April 23, 1954 • Flint, Michigan
Filmmaker, author, activist
Regardless of whether they agree with his views or not, most people have a strong opinion about Michael Moore. The provocative and controversial social activist has aroused the passionate support of millions, and the equally passionate anger of millions more, with his documentary films, best-selling books, and investigative television shows. Moore has spent his career finding creative ways to address what he sees as the ills of American society: morally irresponsible corporations and a government that responds to small and privileged segments of the population rather than to the needs of the country as a whole. All of Moore's works have sparked controversy and conversation, but his 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11 brought a firestorm of heated debate. The film presents Moore's criticism of President George W. Bush, particularly Bush's response to the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, as well as his invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in 2003. The controversy over Fahrenheit 9/11 began with cries of censorship when the Walt Disney Company blocked Miramax, which it owns, from distributing Moore's politically explosive film. As the movie went on to break box office records, the controversy continued, with audiences deeply divided over whether Moore is a creative genius and hero to the average citizen or a manipulative liar and an embarrassment to his country.
"I think it would make the founding fathers proud to see the country still survives in their first belief, that's why it's their First Amendment, that somebody has the ability to express themselves and criticize the top guy. That's the country they created."
Michael Moore was raised in a working-class family in Davison, a suburb of the economically depressed city of Flint, Michigan. His father worked on the General Motors assembly line for thirty-three years, putting together car parts such as spark plugs and oil filters. Moore grew up in a devout Catholic family and attended Catholic primary and middle schools. He was a member of the Boy Scouts and enjoyed such outdoor sports as hunting, even becoming a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), which he criticized many years later in his film Bowling for Columbine. In an interview with Jack Newfield in Tikkun, Moore explained that his parents were not especially political, "but they were people who believed in the importance of acting on conscience and standing up for what you believe in." Such principles guided Moore from early on, and while in high school his political activism began to flower. He opposed the Vietnam War (1954–75) and greatly admired the work of the Berrigan brothers, two activist Catholic priests who vigorously protested U.S. involvement in the Southeast Asian conflict. As a teenager
In recent years, the documentary film has enjoyed a surprising rise in popularity. Due in part to the success of films like those of Michael Moore, which are shown in hundreds of theaters all over the country and attract huge numbers of viewers, filmgoers have come to realize that documentaries are not necessarily dry and academic. They can be every bit as entertaining and transporting as a fictional feature film, with certain compelling differences. Documentaries show the lives of real people in real-life situations, with no professional actors and no special effects. In addition, documentaries often have an educational component, bringing to life another time or another place. And documentary films, such as those made by Michael Moore, can bring to viewers a filmmaker's unique point of view. Below is a sampling of documentary films of the early twenty-first century that have attracted critical notice and large crowds in theaters.
Capturing the Friedmans (directed by Andrew Jarecki, 2003): A disturbing examination of a suburban, middle-class American family torn apart by accusations that the father and one of his sons sexually molested several neighborhood boys.
Control Room (directed by Jehane Noujaim, 2004): An in-depth examination of the widely diverging news coverage of the 2003 war in Iraq originating from two sources: the American government and the Middle Eastern network Al-Jazeera, the most popular news source in the Arab world. Noujaim sets out to show that Al-Jazeera, though demonized by the American government as biased and manipulative, strives to present balanced coverage.
The Corporation (directed by Jennifer Abbott, Mark Achbar, 2003): An analysis of the far-reaching effects of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that granted corporations the legal rights of an individual, and which shows numerous examples of corporate misdeeds and misinformation.
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (directed by Errol Morris, 2003): An Academy Award–winning reflection, through interviews with the subject and historical footage, on the impact of decisions made by McNamara, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense and one of the architects of the Vietnam War.
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (directed by Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, 2004): A film that began as a making-of documentary and turned into a frank examination of the therapy undergone by heavy metal supergroup Metallica. Examines the band's efforts to maintain their integrity as rebellious rockers as they cope with aging and sobriety.
