With his controversial and probing documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine, and books like Dude, Where’s My Country?, Michael Moore insistently pokes at the powerful in corporate and political America. His dress sloppy, his beard scraggly and a baseball cap almost permanently affixed to his head, Moore has set himself up as an Average Joe with a camera, an ax to grind and a hope to force change in the country.
Michael Moore -- filmmaker, author, on-camera pest to those in corporate power -- has filmed two of the most successful film documentaries of all-time and wrote the top nonfiction bestseller for 2002. But his most famous act on camera may be one that he didn't film himself.
Even those who weren't watching the Oscar telecast in the spring of 2003 must have heard about it during the aftermath. Moore, collecting his best documentary Oscar for Bowling for Columbine and joined by his fellow nominees onstage, proclaimed his dedication to nonfiction in his work and took aim at the fiction he said he saw all around him.
"We like nonfiction, and we live in fictitious times," he said to a mix of boos and cheers. "We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons. Whether it's the fiction of duct tape or fiction of orange alerts we are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you. And any time you got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up."
At least it was short.
Moore has been telling truth to power -- or, to his critics, his version of the truth -- long before his groundbreaking 1994 documentary Roger & Me attempted to corner the General Motors chairman Roger Smith on why his company closed its plant in Flint, Mich., in favor of 11 new plants in Mexico.
He founded the alternative newspaper The Flint Voice in the 1970s, started a weekly radio show in Flint, and became the youngest school board member in the country when he ran for office in 1972. He was fired from the liberal magazine Mother Jones, reportedly for liberal activism.
But it was Roger & Me that made him something of an icon for the left. Heavy, sloppily dressed, almost always sporting a scruffy beard and a baseball cap, Moore is an everyman with a camera crew. And he has bones to pick with so many in power: General Motors, Kmart, the National Rifle Association, the Republican Party.
New York Times columnist Frank Rich looks hopefully to Moore as the left's rallying counterpoint to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, a welcome gust of humor from the deadly earnestness of the liberal movement.
"Like Mr. Limbaugh at his least grandiose best," Rich wrote in 2003, "Mr. Moore's persona is more funny than angry, more everyman than show-biz. He is not, as he puts it, ''a didactic, wimpy kind of liberal' -- one of those whiners that makes audiences reach for the remote faster than you can say ‘Phil Donahue.' Mr. Moore may not be subtle as a filmmaker or a polemicist, but the grandstanding glee of his broad strokes is precisely what makes him succeed as a showman."
Anyone familiar with Moore's tone on camera – from Roger & Me to Bowling for Columbine to his short-lived television program TV Nation, sort of an extended, edgy Candid Camera-style prank afflicted on the rich – will recognize him in print as well.
"As someone with a penchant for demagoguery, someone who thinks that the present political structure needs ‘to be brought down and removed and replaced with a whole new system that we control,' Mr. Moore plays to the camera even when he's doing it on the page," Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times in 2003, reviewing his book Dude, Where's My Country?
In his first book, Downsize This he jabbed at downsizing-happy corporate executives and other piñatas favored by the left. He followed that up with Stupid White Men he examined the new century after the bust of the New Economy and prayed for Jesse Helms to get kissed by a man. And, in 2003, he released Dude, Where's My Country? calling for a regime change in Washington. (One tidbit: The Internal Revenue Service actually has a specific form for tax refunds of $1 million or more. Perhaps some of you have seen it.)
With his first two books, Moore was something of a lone liberal voice on the best sellers lists. By the time his third was released, he had to muscle his way through people like Al Franken and Molly Ivins to get to his audience.
"When Stupid White Men appeared, its brand of name-calling was more of a novelty on the best-seller list. Now it is luxuriantly in flower," Maslin noted in her Times piece. "Mr. Moore will no doubt share a readership with Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them (which is funnier), Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose's Bushwhacked (which is better informed) and Joe Conason's Big Lies (also better informed), if not with Bill O'Reilly's Who's Looking Out for You? (politically opposite, but no less self-serving). But Mr. Moore, through real conviction along with showboating personality, does make himself the most galvanizing and accessible of the lot."
Liberals rub their hands with glee for equal time against Rush Limbaugh (who termed his own radio program "equal time.") But for some, Moore's brand of rhetoric is good news for the conservatives, not liberals.
"If this book is what passes for a political manifesto, then Tom Paine is truly dead," Alan Wolfe wrote of Stupid in The New Republic 2002. "Moore peppers his book with factoids, weird memos, open letters, bizarre lists, LOTS OF SENTENCES IN CAPITAL LETTERS, and name-dropping accounts of how he happens to know some members of the Bush family personally. It is meant to be satire, I suppose; but the only person skewered is Moore, who proves himself to be the only stupid white man around. Anyone bent on redistributing income in favor of the rich could not get a luckier break than having a critic like Michael Moore."
Good To Know
Moore is a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association.
He is an enormous success in Germany.Publishers Weekly in 2003 reported that his book Stupid White Men sold 1.1 million copies during its first year in print in Germany, more than double than in the United States. Even the English version made the Spiegel bestseller list, the only book outside the Harry Potter series to do so.
Moore tangled with his publisher over the content of Stupid. HarperCollins had demanded changes in "offensive" material in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, but, with help from angry e-mails from librarians, the book was released unchanged.