Feature Michael Moore has an uncanny knack for tapping into the cultural zeitgeist. So why do so many people loathe him?
Moore money, more problems
His new film, which has its Middle East premiere this week, turns the lens on capitalism just as the world's economies have tumbled. He has an uncanny knack for tapping into the cultural zeitgeist. So why do so many people loathe Michael Moore? Ali Jaafar explains. Michael Moore is in the building. I know this because I am hurriedly being ushered into a hotel room as a security detail more suitable for a head of state descends on the corridor to clear any potential threat.
Moore's entourage of heavily built bodyguards is an indication of just how many feathers the filmmaker has ruffled during a 20-year career in which he has become arguably the most successful documentary filmmaker of all time. He has achieved the rare feat of winning both an Academy Award and the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and has garnered legions of fans and detractors in equal measure. His latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, receives its regional premiere at Abu Dhabi's Middle East International Film Festival this week. Having previously tackled the decline of America's industrial heartland in Roger & Me, its chronic gun problem in Bowling For Columbine, failing healthcare system in Sicko and most famously, the September 11 attacks and the war in Iraq in Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore now sets his sights on the very economic system that underpins American society.
Moore started work on his latest establishment-bashing project long before the near-meltdown of the world's financial institutions last September. Nevertheless, it is a measure of his uncanny ability to tap into the cultural zeitgeist that his latest project arrives during a global recession that has brought hitherto obscure terms such as credit-default swaps, derivatives and leveraging into the popular lexicon. "The economic system is unfair, unjust, undemocratic and goes against the principles of what we say we believe in when we talk about democracy and ethical behaviour," Moore says. "I'm not an economist. I just know what I see." Capitalism: A Love Story is filled with astounding statistics and ultimately emerges as a full-frontal assault on the principle of the pursuit of profit as the dominant driving force in American life. That premise also has resonance here in the Emirates, where in the past six months, one in 10 people is reported to have lost their job. Given Moore's propensity for tub-thumping, it is surprising just how softly spoken and thoughtful he is off screen. Wearing his trademark baseball cap and sipping a soft drink, he is a far cry from the larger-than-life figure we have grown accustomed to seeing challenging the powers that be. That doesn't stop him from seething with righteous indignation at what he sees as the iniquities of American society. "We have a responsibility to those who are the have-nots," he says. "Until we change the fundamentals of our economy, how it runs and how it works, we're going to continue to have problems and they're going to continue to get worse despite how well the Dow Jones may be doing. "That should be the true indicator of how we define success in America." Capitalism: A Love Story is a paean to what Moore sees as America's lost middle class. Heavily inspired, as ever, by the example of his hometown of Flint, Michigan - a formerly thriving industrial base for America's car industry, now lying in disrepair and virtual destitution - Moore sets out a persuasive, if simplistic, account of the erosion of America's middle class in favour of a mega-rich financial elite. Laying the blame firmly at the door of former president Ronald Reagan, as well as subsequent Republican and Democrat leaders, he launches a scathing attack on the policies of deregulation that allowed Wall Street to enjoy unparalleled influence and impunity. One of the film's best scenes has Moore wrapping yellow crime-scene tape around the offices of AIG, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan Chase and the New York Stock Exchange. Elsewhere he employs his familiar practice of telling the heart-rending tales of ordinary people exploited by the system. One jaw-dropping revelation is that companies such as Wal-Mart regularly take out life insurance policies on their employees without their knowledge, allowing the companies to make money from their deaths without the families of the individuals benefiting. Most poignantly, he documents the stories of a handful of families being evicted from their homes. In one instance, a family is paid US$1,000 (Dh3,670) by the bank kicking them out of their house to remove all traces of their possessions. This would usually be the job of a private contractor, but so desperate are they for the bank's cheque that the family in question accepts the humiliating task of destroying their own property. It is in moments like this where Capitalism: A Love Story is most effective. Elsewhere, Moore is waylaid by an overly ambitious approach. In its sprawling 126 minutes, the film tries to cover everything from the US government's $700 billion (Dh2.57 trillion) bailout in the final days of George W Bush's presidency through to privatised juvenile detention centres, the collapse of the American car industry, the pitiful salaries on offer in the aviation business and the pernicious influence of the investment bank Goldman Sachs on Washington power brokers. The result is a work that veers between provoking disbelief at the mismanagement of America's financial institutions as well as frustration over a lack of focus by its maker. In attempting to tackle a subject as complex and far-reaching as the perceived evils of capitalism, Moore has almost bitten off more than he can chew. That said, his calling out of America's top financial executives - essentially a call to arms to the American people to seize back their country - is an invigorating experience. "These people have destroyed their country and are on the way to destroying their planet," says Moore. "They have to be stopped in their tracks." Most filmmakers calling on their fellow citizens to overthrow the ruling elite would be dismissed out of hand, but Moore holds a unique position as the most influential