An intelligent, provocative and, arguably, even necessary examination of the phenomenon of Michael Moore -- the man, his movies and his methods -- "Manufacturing Dissent" is not an assault by right-wing ideologues but a dissection by two self-described "progressive liberals," and has all the more impact for it.
An intelligent, provocative and, arguably, even necessary examination of the phenomenon of Michael Moore — the man, his movies and his methods — “Manufacturing Dissent” is not an assault by right-wing ideologues but a dissection by two self-described “progressive liberals,” and has all the more impact for it. Canadian documentarians Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine draw heavily upon interviews with Moore’s critics, acquaintances, former colleagues and longtime observers to fashion an even-handed but largely unflattering warts-and-all portrait of a firebrand filmmaker who’s described here even by a purported friend as “a bit megalomaniacal at times, with a paranoid tinge.” Pic could glean ample exposure through global fest and tube venues.
To a large degree, “Manufacturing Dissent” covers well-trod ground as it catalogs charges and critiques that have dogged Moore for decades. Even before he broke through with “Roger & Me” (1989), the first of his high-grossing (and highly influential) first-person documentaries, he started burning bridges and making enemies in the aftermath of his firing from Mother Jones magazine. (He claims he was removed as editor for political reasons; testimony here indicates that, no, he simply wasn’t a very good editor.) Later, as “Roger & Me” evolved into a genuine phenomenon, Moore — mindful of his image as a folksy, working-class maverick flying solo — allegedly claimed more credit than he was due (and, worse, gave no credit to deserving collaborators).
Interviewees offer various and sundry anecdotes meant to illustrate Moore’s worst sins of commission and omission: his penchant for embellishing (or manufacturing) autobiographical details; his willingness to underscore points through misleading cross-cutting and dubious alterations of chronology; his eagerness to enjoy the sort of lifestyle savored by the very corporate bigwigs he chronically skewers.
During some of these interviews, it’s difficult not to detect the sound of axes grinding, or the stench of long-simmering resentments. And a few talking heads seem downright petty. Still, there is a cumulative power and undeniable substance to the sheer volume of so much damning testimony.
And even when the testimony isn’t damning — when it’s actually admiring, grudgingly or otherwise — “Manufacturing Dissent” questions whether Moore might be hurting his avowed causes by inflating his own superstardom. On the flip side, more than one interviewee notes that Moore attained such celebrity in the first place because of the lack of other aggressively outspoken firebrands on the left. Fellow documentarian Errol Morris pointedly notes that Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” was “preaching to the choir” in a church where “people could pray together and attack the infidel Bush together.”
Moore might have helped himself — and offered valid counterarguments — had he agreed to one of Melnyk’s many requests for a one-on-one interview. Instead, as “Manufacturing Dissent” never tires of emphasizing, Moore repeatedly declined to sit still for an on-camera chat, usually claiming he was too busy with his “Slacker Uprising Tour,” which encouraged the youth vote against George Bush in the 2004 campaign. (Obviously, Melnyk and Caine borrowed a few pages from Moore’s own “Roger & Me.”)
The filmmakers undercut their case against Moore’s m.o. with their own minor fudging of chronological details. (Note how Moore appears to intro a Toronto preview of “Fahrenheit 9/11” even before its world premiere at Cannes.) But Moore’s handlers inadvertently allow them to reinforce their position as relentless seekers of truth: Melnyk and Caine are forcibly ejected during one public event spotlighting Moore and denied access to sound recording at another.
Oddly, “Manufacturing Dissent” spends comparatively little time parsing “Fahrenheit 9/11” for factual errors and/or misrepresentations. (Another Moore effort, “The Big One,” is ignored almost entirely.) Rather, filmmakers devote their fullest energies to fact-checking “Bowling for Columbine” and “Roger & Me,” neatly deflating the mythos of the latter by demonstrating that Moore actually did land an interview with elusive General Motors chief Roger Smith.
Did Moore serve a greater truth by consigning that interview to the cutting room floor? Or did he merely alter reality in order to make a more entertaining movie? Those are just a few of the questions that “Manufacturing Dissent” lobs toward the audience to open eyes, upend assumptions and spark debate. Pic ultimately comes off respectful of Moore’s idealism but critical of his methodology. But many viewers — including many who heretofore have admired Moore — may wind up far less generous in their revised appraisal of the filmmaker.
Tech values are on par for small-budget doc.