A couple of years back, Michael Moore was having trouble with his neighbors. After he shunned the Bush Administration for the Iraq War from the stage of the Academy Awards, the ensuing death threats from angry extremists made the other residents of his Upper West Side building feel a bit uneasy.
Several weeks ago, he finally made it up to them by inviting everyone to the AMC Loews on his block to watch his new movie. “It’s a thing I’ve always wanted to do,” he said last week from his living room, just a few feet away from the spot where he edited his latest project. “I live on top of a movie theater.”
And this time, the death threats aren’t expected en masse. In “Where to Invade Next,” the documentarian eschews his usual polemical tone for a more welcoming approach, as he travels to European countries to uncover various ways in which other social agendas have improved on problems facing the United States. Frequently pointing out that many of these situations — from Italy’s mandatory vacation time to the prison systems in Norway — took a page from abandoned American ideals, Moore’s process has a practical undertone.
“It’s not a war movie, it’s not about Afghanistan or Iraq,” he said as he kicked off a toast. “It’s about going to countries that have great ideas we should try — all of which we used to have.”
Surrounded by a large Christmas tree, family photos, a smattering of awards and a framed letter inviting him to appear on “Dancing With the Stars,” Moore was addressing a largely supportive crowd. As the film opens for an awards-qualifying limited run this week (released by an unnamed new distribution venture headed by the Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League and former executives from Radius-TWC), Moore has once again entered an awards season he knows too well. Like the politicians he has famously scrutinized, he was in campaign mode.
“After World War II, we had the best public schools in the world, and we just gave up,” he said, then switched gears to discuss another dispiriting topic, much as he does in his movie. “The majority of Americans would need to borrow or sell something just to come up with 400 measly dollars,” he added.
He emphasized one major point of the film about the dearth of women in American politics, noting a segment in which he talks to the women who ran the one bank in Iceland that avoided default during the country’s financial crisis. “We need more women to run, especially on the local level,” he said, which prompted one of his visitors to speak out. “And countries! We need them to run countries! Women who run countries are not going to wage war.” Another voice piped up: “Well, Palin and Margaret Thatcher…”
Moore regained control. “Palin is an outlier,” he said. “But women as a whole—San Bernandino is something that hasn’t been explained to us properly. These school shootings are not conducted by women…your radar doesn’t tell you, ‘Be careful of the woman who’s going to jump out of the bushes.’ We’re safe from 51% of the population.”
The lively topic was matched by the turnout. Moore’s visitors included a range of Academy voters, from Ellen Burstyn to Harry Belafonte, who spoke appreciatively of Moore after he addressed the crowd. “Thank you for the film, for being on the planet, in our community, and your tremendous reserve and dignity,” the famous singer and activist said. “You stay the course. You validate my existence.”
For his part, Moore acknowledged two chief collaborators in the room, producer Tia Lesson and longtime mentor Kevin Rafferty, who directed the found-footage essay “The Atomic Cafe” years before Moore’s venture into filmmaking (“Kevin was my film school,” he said). Then he dove back into the messages of the film. “I didn’t mean to make this a big political speech,” he said. “We just wanted to invite people over.”
But he had just taped an appearance on “Late Night With Stephen Colbert,” and the ideas were fresh in his mind. “We did this because we just thought, coming into election year, we wanted these issues to be part of the national discussion,” he said. “We had no idea that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee, which has only made the comedy in the film that much funnier.”
Earlier in the week, Moore made a brief return to the arena of stunt journalism, standing outside Trump Plaza with a sign reading “We Are All Muslims,” shortly before posting a public letter to the real estate mogul recalling an awkward moment they shared in the nineties. He expressed a desire to galvanize a diverse pool of voters.
“We need to remember that 81% of this country that’s going to vote next year is either female, people of color or young people ages 18 – 35,” Moore said. “Trump and the Republicans have alienated all three of those groups. So we’re going to have to work to lose this election. But we can do it. We’ve done it before.”
Speaking of voting: “Are we getting screeners?” asked one visitor as Moore finished his living room speech. (Answer: They’re on their way.)
While Moore has been down this path many times before, documentary campaigns have been especially heated this awards season. The same week as Moore’s party, similarly classy soirees were held for “The Look of Silence” and “Cartel Land,” the latter of which was hosted by Jake Gyllenhaal. Meanwhile, music biopic “Amy” remains a serious contender.
But even in a crowded year, Moore’s counting on fervent support from likeminded filmmakers, and his house party proved they were out there. Asked by one of them if he expected media groups to go after him this time, he was unfazed. “The more they pounce the more they’ll come see the movie,” he said. “I can only hope that they’ll pounce.”