Spellbound (directed by Jeffrey Blitz, 2002): An unexpectedly gripping tale of the run-up to the 1999 U.S. National Spelling Bee. Tracks the lives of several young finalists as they prepare for the big contest.
Super Size Me (directed by Morgan Spurlock, 2004): A humorous and offbeat film chronicling Spurlock's thirty-day diet consisting exclusively of food from McDonald's. Examines the high rates of obesity in the United States and the role fast-food chains play in such statistics.
Moore believed that entering the priesthood would enable him to make a difference in society just as the Berrigan brothers were attempting to do, and he entered a Catholic seminary to study for the priesthood. He did not complete his study for the priesthood, opting instead to find other ways to effect change.
Upon graduating from high school in 1972, Moore decided to run for a position on the school board in Davison. One of his primary campaign promises was that if elected, he would fire the high school principal. Upset by his tactics, a number of people entered the race hoping to push Moore out of the running. The abundance of candidates served to divide the votes, however, enabling Moore to win the race and become the youngest school board member ever elected in the United States. Moore attended the University of Michigan in Flint for a time, but he did not graduate. He devoted his time to various projects designed to bring to the local citizens a point of view not found in major newspapers or on the television news. He started a weekly alternative newspaper called Flint Voice (which later became known as Michigan Voice ) and established an alternative radio show called Radio Free Flint. In 1976 he also opened a crisis intervention center. Moore stayed with the Flint Voice as the paper's editor until 1985. He gained exposure on a national level with occasional commentaries on National Public Radio's afternoon news show All Things Considered. During 1986 Moore spent four months as an editor at Mother Jones, a respected liberal magazine reporting on social issues.
After his brief stint at Mother Jones, Moore returned to the Flint area. While watching television one day, he saw an announcement from Roger Smith, the chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of General Motors, or GM, one of the "Big Three" American car companies. Smith announced massive layoffs at a GM plant that would result in many more Flint-area residents joining the ranks of the jobless. The company had closed down Flint plants in favor of opening new plants in Mexico, putting thousands of Michigan residents out of work and devastating the area's economy. Angry about the damage GM's actions had caused in Flint, Moore was determined to do something about it. Knowing absolutely nothing about filmmaking, he nonetheless set out to make a documentary film about the economic problems in Flint, problems that were echoed in many industrial communities all over the country. Moore sought filmmaking help from established documentarians and began raising money to pay for production. He held garage sales, hosted bingo tournaments, and eventually sold his house to help finance the film, which took two and a half years to make and cost $250,000.
Roger & Me, released in 1989, caused an immediate stir. Moore has made no claim that his films are objective documentaries; rather, they reflect his strong opinions and personal point of view. With Roger & Me and every nonfiction film he has made since, Moore has attempted to provoke audiences to think about and discuss the issues covered, whether they agree with him or not. He has used his sharp wit and assertive personality to showcase what he feels are the evils plaguing society, appealing to viewers' emotions to win support for his causes. In Roger & Me Moore spent time with those who had lost their automotive jobs, and examined the bleak economic conditions in Flint following the collapse of much of the area's industry. Moore also sought out a one-on-one interview with Roger Smith, hoping to confront him about the impact the plant closings had had on the community. His inability to secure a meeting with Smith provided many of the film's most humorous moments, and Moore managed to make Smith seem unsympathetic and ridiculous.
Many reviewers praised Moore's debut film, admiring his unique and highly entertaining approach to documentary filmmaking, a genre often accused of being too dry and uninteresting. Many also felt that Moore had examined important social issues and highlighted the price paid by individuals as the result of corporate actions. Others criticized the filmmaker for his obvious bias in favor of average working-class citizens and against corporate executives. Even some who agreed with his politics disapproved of his tendency to make his opponents look foolish on camera, though Moore countered that such people were capable of looking foolish without his help. The New Yorker 's Pauline Kael, one of the most significant film critics of the twentieth century, issued a strong condemnation of Roger & Me, offended by what she felt was Moore's tendency to talk down even to the out-of-work Flint laborers. Regardless of the debates raging in the media, audiences flocked to the film, which earned more money at the box office than any previous documentary.
