Michael Moore sounded tired. And not just in the way that we all sound tired. He sounded tired in the way that someone does after a funeral, or between the final rounds of a boxing match they know they’ve already lost on points. Not sleepy, but defeated. The familiar voice he uses to narrate his films — that plain and occasionally patronizing blue-collar brogue in which he talks about things like extreme poverty, school shootings, and international war crimes as though he were reading his workaday audience fairy tales from hell — had dulled into a reflective murmur.
“I’m seriously fed up with this,” Moore sighed into the phone. “Of making these movies. Of having to make these movies.”
The filmmaker and firebrand was calling from an undisclosed location somewhere in Manhattan, where he’s hard at work on a secretive documentary that he hopes to release before the midterm elections in November. “Fahrenheit 11/9,” his documentary about the 2016 election, was supposed to be produced by The Weinstein Company; it has since been scrapped. He’s also resurrecting his old show “Michael Moore TV Nation” for TBS.
“For almost 30 years, I’ve been trying to sound a warning siren that the wealthy in this country are on a rampage to take whatever they can from the middle class. I’ve been trying to highlight a 20th century form of capitalism that’s all about making as much money as possible at the suffering and expense of others, often by manipulating white people into being afraid of those others,” he said, all too aware that each of his previous four features grossed significantly less than the one before it.
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Later, when tracing a path between the Columbine High School massacre and the Oscar-winning documentary that he made in response to the bloodshed, Moore remembered that he “just wanted to do something to get everyone thinking about what happened, something that inspired them to address it.” He paused like a student who knew all the answers and was still trying to figure out how they failed the test. “Well, so much for that.”
Moore’s untitled new film will be the third feature he’s released in the last three years, a prolific stretch that also saw him launch an short-lived Broadway show, post thousands of furious tweets, and even share an old video of himself at a table with Roseanne Barr and Donald Trump. To hear it from Moore, however, that hasn’t been enough to get the job done. “Why do I make these movies?” he asked. If it was a rhetorical question, he wasn’t ready with the answer. Talking to Moore on that fine June morning, what he really sounded like was one of his critics.
It was only 10 a.m., but time feels dense in a way that it didn’t used to, and a lot had already happened that day. In stores (or Amazon warehouses) across the country, a deluxe new edition of Moore’s Oscar-winning 2002 documentary “Bowling for Columbine” went on sale from the Criterion Collection. In Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, testing revealed that the toxic level of lead in the local water supply hadn’t gone down in the last six months. And in McAllen, Texas, a fresh round of horrifying details had emerged from the country’s largest immigration processing center, where thousands of children have been separated from their families and placed in metal cages. As Moore once said about the morning of April 20th, 1999: “It was a typical day in the United States of America.”
That bitter analysis — that sugar-coated cyanide from the opening minutes of “Bowling for Columbine” — has proven to be tragically prophetic. At 12:08 p.m., when two students killed themselves after slaughtering 12 classmates and one teacher, it was only the second time since 1966 that a school shooting in the United States had claimed more than than five lives. Since then, it’s happened again 10 times. Forty kids have been shot to death at school in the first six months of this year, alone.
And while these massacres draw an outsized degree of attention from the gun epidemic that plagues the entire country, you can reliably take the pulse of any society by looking at how it protects its children. How unsurprising, then, that our annual number of gun deaths has rocketed from 30,000 in 2002 (not great!) to nearly 40,000 in 2018 (what the actual fuck). April 20, 1999 really was a typical day in the United States of America. Actually, scratch that — 42 people would have to die from gun-related deaths for it to qualify as typical, anymore. Let’s just say it was a below-average day in more ways than one.
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So where does that leave a guy like Michael Moore, who’s spent his entire adult life trying to show us why shit like this keeps happening? What does it say about the efficacy of his movies, which are seen by tens of millions of Americans but don’t seem to leave any demonstrable impression?
After all, our healthcare system is still broken, and the strides it’s made since “Sicko” came out in 2007 are under constant threat. Capitalism is still an unrequited love story. Fox News is still feeding white America full of anti-factual rage. Flint is still being victimized by the symbiotic evils of greed and racism. And Trump is still the President, even though Moore shot and released a film just days before the election in an attempt to prevent that inbred sociopathic pig-monster from becoming the most powerful man in the world. Would things have been any different if “Michael Moore in Trumpland” had been a better movie? Was badgering Kmart to stop selling handgun bullets the only real legacy that a juggernaut like “Bowling for Columbine” was able to leave behind?
“This is the frustrating part for me,” Moore said. “The sad thing about all of my films is that I could have made them yesterday, and they could open tomorrow. The destruction of the middle class in ‘Roger & Me’ was really just a few cities back in 1989, and the purpose of that movie was to warn the rest of the country that what had happened in Flint was going to happen to them. And even in General Motors factory towns like Tarrytown, people were like ‘No, no, that’s in Detroit — not in beautiful, suburban New York!’ But travel up the Hudson to many of those towns today, and you can see it for yourself.”
Moore wasn’t gloating — if he ever took any pleasure from being a doomsayer, he doesn’t anymore. I told him about how much he pissed me off during the summer of 2016, when he would go on “Real Time with Bill Maher” (a show that pisses most people off to begin with) and shout about how the sky was falling. “Trump’s gonna win!” Neither of us wanted him to be right. “My role in our society to make sure that you’re not comfortable,” he said with the weary patience of someone who’s suffered through this conversation before. “I try to bring some reality to the places where people, including myself, naturally go in search of comfort and reassurance.”
Effective or not, that’s exactly what he does. It’s still hard to believe that a wake-up call like “Fahrenheit 9/11,” however much it may have played to the choir, made room for itself at the multiplexes, and then handily outgrossed broad Hollywood fare like “Daddy’s Home 2” and “The Emoji Movie” (and that’s without adjusting for inflation).
Of course, it hasn’t always been easy to sell the masses on his message, or even be afforded the chance to do so. Moore remembered how hard it was to fund “Bowling for Columbine.” He started pitching the movie the same day of the shooting, fueled by the queasy feeling that what happened in Colorado wasn’t going to be a one-off. “The first couple of people I spoke to gave me the Chicken Little treatment,” he said. “And I was like ‘No, we have to pay attention to this before it gets out of hand. It wasn’t until I had lunch with a Canadian investor that I got through to someone — two minutes in to the pitch he gave me all the money to make the film.”
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