Back in the mid-eighties, a filmmaker named Kevin Rafferty decided he wanted to include footage from a Ku Klux Klan rally in his documentary about white supremacists. A colleague suggested Rafferty give Michael Moore a call. The editor of a progressive weekly newspaper in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, Moore regularly embarrassed neo-Nazis and other right-wingers on his local radio show, so he was able to set up a lunch date with the grand wizard of the Klan and secure an invitation to a weekend rally. There would be Klan weddings, cross burnings, lectures. Even a barbecue! But when Rafferty’s crew arrived from New York, they got cold feet. “They didn’t want to be on camera, because they thought the Klan guys might come after them,” Moore recalls today. “So I said, ‘I’ll do it. I’m not afraid to be on camera.’”
As they say in the business, the kid was a natural. Early in the film, Moore tells a tan, attractive blonde wearing an SS armband, jackboots and a stylish blue neck scarf, “You don’t look like a typical Nazi.”
Flattered, the woman giggles sweetly.
“You could be on a Coppertone commercial,” Moore continues.
The woman beams.
Then, though Moore has not asked, she says softly, “I’m not just against Jewish people. It’s also blacks.”
Working on Blood in the Face inspired Moore to make his own documentary. A year later, before he began Roger and Me, Moore called on Rafferty for a tutorial. Rafferty taught Moore how to use a camera and helped to shoot and edit the film. Moore subsequently discovered not only that Rafferty had friends in high places but that the phrase “friends in high places” was a gross understatement: Rafferty’s uncle is George Herbert Walker Bush.
There’s a scene in Fahrenheit 9/11 where George W. Bush, during an early campaign event, spots Moore in the crowd and shouts, “Why don’t you go find real work?” “Right before that line, he was going, ‘Heyyy, Mike,’” Moore says, accentuating his Dubya impression with a wink and a stagy finger-point. “Kevin’s his cousin. They had a screening of Roger and Me at Camp David.” Moore chuckles, then continues, deadpan, “I’m grateful to any family that helped me become a filmmaker. I can never forget that.”
Unless you’re the Democratic candidate for president, you have probably formed an opinion about, and perhaps even seen, Fahrenheit 9/11. (John Kerry has repeatedly insisted that he has no plans to see Moore’s film, though it would seem his speech writers have seen it: A line about the Saudi royal family in Kerry’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention drew huge applause, and, more recently, he’s been referencing Bush’s white-knuckled, seven-minute reading of “The Pet Goat” on the morning of September 11th.)
The movie’s success — it had grossed $115 million at press time, making it the most profitable documentary ever — has made Moore a real-life summer action hero for the left. Who needs Bruce Willis running from a fireball when you can watch a fat guy in jeans and a Michigan State Spartans cap taking on an entire Republican administration? Meanwhile, on the right, Fahrenheit 9/11 has spawned a mini cottage industry of anti-Moore propaganda, including the best-selling book Michael Moore Is a Big Fat Stupid White Man, co-written by an attorney who represented the National Rifle Association. “I’m honored,” Moore says. “To be the object of so much venom from all the wrong people, you get the sense that you might be doing something right.”
Doing what’s right, for Moore, at the moment, means one thing: unseating George W. Bush. With Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore is not simply promoting a movie. He’s campaigning against a sitting president. Moore turned down an offer to do a one-man show on Broadway so he could focus on the election. He plans to send film crews to Florida in November in case there’s a repeat of the 2000 voting debacle. And though Fahrenheit 9/11 is the odds-on favorite for a Best Documentary Oscar, Moore is seriously considering not submitting the film for nomination so he could instead broadcast it on PBS, cable or even a network on November 1st. (Academy rules regulate as to when a nominated film can be shown on television.) Critics would certainly call the above gesture a publicity stunt. Not that Moore would disagree. He has been publicizing the film nonstop since its release, hoping to sway as many potential voters as possible.
