Capitalism’s Little Tramp
“DO not get out of the car!” the private security guard barked at the driver from the back seat of a black van carrying Michael Moore and five striking workers from the United Steelworkers union (Local 6500). The event was the screening of Mr. Moore’s latest film, “Capitalism: A Love Story” at the Toronto International Film Festival and, as with most premieres, the sidewalk was packed with people waiting for the limousine doors to open.
But as the driver pulled the van close enough to the curb to clip the shoulder of a Toronto policeman holding back the surging crowd, it became evident that this crowd wanted more than autographs. There were picketers, homemade protest signs and people dressed as 19th-century robber barons. Even the miners, whom Mr. Moore invited to bring attention to their bitter two-month strike against the mining giant Vale Inco in Sudbury, Ontario, looked wide-eyed at the spectacle last Sunday.
“Uh, oh,” Mr. Moore said, looking out the front-seat passenger window. “They’ve got pitchforks.”
Mr. Moore, a veteran of political action and perhaps the most successful documentary filmmaker in history, had little reason to worry. Getting out of the van, he waded into the crowd and greeted the protesters, whose pitchforks were directed at the bankers and bureaucrats behind last year’s huge Wall Street bailout. He then entered the Elgin Theater and introduced the miners (wearing their full work gear) to the news media, the warm mood broken only slightly when a reporter from “Entertainment Tonight” asked sarcastically whether Mr. Moore had arrived in a Cadillac.
“I don’t notice,” he said, asking if anyone knew the make.
“Jeez, I think it was a Ford,” one of the miners said, squinting into the paparazzi flashes that lighted up his face.
Canada has been friendly territory since 1989, when Mr. Moore came to the festival here to hawk his first film, a 16-millimeter documentary called “Roger & Me,” about how General Motors abandoned Flint, Mich. Still living on weekly unemployment checks of $98, Mr. Moore was a surprise winner of the festival’s People’s Choice Award and his unlikely career rise began.
Since then, in films like “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Bowling for Columbine” and “Sicko,” his hulking figure shambling toward company executives and bewildered security guards has become the postindustrial version of Chaplin’s Little Tramp. This year’s entry is not a sortie on a particular industry; it is a frontal assault on the very idea of American free enterprise — a beast, he called it in an address to the Toronto audience, “and you can’t tie it down with a flimsy piece of rope.”
For this crowd that is a message that goes down as easily as weak American beer. In the United States Mr. Moore’s conservative critics may decry his popularity, but his films and best-selling books are far more popular outside the country, especially in Britain, elsewhere in Europe and in Japan. In such places Mr. Moore has become a kind of anti-cultural ambassador — the prism through which a large part of the world views the United States.
But a film that flatly concludes that capitalism is evil is certain to put him at odds with most of the left wing in his own country, and even with President Obama, who gave a speech the next day on Wall Street on the need to reregulate, not replace the financial industry.
“I know what I’m facing when I go back across the Blue Water Bridge,” Mr. Moore told the theater’s 1,500 cheering “socialist Canadians,” as he called them. After the screening many in the audience looked for ballots to vote again for Mr. Moore’s film for the People’s Choice Award, which is sponsored by — who else? — Cadillac. Your tax dollars at work.
HYPOCRITE. PROPAGANDIST. Egomaniac. Glutton. Exploiter. Embarrassment. Slob. These are a few of the criticisms that have been lobbed at Mr. Moore since his career began, and these are just the ones from liberals.
His arrival with “Roger & Me” seemed to crystallize a contradiction in the elite liberal sensibility, one that is still unresolved. Through President Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, Whitewater and Kenneth W. Starr, some liberals have craved their own class warrior, a Rush Limbaugh for the left who would take the fight unapologetically to the Republicans.
But faced with Mr. Moore (and later, Keith Olbermann) they recoil, claiming that kind of aggressiveness is somehow at odds with the notion of being a liberal. In a famous attack, Pauline Kael wrote that “Roger & Me” was “gonzo demagoguery that made me feel cheap for laughing.” Funny — none of Rush’s listeners ever say that about him.
“I don’t think they like a guy who is hovering around 300 pounds and walks around in a ball cap who comes from a factory town and talks like where he comes from,” Mr. Moore said over lunch in Toronto the day before his premiere here. “People want to have polite conversation at their wine-and-cheese functions.”
Over lunch Mr. Moore seemed more than polite enough. In private conversation he speaks slowly and softly, broken up by an occasional Fat Albert laugh. Wearing a black Ralph Lauren T-shirt under a dark jacket, his head bowed over his plate of pasta, he could pass for a kindly Jesuit, even while trying to dab at the tomato sauce spilled down his front.
And for someone who has often been accused of playing fast and loose with facts, he seems to have an almost pathological precision about dates and specific incidents, framing sentences with, “The first reports came across the wire on Saturday morning in Traverse City, Michigan” and “Dana Milbank wrote about this on Page 10 of The Washington Post … .”
He decided, long before last year’s financial meltdown, that his next project would focus on what he saw as the central thread of his films: how greed and short-term thinking were undermining the middle-class life he knew growing up. And he decided to reverse his usual filmmaking process by making the argument first, then collecting his material.
“While I was making ‘Sicko’ I began to think: ‘I’ve been doing this for 20 years. How many more films can I make when I’m talking about the car industry in this film or Halliburton in that film or the insurance industry in this film?’ And I was thinking, ‘What if this would be your last documentary?’ Well, I wouldn’t pull my punches.”
