilson to tell Maysles the title of his (Wilson’s) documentary, since at this point Wilson has been conducting the interview without ever mentioning the title. You can almost see Wilson practically fall to pieces as he waits for Maysles’ reaction, which in itself is priceless. Another great moment comes when Wilson gets a chance to go on TV to promote his movie. In Jillette’s words, Wilson royally “f’s” it up. A man of Moore’s vanity would never have shown himself in such a negative and clumsy light; to his credit, Wilson isn’t afraid to show all the warts.
Despite its title, “Michael Moore Hates America” is really not mean spirited in the least. In fact, it’s quite an uplifting film, and Wilson himself comes across an affable, everyday fellow. There’s a great segment in the middle that explores the 2004 version of Flint, Michigan (the “star” of Moore’s breakthrough documentary hit, “Roger and Me”), which bears little resemblance to the Flint Moore continues to use as a bludgeoning instrument against Big Business. To see Flint as it stands today, and to hear Moore talk about it from his Hollywood soapbox, one gets the feeling Moore has not been back to Flint in many, many years.
In any case, allow me to predict your reaction to the film (should you decide to see it): If you voted for John Kerry, you’ll think the film is part of the “Right-Wing Conspiracy”; if you voted for Bush, you’ll think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. And if you voted for neither men, you’ll just think Michael Moore is a really fat man with a big mouth who bitches way too much. As comedian Greg Giraldo brilliantly remarked about Moore: “If you’re going to dedicate your career to ranting about the excesses of American capitalism, you probably shouldn’t weigh 450 pounds.” No kidding.
Michael Wilson (director) / Michael Wilson (screenplay)
CAST: Penn Jillette, Albert Maysles, Michael Moore, Christopher Ohlsen, Michael Wilson