Moore's next project involved a similar style of crusading for society's underdogs and exposing official wrongdoing. With TV Nation Moore tackled numerous subjects over several television episodes aired during the summer of 1994 and again during the summer of 1995. He conducted surprise interviews, staged bizarre stunts with comic results, and generally attempted to make viewers laugh and at the same time feel angry enough about injustices that they might be motivated to act. Several years later, in 1999, Moore returned to television with a comparable program, The Awful Truth, which went after such targets as health insurance companies denying patients coverage for critical medical procedures. In the mid-1990s Moore also tackled new types of projects. He directed his first (and so far, only) fictional feature film, Canadian Bacon (1995), which starred the late comedic actor John Candy (1950–1994). Moore also wrote his first book, Downsize This! Random Threats from an Unarmed American (1996), which described what he saw as inexcusable corporate greed and the mistreatment of American workers. Moore later published other extremely successful books, including Stupid White Men, and Other Excuses for the State of the Nation (2002) and Dude, Where's My Country? (2003).
While on a book tour promoting Downsize This!, Moore shot his next documentary film, The Big One, which was released in 1997. The Big One covers much of the same territory as Roger & Me, with Moore criticizing large corporations for shutting down factories in the United States and moving jobs to countries overseas where labor is far cheaper. The film includes interviews with working-class citizens who lost their jobs due to factory closures or downsizing, which is a term used by businesses to refer to large-scale layoffs intended to reduce that company's workforce. Moore's goal throughout The Big One was to interview the CEO of a large company and discuss the impact that the company's actions had on ordinary working citizens. In typical Moore fashion, he pursued such interviews by showing up at CEOs' offices unannounced and trying to argue his way past security guards and secretaries. Phil Knight, the CEO of the athletic goods company Nike, became Moore's primary target, and ultimately Moore was successful in obtaining an interview. He asked Knight about the morality of having all Nike sneakers manufactured outside of the United States. His particular focus was on Indonesian factories, where inadequate or poorly enforced laws allow for child labor and poor working conditions, and where workers earn just a few dollars a day. Knight responded that he felt the factories improved the Indonesian economy and that he felt sure Americans did not want jobs making shoes. Soon after the film's release, Nike changed its policies in Indonesian factories, requiring that employees be at least eighteen years old.
Moore's fame, and his ability to provoke debate, reached a new level with his documentary film Bowling for Columbine (2002). Focusing primarily on the gun culture in the United States, Bowling for Columbine examines the issue of gun violence and asks why the rates of gun-related crime are so much higher in the United States than in several other countries where gun ownership is also common. The centerpiece of the film is the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Two students, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, entered the school that day armed with guns and explosives, and proceeded to kill twelve students and a teacher before turning their weapons on themselves. In the film, Moore criticizes the wide availability of guns and ammunition, and attacks the NRA for its powerful support of gun ownership and its opposition to any form of gun control.
