Michael Moore doesn’t so much make documentaries as make movies with documents: if, that is, the term “documentary” has any more descriptive precision than, say, “nonfiction.” In his first film, Roger & Me (1989), Moore invented for himself—and more or less perfected—the genre in which he has continued to work: call it first-person polemic, or expressionist bulletin board, or theatricalized Op-Ed piece. Roger & Me tells the story of how General Motors cut its losses in Flint, Michigan, without any regard for the fate of the workers left behind, and turns it into a whimsical quest by Moore for an interview with GM’s chairman, Roger Smith. Along the way, an assortment of found footage—home movies, promotional films, TV newscasts, performance clips featuring celebrities on the order of Anita Bryant and Pat Boone, scenes from old Hollywood pictures—are interwoven with the staged encounters that have become Moore’s trademark, in which various spokespersons and security officers are enlisted as bit players in a comically timed confrontation with authority.
Points are made through shamelessly broad devices—the Beach Boys sing “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” over relentless tracking shots of wrecked and abandoned housing in Flint, Roger Smith delivers an unctuous Christmas oration, complete with a reading from Charles Dickens, while a sheriff’s deputy in Flint evicts a family put out of work by the GM plant closings—and somehow, through all of this comical and at times blatantly theatrical business, a story does get told about the very real effects of an economic catastrophe, and about the apparent indifference to its human consequences on the part of those who made the managerial decisions. It has been told not so much through Moore’s tendentious voice-overs as through the dozens of people, from unemployed auto workers to the receptionist at Roger Smith’s health club, whose gazes and vocal inflections and gestures Moore so artfully and deliberately juxtaposes. After fifteen years, Roger & Me still looks great.
Substituting the administration of George W. Bush for General Motors, Moore’s new film, Fahrenheit 9/11, could almost be a remake of Roger & Me. While operating on a larger scale, it draws on the same formal devices and leads to the same broad and simple conclusion, a conclusion with which Charles Dickens might well have had some empathy: that the big shots do things for their own self-serving reasons and don’t give a damn about you or me or all the others who maneuver for temporary advantage in a situation not of their choosing. Indeed, in Fahrenheit, as in his previous film, Bowling for Columbine (2002), Moore eventually brings the movie back to Flint, as if to reaffirm a core of personal experience as his center even when contemplating the most far-flung events. This stubborn subjectivity, grounded in local knowledge, and reinforced by habitual gestures and comic tics, is strained in his new movie almost to the breaking point as he incorporates as…
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