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FIRST PERSON | John Pierson: An Open Letter to Michael Moore

FIRST PERSON | John Pierson: An Open Letter to Michael Moore

There is no percentage in me, or anyone for that matter, criticizing you. And since you’ve effectively become America’s conscience, it must be awfully hard to pause for a moment and examine your own. And I would never have become part of an attempt to make you do that if not for a classroom full of angry and disheartened college students.

With the hugely entertaining and highly effective “SiCKO” opening nationwide today, you probably think that dredging up and examining bits and pieces of your storied past is nothing but a petty, narrow-minded distraction. Since your op/ed piece (your post-documentary coinage) on the healthcare industry is a fantastic polemic and your best filmmaking by far, I almost agree with you. Almost.

But still I find myself taking a stand for the only smart and even-handed documentary that’s been made ABOUT you, “Manufacturing Dissent.” Many have argued that there’s little or nothing new in this film, that it merely aggregates your alleged filmmaking crimes and misdemeanors. I guess this category of criticism, as summed up by Hillary Clinton‘s spokesman Philippe Reines in dismissing two recent books about her, has been called “cash for rehash.” (Hey what’s her campaign saying about “SiCKO?”) The only problem is that the Canadian filmmakers don’t stand to make much cash beyond recouping debt, and for many of your international fans, if far less so in media-mad America, the rehash is apparently revelatory.

I know you’ve heard I appear in the film pointing out the supreme irony that the installation of the Bush regime was somehow an essential ingredient for your ascent to superstardom and financial success. Let’s be honest, the Clinton administration was an eight-year slog for you. Opposition is the bee’s knees. But ironies aside, the majority of my “Manufacturing Dissent” screen time is spent extolling the virtues of “Roger & Me,” the movie that brought us together, especially for its almost incalculable influence on the course of documentary filmmaking…which brings me back to the disgruntled students.

They were pissed off. Since I wasn’t sure exactly what anyone would make of “Manufacturing Dissent” or whether it added up to a hill of beans, I screened a working version of the film for several of my film producing classes at the University of Texas at Austin. You’ll be happy to know that here, like at many film schools, “Roger & Me” is embedded in the curriculum. When the students learned that you had in fact talked to Roger Smith more than once, it mattered deeply to them because they thought it undercut the entire premise of the film that launched your career. I admit not every single student was horrified by that revelation. The rest were more troubled by your inability to admit the truth eighteen years later. Frankly I was pretty thrilled to see that the current crop of university media hounds still cared passionately about the much cheapened and fungible notion of the truth. So we immediately made the film a class project before, during, and after the SXSW Film Festival.

And mysteriously an attack flyer showed up on campus about me. I don’t blame the US Treasury Department, and I don’t blame you. In fact in preparing our response, we asked ourselves the question “What would Mike do?” and quickly turned it into a promotional joke – leading some people to think we’d set it all up in the first place because, just possibly, that’s also what Mike would do.

Did I know you had interviewed Roger Smith when “Roger & Me” caught lightning in a bottle back in 1989? No. Do I have any first-hand knowledge now that you covered it up? No. But do I fully and completely believe the testimony of people who were there with you in Flint and have absolutely nothing to gain by lying – eyewitnesses like Nader organizer James Musselman or even Roger Smith himself? Yes I do. And of all the answers you tried to give to explain this away – after starting with an all too typical ad hominem Fox News-style attack – I loved this one the most: “If I’d gotten an interview with him, why wouldn’t I put it in the film?’ Jeez Mike, I don’t know; maybe because it would utterly destroy the structural essence of your one-man Don Quixote quest to get to GM’s Chairman.

On your way to Cannes this year and continuing at your press conference there, you wondered out loud about why people haven’t listened to you – the veritable visionary – all along, and insisted that you’ve now basically earned their belief in your infallibility.

I’m still in love with “Roger & Me.’ But what is it that people were supposed to listen to in your 1989 message when GM had earnings of $5 billion rather than their current losses of $12.6 billion? Rather than asserting that the world’s largest corporation was a giant about to fall, your movie argued that GM should have kept the factories open, and kept the union wages and health benefits flowing, because they had a kind of social contract with the community of Flint. What – so they could lose an additional $10 billion if in fact they’d even managed to stay in business? You utterly & completely missed the bigger story of America essentially abandoning and outsourcing all our manufacturing-based industries. And why shouldn’t we since the fundamental engines of the economy are always changing. Are there any steel plants left in Pittsburgh?

As for “Bowling For Columbine,” you NEVER advocate handgun control in that movie. You advocate a change in the violent, racist American character. Thus once again I’m not sure how you imagine your voice in the wilderness could’ve stopped school shootings or changed the VA Tech slaughter where the kid had two handguns, was obsessed with his media image, and was also certifiably unbalanced.

On Iraq, you were both right–and just about the first person this side of Noam Chomsky–to speak out publicly in the US – though not the world, or even Canada. Then of course in a fit of delusion, you took “Fahrenheit 9/11″‘s blockbuster box office as a sign that you could personally alter the course of the 2004 election. Three years later, you conveniently describe that campaign as “the BEGINNING of the end” for Bush. But it looks like your ego got quite the better of you.

And that brings us back to the present. You’re on the side of the fucking angels with “SiCKO” and no lapses, omissions or oversimplifications can detract from its contribution to the greater good. But please baby please, let the movie, which you have so beautifully made, do the talking.

“I think one movie can make a difference.” You said this in the NY Times, and it’s a beautiful sentiment. Of course there is little or no evidence to prove it. Spike Lee’s astonishingly powerful Katrina documentary “When The Levees Broke” hasn’t moved policy one inch. Several festival darling films about Darfur, not to mention George Clooney‘s millions, might have raised awareness, but haven’t stopped China from buying oil from the Sudanese government. Forty years and nearly forty films into his legendary career, a documentary giant like Frederick Wiseman recently said, “Films never change anything.”

But maybe they can for one person. Spike always credited Errol Morris for saving one man from a life in prison in “The Thin Blue Line.” And you yourself have saved individual lives, past and present, by focussing on a specific person’s health insurance crisis. Historically the national policy debate has been impacted by meticulously researched and passionately argued books like Rachel Carson‘s “The Silent Spring” or Ralph Nader‘s “Unsafe At Any Speed,” not by your iconic infotainment or any filmmaking stunts. And yet, and still “SiCKO” has a great chance to galvanize debate. But this time the debate should not be about YOU.

In your own words, again in the NY Times: “I’m not doing this to market the film. First of all, I don’t need to market my films. Every time I make a film, it breaks the last record. But I’m doing this because I really want to make a contribution to the national debate on this issue.”

So get out of the damn way. But since your archnemesis George W. “The Anti-Christ” Bush makes only a cameo or two in the new movie, I doubt you’ll be breaking the last record. But this time, everyone in America should see it.

John Pierson

ABOUT THE WRITER: A lifetime ago, John Pierson sold “Roger & Me” to Warners for the then unheard of sum of $3 million. Michael Moore is “Mike” in John’s acclaimed 1996 book Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes; his name comes second, but his lengthy chapter was the first one written.

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