As with his previous films, Bowling for Columbine inspired passionate responses. Many reviewers offered enthusiastic praise for the film, saying that Moore had tackled an important subject cleverly, intelligently, and even at times humorously. Others condemned him for twisting facts through creative editing, leading audiences to reach conclusions that were not necessarily true. For example, the film gives the impression that Charlton Heston, actor and president of the NRA, held a pro-gun rally in Moore's hometown of Flint very soon after a little girl was shot and killed by another child. In fact the rally took place several months after the shooting, and was held in support of the Republican candidate for president, George W. Bush. Many critics and viewers, even those who praised Moore's ability to make a compelling film about important issues, criticized him for his occasionally underhanded tactics, particularly for his tendency to humiliate his opponents on-camera. Many observers also felt that Moore had become a relentless self-promoter, inserting himself into his films whenever possible and taking advantage of every opportunity to get free publicity for his films. Moore has denied that he appears in his films to satisfy his ego. In a 2002 interview with Daniel Fierman of
Whether because of the controversy or simply because it addressed a compelling issue, Bowling for Columbine drew people to movie theaters in a way few documentary films had ever done before. It won the 2002 Anniversary Prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, where audiences gave the film a fifteen-minute standing ovation after it was screened. Bowling for Columbine also won one of the most sought-after awards in the film industry: the 2003 Academy Award for best documentary film. Moore proved himself to be a first class button-pusher when he accepted the award, giving a speech that spoke of his frustration with the disputed results of the 2000 U.S. presidential election. He described President Bush as a "fictitious president" and claimed that the United States had begun the 2003 war with Iraq for "fictitious reasons." While some in the audience cheered his rebellious remarks, others booed. In a 2004 interview with Entertainment Weekly 's Fierman, Moore described the general public's reaction to his controversial comments: "For the next couple of months I could not walk down the street without some form of serious abuse. Threats of physical violence, people wanting to fight me.... People pulling over in their cars screaming. People spitting on the sidewalk. I finally stopped going out."
Moore may have felt under attack at the time, but public disapproval did not stop him from undertaking his next hot-button film. In Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Moore's target was none other than the president of the United States. In the film Moore takes issue with President George W. Bush's response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. He asserts that the Bush administration took advantage of the American people and offered misleading information to justify the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The controversial nature of the film's subject matter concerned Disney, which is the parent company of Miramax, the studio that financed Moore's film. Disney blocked Miramax from distributing the film, leading to accusations of censorship. Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the heads of Miramax, hastily formed a partnership with other companies to distribute the film, which broke box-office records. In its first weekend it earned more money than any other documentary had made in its entire theatrical run, breaking the record set by Moore's previous film Bowling for Columbine. Fahrenheit 9/11 also won the coveted Palme d'Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, in 2004.
Once again Moore's detractors insisted that he blew some facts out of proportion and fabricated others altogether, a charge Moore has denied. He told Richard Corliss of Time magazine: "There is not a single factual error in the movie. I'm thinking of offering a $10,000 reward for anyone that can find a single fact that's wrong." Moore was also accused of being a traitor and failing to support America's troops serving in the armed services in Iraq. Conservative groups attempted to pressure movie theaters into refusing to screen the film. Moore's fans, on the other hand, cheered his efforts to tell a story that had not been adequately covered by the mainstream news media. Many applauded his message, though not all of his fans appreciated his approach. Some of Moore's supporters have felt that he occasionally goes too far, but Moore remains unapologetic. He does not claim that his films are detached observations of American life; he proudly acknowledges his point of view and owns up to his intention of using film as a medium for change. J. D. Heyman of People magazine quoted Moore's comment to ABC news commentator George Stephanopoulos regarding Fahrenheit 9/11: "I'm not trying to pretend this is some sort of ... fair and balanced work of journalism. I would like to see Mr. Bush removed from the White House."
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, vol. 53. Detroit: Gale Group, 2003.
Corliss, Richard. "The World According to Michael." Time (July 12, 2004): p. 62.
Fierman, Daniel. "Michael Moore." Entertainment Weekly (October 25, 2002): p. 43.
Fierman, Daniel. "The Passion of Michael Moore." Entertainment Weekly (July 9, 2004): p. 30.
Gates, David, and David Jefferson. "Agent Provocateur." Newsweek (June 28, 2004): p. 28.
Heyman, J. D. "Burning Bush." People (July 5, 2004): p. 69.
Newfield, Jack. "An Interview with Michael Moore." Tikkun (November/December 1998): p. 25.
Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com (accessed on July 29, 2004).
MichaelMoore.com. http://www.michaelmoore.com (accessed on July 29, 2004).