As much as Mr. Moore sometimes plays a comic-book version of class warrior — Left-Thing vs. the Republic of Fear! — his politics are not grounded in class as much as in Roman Catholicism. Growing up in Michigan, he attended parochial school and intended to go into the seminary, inspired by the priests and nuns who, at least until Pope John Paul II, inherited a long tradition of social justice and activism in the American church.
“The nuns always made a point to take us to the Jewish temple for Passover seders,” he said. “They wanted to make it clear that the Jews had nothing to do with putting Jesus up on the cross.”
Along with a moral imperative, Catholicism also gave a method. Mr. Moore idolized the Berrigan brothers, the radical priests who introduced street theater into their activism, for example, mixing their own napalm to burn government draft records. Their actions were a form of political spectacle that, conceptually, is Marxist — workers seizing means of production and all that — and it influenced some of Mr. Moore’s best-remembered stunts.
The central conceit in “Roger & Me” was his futile pursuit to interview the chief executive of General Motors, Roger Smith. And in “Sicko,” he took ailing rescue workers from ground zero to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, because detainees there were receiving excellent health care. “Although I’m trying to say things I want to say politically, I primarily want to make an entertaining movie,” he said. “If the art of the movie doesn’t work, the politics won’t get through.”
To make sure the politics do get through, Mr. Moore invokes the privileges of much-better-financed producers and does market research. Jim Czarnecki, a documentary filmmaker who has worked with Mr. Moore for years, remembers screening “Fahrenheit 9/11” on eight consecutive Tuesday nights for select audiences, gathering feedback and recutting the film.
“We discovered what was clear, not clear, what worked and what didn’t,” he said, adding, “Michael works hard to craft his movies for a large audience.”
Mr. Moore’s obsessive reworking produces results, but can also exasperate his collaborators. The day before the screening of “Capitalism” he went to his sister Anne Moore, who produced the film, with a new idea for cutting a scene. She looked slightly exhausted in telling the story, then added, “but it was a good idea.”
David Johnson, who produced “Michael Moore Live!,” a one-man London stage show which ran in 2002, said that Mr. Moore would often rewrite the script in the morning, then deliver the new version “word perfect” that night. He added: “There is a frantic element that surrounds him. Obviously, it’s something he requires. It is emotional and sometimes spins out of control. But he’s also the first to apologize and that’s unique.”
Mr. Moore admits that his frenetic work habits — in addition to the documentaries, he’s written three best sellers — are also therapeutic. In the last few years his personal mood has wavered between what he calls “passive despair” and outright anger. The work, especially the humor writing, he said, keeps him “from finding out what’s on the other side of that anger.”
THERE ARE FEWER of the trademark Moore stunts in “Capitalism,” a sprawling 126-minute film that tries to connect data points across the economy, including the bailout, financial deregulation, privatized juvenile detention centers, the collapse of the American auto business (again), “dead peasant” insurance policies, Goldman Sachs’s influence in Washington, the crash of a commuter jet in Buffalo, the Florida condo market and an old-fashioned sit-in at a Chicago door-and-window factory.
In part the stunts are harder to pull off for a famous, rabble-rousing filmmaker. But at the movie’s heart is the original footage Mr. Moore’s shooters made of workers inside the occupied factory in Chicago (his was the only crew let in during the five-day strike) and of homeowners being evicted. Mr. Moore retains an ear for ordinary speech that is uninflected by the exigencies of morning talk shows or “SportsCenter” clichés.
In one scene the neighbor of an evicted family in Florida argues with the enforcer sent from the bank, telling him if too many people are locked out, “the value of everybody else’s house goes down.” That, on a more vast scale, is precisely the rationale offered by the White House for the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street.
“One of my favorite lines in the film, and I hoped it would provoke a reaction,” Mr. Moore said. “The bailout in and of itself — the idea of protecting people’s pension funds and hoping that everything doesn’t go down a rathole — that’s not a bad thing. It’s the way it was done.”
When it comes to the question of how exactly it should be done, the film gets a little blurred. Although he likes to quote Scripture, saying that the rich man will have a hard time entering into the kingdom of heaven, Mr. Moore doesn’t offer a specific marginal tax rate that might at least inch him along. Instead “Capitalism” tugs on the familiar autobiographical thread of Mr. Moore, the product of a middle-class upbringing spurned by the corporation and the system his family helped to build.
This theme — class warfare as unrequited love — runs through almost all his films, starting with “Roger & Me,” which can be read as a kind of screwball comedy with Roger Smith in the Irene Dunne role of unattainable idol. As Iggy Pop sings in the “Capitalism” theme song, a version of “Louie, Louie” that was specifically created for the film, “the capitalists just break your heart.”
After the screening in Toronto, Mr. Moore took questions from audience members eager to know exactly what they should do. He offered some broad suggestions, stressing that he worried that Democrats in the United States would begin to abandon Mr. Obama (whom he enthusiastically supports) now that the election is won.
Pushed harder on Mr. Obama, a gradualist seemingly out of step with Mr. Moore’s radical agenda of scrapping capitalism, Mr. Moore only said that he hoped for the best, but feared the influence of Goldman Sachs on the administration. Finally, he just shrugged.
“You know,” he said, “the next movie may be about him.”