Moore's latest film sets off a political firestorm

Given the fusillade of attacks on his character since his film “Fahrenheit 9/11″ won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, you’d think Michael Moore would have lost his sense of humor by now — or curled up into a fetal ball. But there’s a resilience to this outsized force, and he doesn’t cower easily. “I’m not one of these wimpy liberals who will just, you know, take this from these people,” he’ll tell you.

If Moore’s been hardened by the experience, you’d never know it. In person he comes across like the opposite of the reckless megalomaniac portrayed by his many detractors. His demeanor is seductively teddy bear-like — warm, sensitive, well-meaning.

Even in his films — as he attempts to expose corporate malfeasance and political corruption — his first instinct is to gain the interviewee’s confidence in a patient, non-confrontational way. If they’re later exposed in an unflattering light, they might not know what hit them.

Moore’s both a charmer and a provocateur. And it’s this duality that makes him a distinctive documentarian: Throw the softballs and then ask the hard questions. How else would Moore be able to get his crew into the Lockheed missile facility in Littleton, Colo., in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shooting? Or waltz into Charlton Heston’s manse to quiz the National Rifle Assn. president about the insensitivity of holding gun rallies in the wake of local firearms tragedies involving children in Denver and Flint, Mich.?

Some accuse Moore of ambush tactics, others applaud his tenacity. He spends the entire length of “Roger & Me” tracking Roger Smith, the chairman of General Motors, over the course of several months. Along the way we’re exposed to Deputy Fred, who’s evicting dozens of Flint residents who’ve lost their jobs due to the GM plant closure and can’t pay their rent. We see the bunny lady happily skinning a rabbit for the benefit of Moore’s lens — the sign outside her home advertising “Pets or Meat.” We see Bob Eubanks, host of “The Dating Game” and former Flint resident, making off-color Jewish jokes. There’s something about Moore that makes people open up.

But the controversial filmmaker doesn’t always bag the big interview. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, John Ashcroft — those members of the White House inner circle made the elusive Smith seem like an easy get. It’s not as if Moore, oft accused of a lack of balance in his documentaries, didn’t try bagging big Beltway game. In a way, his fame got in the way.

“Well, first we were ignored,” says Moore. “And then we were laughed at. And then it was just a no. We tried to get through to other people who had White House credentials to see what we could get. But generally I have a very hard time, these days especially, getting people like that to go on camera with me.”

The awful truth

Standing ovations for Moore’s film at Cannes, New York and L.A. indicate that Hollywood has become more politically emboldened as the Bush administration continues to suffer a string of foreign policy setbacks. Michael Eisner is not among those joining the applause. The chief executive of Disney, whose money funded “Fahrenheit 9/11″ — a film that is critical, to say the least, of the White House and its warpath — refused to distribute the film through subsidiary label Miramax.

It could very well be a position that Eisner lives to regret. Given Eisner’s fractious dealings with Miramax and Pixar and the company’s recent box office woes, Disney could use a hit. Consensus is growing that “Fahrenheit 9/11″ is shaping up as one of the year’s box office events. Steven Spielberg told USA Today that he couldn’t wait to see it and predicted it would “make $100 million.”

Usually, when controversy’s good for business, politics take a back seat. “The great equalizer, and the wonderful flaw of capitalism, is that ultimately it isn’t about politics,” says Moore. “It isn’t about trying to support or suppress one’s view — just so long as it makes money, we’ll put it out there.”

In a recent column, Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart wrote that the time he spent in Cannes with Moore, whom he interviewed on a panel, was akin to “hanging out with a Beatle.” The parallel is not far-fetched. Like the Fab Four, Moore was initially dismissed as a passing fad and a threat to traditional values — by Hollywood, by the more insular documentary community, by journalists and critics who questioned his polemical approach to filmmaking.

Now those very camps afford him the rock-star treatment. The “Fahrenheit” screenings on both coasts drew a parade of big names, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Ashton and Demi to big-ticket filmmakers like Michael Bay and Gary Ross to New Line topper Bob Shaye. Moore’s recent U.S./Euro book tour for “Dude, Where’s My Country?” attracted fans by the tens of thousands. Google’s search engine reveals more than 2 million hits responding to Moore Web sites, both pro and con. And his new movie is widening to 868 theaters today, with advance tickets selling at a brisk pace, according to the Moore camp.

“He’s helped remove the stigma of documentaries being the stepchild of the film business,” says Sandra Ruch, executive director of the International Documentary Association, which voted Moore’s last film, “Bowling for Columbine,” No. 1 on the list of top 20 documentaries of all time (“Roger & Me” was No. 3). “He’s dispelled the notion that documentaries are boring and didactic but instead can be provocative and entertaining, because there’s always humor in his films. He’s the one documentary filmmaker who has created bidding wars with his features, which was practically unheard of.”

Moore has become a lightning rod in more ways than one. Not only is he the latest catalyst in the public feud between Eisner and the Weinsteins — who bought the film back from Disney and are distributing through their independent entity Fellowship Adventure Group, in partnership with IFC Films and Lions Gate Films — but he’s using his movie as a tool to unseat Bush in the upcoming presidential election (see related story on page A1).

Deadly sin of apathy

Moore has claimed repeatedly that he is not so much pro-Kerry as anti-Bush. In fact, the filmmaker expresses concern that Sen. John Kerry’s support for a sustained military presence in Iraq will cost him the election.

But beyond any partisan leanings, Moore’s stated goal is to rally the disenfranchised and light a fire under the apathetic. He feels the media is just as responsible as the Bush Cabinet for disseminating misinformation and generating fear, complacency and ignorance.

