Back in the day when newspapers were the predominate means of getting information one of the most popular pages was the editorial. There, informed, often scholarly people would express their opinions on topics vital to the readers. Slowly this function has largely been supplanted by the film documentary. This branch of cinema has revealed what has been hidden bringing to light truth and offering opinions on the uncertain. The thing is many documentaries were dry, not the sort of film that would appeal to the masses. During the awards season these films were in categories that many viewers used for a bathroom break. One man pushed the documentary into the lime light; making films that would stir up as much controversy as the topics they examined. This man is Michael Moore. He burst on the scene in 1988 with his film ‘Roger & Me’ aptly subtitled ‘A Humorous Look at How General Motors Destroyed Flint, Michigan’. In it Moore tried to track down the then head of General Motors, Roger Smith, to question him about the drastic financial and emotional impact the plant closing in Flint had. This was a personal matter for Moore who grew up in Flint. Within the film Moore kept trying but never succeeded in getting the sought after interview. He then went on to one hit documentary after another but the message he wanted to get out was shadowed in controversy. Many claim that Moore used too many tricks of editing or out right falsified scenes in his films. The old saying ‘what is good for the goose is good for the gander’ come to mind with the reaction of another documentary film maker, Rick Caine. He set out to make a film about Moore and his tactics. Part of his plan was to obtain an interview with Moore giving him an opportunity to defend himself. History seems to repeat itself; Caine was not able to have the sit down with Moore. What did come about was a documentary about Moore, ‘Manufacturing Dissent: Uncovering Michael Moore’. There is more (no pun intended) irony here as Caine uses Moore’s own techniques and methods to present a film about him. Caine and his partner Debbie Melnyk set out on a two year journey to uncover the truth about a man known for uncovering the truth.
This film is extremely well done with style and intelligence that is rarely seen in documentaries. Caine and Melnyk have both stated that originally they both admired Moore and this was to be a far more complimentary piece. As they dug into his films and the methods used to produce them they felt it was important to bring out the inconsistencies in Moore’s body of work. Since Moore claimed he was too busy touring campuses to get the youth of America to vote against President George W. Bush in the then upcoming reelection, the pair of Canadian documentarians had to rely on film clips of Moore’s statements augmented by interviews with long time associates of Moore, former co-workers, notable critics and most of all, his own films. This film opens with a clip of Baghdad on March 19, 2003. The city is lit by the bombs exploding all around. The shot shifts to four days later in Hollywood as the final preparations are being made for the Academy Awards. Security is higher than ever even to the point of banning the press from the usual red carpet interviews with the stars in attendance. A short way off from the venue a group of anti-war protesters voice their opinions. Scenes of the dead and wounded in Baghdad are juxtaposed with shots of the protesters being arrested. While all of this is going on a tuxedo clad Michael Moore emerges from a stretch limonene waving at his adoring fans. The winner that night for Best Documentary was Moore’s ‘Bowling for Columbine’. His speech talks about us living in fictitious times. These times are marred by fictitious elections leading to a fictitious president. The crowd is a mixture of boos and cheers. Caine and Melnyk were impressed with his post ceremony comments about free speech and being an American. Speaking out against the war and the President in a forum usually reservered for thanking co-workers was a controversial move for Moore. Interviews with his producer and co-winner that night, Michael Donovan and long time Moore friend Sam Riddle both were certain that he would something shocking if he won and that Moore would do what he wanted. They both agreed that he had something planed. Later while speaking to a group of people Moore claimed that the speech was completely off the cuff. This got the film makers thinking that Michael Moore may not be what he presents in public.
Most of the film dissects two of the main films by Moore, ‘Bowling for Columbine’ and ‘Roger & Me’. The more recent, and some would say most controversial ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ is largely not discussed. There are charges that Moore did in fact have an interview with Roger Smith but left it on the cutting room floor in order to make a more dramatic statement about the lack of concern senior management of big corporations have for the working people who made their fortunes. In another part of the film Moore was trying to show that Canadians feel safer than their counterparts in the States. In the town of Sarnia, Ontario he goes door to door testing whether they are locked. The ones that were are left out in editing. One of the producers of ‘Columbine’ stated to the film makers that only about 40% were unlocked. Moore was set on proving that since the Canadians have much tighter gun control they are safer than Americans. Other scenes show than some of the quotes Moore uses of the President were taken out of context and spun to prove the point Moore was trying to make.
Moore still claims that there was never an interview with Roger Smith. He admits that he did have about five minutes to chat with the CEO after a shareholders meeting but that was it. Mostly Moore has ignored his critics. He has refrained from giving them additional attention by not confronting them. Not only are Moore’s films under fire here the pair goes back to his early days of editing the Mother Jones magazine in San Francisco. Most agree that he was fired but Moore maintains that it was for his political views not his work.
To be fair here some of the film does come across as just a means to discredit Moore. What might matter to some is the fact that most Moore critics tend to be right wing inclined and pro-administration. Caine and Melnyk are most definitely on the left of the political and social spectrum. They may just be disillusioned when they realized that Moore may have tampered with the facts presented in his films. If this is a case it is like Dorothy when she saw the man behind the curtain. In any case this film is well done and should be watched, especially if you are a fan of Moore’s. It will not change many minds, the lines are well drawn in the fundamental controversies of Moore’s films but it does show another side for consideration. The danger here is whether Caine and Melnyk used too many of Moore’s techniques in the filming of this movie. Get it, watch it and decide for yourself.