“What I need is sleep,” Moore says. “I’ve had no time off since Stupid White Men came out in February 2002. But we’re in a precarious time. If you were in the French Resistance, would you say, ‘Sorry, I need a vacation in the South of France?’”
The previous quote is a prime example of Moore as rhetorical ninja. He did not come right out and say, “George W. Bush is a Nazi.” He, in fact, delivered the “vacation” part of the quote in a jokey Pepé Le Pew accent. Such tactics infuriate Moore’s enemies, along with some allies. Others simply allow themselves to be vicariously thrilled. “People who criticize him for not being a traditional documentary filmmaker are missing the point,” says New York Times cultural columnist Frank Rich. “He’s not trying to be The New York Times. He’s an entertainer and a provocateur.”
At the moment, Moore is behind the wheel of his red Chrysler minivan, giving me a tour of Davison, the little town just outside Flint where he spent his childhood. He and his wife/producer, Kathleen Glynn, a fellow Flint native, moved back to the area two years ago when their daughter started college. They still have a Manhattan apartment but now return to New York largely for work. In Davison, we drive past rolling farmland, a quaint Main Street and Moore’s favorite doughnut shop.
“If you spent a day with me here,” Moore tells me later, after stopping to chat with a rather portly former neighbor, “you’d see I’m the thinnest fucking guy in town!” Moore looses another hoarse cackle. Though his critics like to paint a portrait of him as a ranting lunatic, and though Moore himself can be hectoring and sanctimonious in his films, in person he’s jolly in the way only men of a certain girth can be jolly, his very size screaming bon vivant.
Oddly enough, Fahrenheit 9/11 may be Moore’s least provocative film. The suggestion that corporations have as great a responsibility to their employees as to their shareholders, as Moore claims in Roger and Me and The Big One, or that American society is driven by a self-destructive cycle of fear and consumption, as he insists in Bowling for Columbine, is far more radical than the central thrust of Fahrenheit 9/11. Pointing out that our Middle East policy is steered by monied interests, that the Iraq war has been a disaster and that Bush is a moron is hardly shocking. What has resonated in the film are images that most Americans never got to see in the mainstream media, whether it’s Bush reading “The Pet Goat” or slick Marine recruiters targeting underclass kids in Flint or violent footage driving home the cost of war on both sides of the conflict.
“What you hear most if you’re standing in the lobby, listening to people, is, ‘I don’t remember seeing Bush sitting there for seven minutes,’” Moore says. “That’s what’s shocking to people. People are like, ‘Shouldn’t I be seeing this stuff on TV for free? Why is a guy in a baseball cap with a high school education telling me this?’”
Moore is often called a Limbaugh of the left, but that seems unfair. For one thing, Moore has never done drugs, even though he was one of the first hippies at Davison High School. “I had hair halfway down my back,” recalls Moore as we drive past a cornfield. “All of my friends did drugs. I was always afraid — I mean, at that age, I felt like I was already out there, and I didn’t need any enhancement.
“But it’s not like I’m making a judgment or that I would never do drugs in the future,” the fifty-year-old continues. “I mean, I just ate my first tomato three years ago.” Really? “Yeah.” How could you never eat a tomato? “Well, I had ketchup. I had tomato sauce.” But you never —
“I never actually ate into a tomato. They’re pretty good! It’s the same thing with smoking a joint. It’s in that ‘I’ve never eaten a tomato’ category.”
Moore’s father worked at AC Spark Plug, a division of General Motors in Flint, where Moore himself landed a job on the assembly line after high school. He lost it when he failed to show up for his first day of work. Before that, he’d won a seat on the school board as a senior in high school, making him the youngest elected official in Michigan. And he later devoted much of his energy to activism, opening a crisis center for troubled teens, organizing anti-nuclear protests and enraging local officials with his articles in the Flint Voice.