“I understand why the American public was fooled by (the Bush administration’s) lies,” he told the New Yorker in a piece that was published in February. “We live in a system of enforced ignorance. The way the media works, the way our education system works, it’s all about keeping us stupid.”

Moore’s recent appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman” would seem to bear this out. Granted, part of Letterman’s charm is the aw-shucks Hollywood outsider role he plays, rarely displaying much knowledge about his subjects nor indicating that he’s done his homework. Letterman’s continual refrain was “a smarter man than me” might question the veracity of Moore’s claims. The audience ate it up, but the burden was left to Moore to steer the conversation toward substantive issues.

If Moore is accused of having an agenda, or being overly subjective in his work, he doesn’t necessarily feel it’s his responsibility to achieve balance. There is attitude in his films, yes, and satire and sarcasm, and even barely veiled contempt. But there are equal doses of humanity, of pathos, of sensitivity. George Butler, the director of “Pumping Iron” whose upcoming documentary on John Kerry is titled “Tour of Duty,” calls Moore “our generation’s version of Jonathan Swift.”

“The documentary filmmaker’s mission is to have a point of view and to express that point of view,” says Moore. “I think most filmmakers, most artists, have a point of view. Whether it’s political or not is immaterial. It’s each artist’s vision of how they see things.

“I just saw the Tom Hanks-Spielberg movie (‘The Terminal’),” Moore continues. “You could say that Steven Spielberg has a point of view about immigrants, and that he poses the question of whether we have become too closed of a society. Do we call Steven Spielberg a propagandist? Do we call his work agitprop? Do reviewers suggest he has an agenda? Because, clearly — let’s be honest — he does. He has many agendas, all of which I agree with.”

Moore, says Newsday film critic John Anderson, “is certainly practicing advocacy journalism but what’s wrong with that? Especially in an environment in which Bush seems to be getting a free ride and the public apparently needs to be sledgehammered with facts before it understands how corrupt the war is. Besides, anyone who writes for a living knows that objectivity is a pipe dream.”

Just the facts, ma’am

Clearly, Moore is sitting on top of the world. Not only has he gone from Oscar bogeyman to Hollywood’s fifth Beatle, but this position of strength has spurred him to take on detractors who claim he plays fast and loose with the facts in more forceful ways.

“Anyone who says that is libeling me, and from now on, I’m going to sue them,” he says without equivocation. “I spend a lot of money on researchers, fact-checkers and lawyers poring over everything to make sure it’s solid, and that’s why I never get sued.”

One charge, brought up more than once in print over recent weeks, is that he distorted the scene in “Columbine” where he’s given a gun on the spot for opening a checking account at a Michigan bank. “I put up raw footage on my Web site (MichaelMoore.com) so that you see me going into the bank, bringing the gun out of the vault,” explains Moore. “And (the teller) says they’ve got 500 guns in the vault. It didn’t take weeks, it didn’t take days, it took minutes. They faxed through the firearms check. If you’ve ever bought a gun, or if you’ve ever been to a gun store, you can get a gun in five minutes.”

Moore says that during the course of writing four books; producing, directing and writing four documentary features, and creating two TV shows — NBC’s “TV Nation” and Channel 4’s “The Awful Truth,” which aired on Bravo in the U.S. — he’s only been sued twice. One of those suits was filed by the brother of Timothy Nichols, who was featured in a rather frightening clip in “Bowling From Columbine,” and is still pending. The other, a $4.5 million defamation judgment won by a waste management company in Texas, was eventually thrown out by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I was raised by Jesuits,” continues Moore, whose “Dude, Where’s My Country?” is so heavily footnoted that he appears to leave nothing to chance. “I had an education that taught me that this kind of research and fact-checking was essential, especially if you’re going to present a political argument.”

Filmmaker first

In response to the notion that his winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes for “9/11″ — placing him in the company of such auteurs as Michelangelo Antonioni, Francis Ford Coppola and jury president Quentin Tarantino — was a political gesture in a country oft maligned by U.S. conservatives, Moore is equally adamant.

“(The Cannes jurors) made it very clear that they gave this to me because of the filmmaking and not because of the politics,” he says. “Tarantino made it very clear that he’s not a political person.”

“Fahrenheit 9/11″ is certainly Moore’s most ambitious film. In it Moore asserts that the Bush family’s ties to Saudi royals and the Bin Laden family have compromised national security; that the current administration drummed up a climate of fear in order to justify its invasion of Iraq; that big business, including Halliburton, for which Vice President Dick Cheney served as CEO, is benefiting from the U.S occupation; and that most soldiers recruited into the war effort come from impoverished communities for which enlistment is the only method of survival.

He also portrays a U.S. media seduced into kid-glove coverage of the White House. In light of this, such scenes in the film as the presidential motorcade being pelted by eggs and thousands of demonstrators in the streets of Washington protesting the election results on Inauguration Day seem startling.

“(The film) showed footage that made me keep asking myself, ‘why haven’t I seen this before?,’ ” says comedian Bill Maher. “How come a guy with a high school education is out-scooping journalists? When you see it all assembled, it makes things very clear.”

If Media Watchdog was an elected position, Moore might be persuaded to get on the stump. But don’t expect him to run for public office anytime soon.

“I think I serve a better purpose on the outside looking in, keeping my lens trained on (politicians) so that the public can receive information that they’re not getting through the mainstream media,” says Moore. “I think I probably perform a better service doing that.”

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