Michael Moore has mellowed — and mostly stopped playing dumb.
His new film, a present-tense rah-rah-Hillary insta-job put together on the schedule of an episode of South Park, seems from its title to promise the provocations of his early work, another round of the prankish lefty everyschlub wandering a red state, humiliating the powerful, hugging down-and-out workers, fast-and-loosing his facts, and cutting his Mother Jones certitude with empathic humor (good!) and put-on naïveté (grating!).
In those peak years, Moore shambled alone through our mediaverse as Candide With a Big Mac, offering one of the few full-throated espousals of liberal principles on American screens. But that mediaverse now is crammed with comedy-activist polemicists who yell louder than he ever did, and with examiner-journalists who connect the dots with more persuasive power. What would be the point of a Moore movie on Trump — that woodchipper filled with bullshit and aimed in all our faces — when even network late-night talk show hosts denounce the GOP nominee in language Keith Olbermann would have spared George W.?
Perhaps that’s why Moore hasn’t made that kind of movie at all. Michael Moore in Trumpland is a welcome change, a filmed Moore stage performance from October 8 of this godawful year, the very day the world heard Trump brag to a Bush cousin that he routinely subjected women to sexual assault. There’s no talk of that horror in Moore’s seventy-minute show — somehow, despite the title, this is the least Trump-dominated slice of political entertainment of the year. The biggest surprise: Older, un-messianic, and mostly eschewing cute stunts, Moore somehow makes his one-man show seem almost humble. It plays less like “I’m still here!” attention-seeking than it does a concerned citizen’s act of hope.
The film is something of a soliloquy adaptation of ideas Moore championed in turn-of-the-century bestsellers Downsize This! and Stupid White Men. The key topics: the death of white dudes’ power, which he welcomes, and the promise of Hillary Clinton, whom he touts as a potential Pope Francis — a secret progressive who only leaves the down-low once ensconced in power.
That’s naïve, of course. Moore has often played dumb onscreen, acting as if he were just discovering, in his latest interview with another corporate flunky, that the longstanding social compact between “job creators” and working folks had been void since the 1980s. That pose wasn’t credible, the jokes weren’t always funny, and the truths he preached sometimes baffled. What was all that business in Bowling for Columbine suggesting a psychic connection between NATO airstrikes in Kosovo and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s high school mass-murder plot? Does he know that the Fahrenheit 9/11 montage of George W. Bush holding hands with Saudi princes — set to “Shiny Happy People” — today looks like anti-Muslim #altright agitprop?
Here, addressing an Ohio audience that includes some Trump-curious voters, he mostly avoids playing the naïf. Moore’s performance finds him in stand-up-comic mode, a gadfly cheerleader rather than a campaign surrogate — Clinton probably won’t like his long riff that it would actually be badass if she had secretly killed Vince Foster. He goes all in on his upbeat humanity, the key ingredient that has kept right-wing imitators like Dinesh D’Souza from reaching an audience beyond their echo chambers. You could always tell that Moore adores everyday people, that he’s fascinated and moved by them, but I defy you to imagine — after watching Hillary’s America — that prig D’Souza shooting the shit with the crowd at a state fair.
Moore opens by acknowledging the legitimate grievances of the Rust Belt working class and the burn-it-all-down appeal of Trump’s candidacy. He paints white life in Ohio and Michigan almost as bleakly as Trump portrays urban black America, but Moore is reflecting that perspective rather than cruelly projecting it: He talks about post-industrial whiteness just like post-industrial white folks do. But his conclusion is different. Moore asks old white American men to accept the fact that they’re now just 19 percent of the population — and he asks them to consider voting for someone who speaks to the rest of the country.
Then he lampoons them, roaring like a dying dinosaur, the bit — like too many here — more cute than cutting. I wish that he addressed them more directly, without that parodic edge, and without the occasional fake ads and newscasts satirizing Trump, as un-satirizable a figure as Caligula. Someone needs to tell white men over the age of 35 what I — a white man over the age of 35 — have happily discovered: that not believing you’re in charge of everything is a relief, not an affront. Moore’s best stab at this is a joke about the fact that American women live, on average, three years longer than American men. That will shift back as women take over, Moore says, and men should look forward to a relaxing extended retirement.
Outside of that routine about the pope, the Hillary material is Moore’s strongest. But stronger still is her own material. Photos of Clinton from her Wellesley days hang behind him as he speaks, portraits of an impassioned young woman, and he lets her speak for herself in an excerpt from her 1969 commencement address, her voice familiar and alien at once, the words coming so fast they’re almost hard to keep up with. First, she describes meeting a woman who said “she wouldn’t want to be me for anything in the world.”
That stings: Almost fifty years later, and who in her right mind would want to be her, to endure all that she has, and then to still be subjected to the ritualistic soiling of three debates with a tyrannical, amoral, conspiracy-minded insult-comic man-baby?
Young Hillary Rodham speaks more: “Fear is always with us, but we just don’t have time for it,” she says. “Not now.”
Those words were birthed in fire, in liberal zeal, in the humanist desire to right the world. Moore believes that that fire, zeal, and desire still burns in her. One of the countless reasons to despair even now, as she seems poised to become our first female president: It takes Michael Moore to remind America who she could be.
Michael Moore in Trumpland
Written and directed by Michael Moore
Dog Eat Dog Films and IMG Films
Now playing, IFC Center