“I remember one time, the daily newspaper stole one of our stories,” recalls Doug Cunningham, a co-founder of the Flint Voice. “We showed up at their editorial office with a shit pie. I think it was dog. We had whipped cream on top in the shape of a copyright symbol.” Moore and Cunningham eventually had a falling-out. Cunningham claims Moore killed a story he was investigating about police brutality after receiving pressure from the radio station that supported the Voice and ran Moore’s show. “I’m not a person who holds a grudge for a long time, but that troubled me,” says Cunningham, who now works in radio in Wisconsin. “At the Voice, we were operating on the basic counterculture model of a cooperative venture. But it was very clear that he had an obsession with control.”
It’s no surprise, then, that a stab at editing Mother Jones in San Francisco ended in Moore clashing with his bosses and being fired after five months. Returning to Flint and feeling depressed, he began to scrape together money for his first movie. Roger and Me was finally released in 1989. “He thought he’d be taking it around to union halls in a van,” Cunningham says. Instead, the movie was picked up by Warner Bros. for $3 million and released to critical acclaim. Still, Moore says his prime goal for the film — which hilariously chronicles his thwarted attempts to interview GM chairman Roger Smith about local plant closings — was nothing less than saving his hometown. “I didn’t have any ideas about a career,” he says. “I thought if I brought attention to Flint, things would change. But for my goal of saving my hometown, I failed.”
After Roger and Me, he wrote a screenplay about a president who stages a war. No studios were interested until Moore gave up full control. “I rationalized myself by saying, ‘Well, this will be a film that the shopping-mall crowd will see, and maybe they’ll get some of the politics,’” Moore says. But one of the stars, John Candy, died before filming wrapped, and Canadian Bacon flopped. It seemed like Moore would never top his initial success. His brilliant Clinton-era television series, TV Nation, didn’t find an audience in the U.S. In the film The Big One, his ambush-journalism attacks on security guards and PR-types came off as bullying rather than quixotic. Then, in 2002, Moore released Bowling for Columbine, a hilarious and poignant broadside on the gun lobby that won an Oscar for Best Documentary. That was when Moore was booed for making his infamous speech calling Bush a “fictitious president” who was leading us into a “fictitious war.”
“People weren’t ready to hear that,” Moore concedes. “But I knew that eventually, when they had the facts, they’d come around. And they would feel a sense of betrayal. They’ll be more mad at Bush than I am. Because I didn’t expect anything less from him.”
The next day, we meet for lunch at Lucky’s Steak House, a restaurant near the highway with a foamy beer stein worked into its neon logo. Despite his fearlessness in the face of authority, Moore shrinks a bit when he enters, walking with a slight hunch and seeming hesitant, as if he’s assuming someone is going to run up and punch him. In 2002, he received death threats while performing his one-man show in London, and though he’s never had trouble in the States, he travels with a security specialist.
As Moore picks at a burger, he talks about future projects. A documentary about HMOs called Sicko is possible. “I will make other fiction films,” he says. “I’m working on a script with [cartoonist] Tom Tomorrow. One of the main characters is a conservative commentator who has a nightly show. His name is Bill Simple. He ends all of his commentaries with ‘It’s just that simple!’”
Is Kerry the lesser of two evils?
No. Absolutely not.
Really? He voted for the war. He’s arguably to the right of Bush on Israel. He’s waffled on gay marriage. I could go on.
He’s like most of America. Seventy percent of this country supported the war. He was no different from them. Who, in the anti-war movement, wants to get on their high horse and look down on anyone now because they were wrong in the beginning? This past weekend was the fortieth anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which led us to a large-scale war in Vietnam. Here’s some of the people who voted for that resolution: Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy. Did anyone on the left hold it against McGovern or McCarthy when they ran for president?
Kerry seems afraid of being too closely linked to Fahrenheit 9/11.
I know. I think the Democrats know it would be a horrible mistake to distance themselves too much from this thing that has inspired so much passion. At the same time, it doesn’t do me any good to have him embrace me, because if he’s elected, my camera will be on him.
Say something nice about Bush.
He’s good to his dogs. I show that in the movie. He makes them feel special.
This article was originally published September 16th, 2004.