social commentator on America's left. Born into a middle-class, Roman Catholic family in Michigan - his father spent his entire career at General Motors - Moore initially followed his father on to the assembly lines. From there he witnessed first-hand the downsizing of America's industrial base as he and scores of other workers lost their jobs under Reagan's economic policies during the 1980s. Moore became determined to expose the injustices around him, and set about making a documentary tracing his farcical attempts to interview Roger Smith, then chief executive of General Motors. The resulting film, Roger & Me, went on to win the 1989 Toronto International Film Festival's audience prize, a remarkable result for a man still surviving at the time on weekly unemployment cheques of US$98 (Dh360). From there, Moore's cachet grew as he embarked on a career that saw him write bestselling books, produce satirical TV shows and eventually award-winning films. His 2002 feature Bowling For Columbine, which traced the events of a high school shooting and linked them to America's obsession with the right to bear arms, confirmed Moore as one of the most provocative documentary makers of his generation and won him his first Academy Award. It was Fahrenheit 9/11, released in 2004 with the stated ambition of bringing down George W Bush's presidency, which catapulted the filmmaker to global acclaim and controversy. Looking back now at Moore's film, an excoriating account of how the Bush administration lied to the American people about the reasons for launching the war on Iraq and manipulated the national trauma over the September 11 attacks, it is easy to forget just how explosive it was. At the time, the American media had more or less gone along with the Bush administration, publishing its claims as fact without scrutiny. Moore put a stop to that with a film that became a cultural phenomenon, not to mention grossing more than $100 million (Dh367.3 million) at the US box office alone. While the film didn't succeed in ousting Bush at the 2004 presidential election, it marked the most explicit turning point in his presidency and approval ratings. "No film can guarantee the outcome of an election, but we fired the first salvo and it only got worse for him from that point on," says Moore. "We sowed the seeds of telling the American people about who he really was and what he was up to. In the end, Bush won the election because he won Ohio by 100,000 votes. So it was only 100,000 votes that made the difference." Having established himself as the bête noire of the American right, Moore used his new-found status to tackle another hugely contentious issue with 2007's Sicko, about the country's failing healthcare system. While the film was still a sizeable success for a documentary - grossing more than $25 million (Dh91.8 million) in the US - this time Moore's critics were ready for him. He became the target of a smear campaign that included leaking a full version of the film on the internet and found himself under investigation by the government for travelling to Cuba, still for all intents and purposes illegal for US citizens. To have a sense of the passions that health care stirs in America, one need only look at the reaction to how president Barack Obama's plans to reform the system: town hall meetings up and down the country; right-wing commentators branding Obama a communist, socialist and America's worst enemy. "I make movies because I like to make movies. I feel honoured to be part of this art form," Moore says. "If it was just about the politics or the things I wanted to say, I could do that in a number of ways. Ultimately I'm trying to tell a story and I take the long- term view. "Whether we're going to impact something in just a few months, or it takes a little longer, I'm still going to go after people and things which I think are causing a lot of harm." The figure of George W Bush was a perfect foil for Moore, a suitable joker to his baseball-capped crusader. Bush's departure from the political stage leaves Moore without his greatest source of material. Now he finds himself living in an America where Barack Obama is president and the Democratic party is in charge of both legislative houses in Congress. Moore becomes emotional when discussing the new president, of whom he is a huge admirer - but for whom he still sees huge challenges ahead. "It was a very emotional day for me last November 4 personally, as well as for millions of people around the world, that eight years of this madness had come to an end and that we had elected somebody who believes we need to share the wealth and believes in a moral and ethical code," Moore says. The recent outcry over Obama's attempts to reform health care in the country underlies just how much work remains to be done. Rather than criticise the government, Moore now believes that he and his fellow filmmakers must help their president enact his progressive social agenda. "When Franklin Roosevelt was elected and had what was considered a radical agenda and was called a socialist, artists, filmmakers and writers began producing works that spoke to Roosevelt's issues and his dreams," Moore says. "The films of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, writers like John Steinbeck, were like the popular front with the masses and helped put people in favour of what Roosevelt was trying to accomplish. Hollywood filmmakers played a role in that. "All kinds of films can help President Obama by dealing with the tenor of the times and I think we're starting to see that with films like Stephen Soderbergh's The Informant! and Jason Reitman's In The Air. People like myself, George Clooney and Soderbergh need to create art that is of these times." Moore is also setting up a documentary film company, using his own sizeable resources, to encourage filmmakers. "I've been very privileged to walk through this door and I want to keep the door open and help as many people through this door as possible," he says. With that, he lifts his hulking frame out the door of the hotel suite as his bodyguards once more move into action. For Moore, and those around him, are all too aware of the cost of continuing to fight the good fight. Capitalism: A Love Story will be screened October 16 at 9.30pm, Emirates Palace, and October 17 at 2.30pm, Cinestar 3