By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009
The prospect of reviewing a Michael Moore documentary always fills me with a certain dread. Moore is the director of the most profitable nonfiction films in history -- "Bowling for Columbine," "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Sicko" -- and as such, he has proved to be an unusually effective agitator for more critical thinking when it comes to such issues as gun rights, civil liberties, health care and globalization. He's a passionate provocateur, an engaging (and often hilarious) gadfly, a persuasive polemicist.
He's just not a very good filmmaker.
Granted, I haven't seen Moore's new film, "Capitalism: A Love Story," his take on corporate greed and the financial meltdown. I reserve the right to find in that film everything I've found lacking in Moore's work to date: formal elegance, structural rigor, philosophical nuance and artistic self-discipline. In his 1989 debut film, "Roger & Me," Moore -- a former editor of the progressive magazine Mother Jones -- played a faux-naif on a search for General Motors executive Roger Smith, whom Moore held responsible for the economic devastation of his home town of Flint, Mich.
That movie made history as the most successful documentary ever to play in theaters, and there is no doubt that in his Scarlet Pimpernel-like tale, Moore, a canny debater who was elected to the Flint school board at 18, made some crucial and prescient observations about the wages of outsourcing. But if "Roger & Me" contained the trenchant social commentary and sharp wit that I would come to admire in Moore's subsequent films, it also contained the seeds of what would trouble me about them -- chiefly his willingness to play a bit fast and loose with chronology, as well as an on-screen persona that over the years that has begun to take on Falstaffian dimensions of self-regard.
In "Bowling for Columbine," Moore undercut a genuinely thoughtful argument about the role of media and popular culture in hyping gun violence with his own self-righteous screen presence (an ambush of actor and NRA chief Charlton Heston was particularly irritating) and a tenuous attempt to connect such dots as the Columbine massacre, Lockheed Martin and U.S. bombings in Kosovo. In "Fahrenheit 9/11" Moore actually succeeded in creating a moment of authentic artistry, in his decision to portray the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, using only audio clips and a dark screen to create a haunting, deeply moving sound portrait of that day. And he made a convincing case that, because of ties between the Bush and Saudi royal families, Saudi Arabia never came under proper scrutiny for 9/11. But sober arguments were perpetually undone by cheap shots (Paul Wolfowitz licking his comb) and deck-stacking (pictures of Iraq as a peaceful land of kite-flying before those meddling kids of the Bush administration butted in).
In "Sicko," Moore's modus operandi was in full effect, with the filmmaker taking ailing survivors of 9/11 to Cuba for health care. It was a punchy stunt, sure, but viewers could be forgiven for wondering if our only choice was really between the rescissions of for-profit health insurance and Fidel-o-care.
I've said before that Moore isn't so much a filmmaker as a pamphleteer -- which is not intended to diminish or dismiss his contribution to the public conversation, but to put it in its proper context. It also puts him in the company of such giants as Thomas Paine, who proved that pamphlets could be works of both style and substance. Will "Capitalism: A Love Story" prove it, too? We'll see.