What has Michael Moore done to the documentary genre?
“When God wants to punish you, He sends a person of bad character who shares all of your opinions.”—Aaron Haspel, Everything (2015)
I’ve often suspected that the extreme self-righteousness one often finds amongst documentary filmmakers who specialize in exposés is a kind of psychological defense mechanism. People like Michael Moore need to believe that their cause is perfectly just, and people like Charlton Heston are perfectly evil; it’s the only way to avoid the fact that what they’re doing to them is in fact profoundly unethical.
After all, people like Moore get people to trust them so they can publicly humiliate them. It’s hard to make that look good. In fact, on the face of it, that process makes them about as decent and respectable as the folks who write for gossip and scandal mags like The National Enquirer. Of course documentary filmmakers don’t want to see themselves as bloodsucking parasites, and that’s precisely why they need to demonize their opponents. The ends justify the means ONLY if your opponents are devils and your friends are angels. The rationalizations one finds amongst documentary filmmakers who specialize in exposés are, at the end of the day, not unlike the rationalizations one finds amongst a certain kind of sales subculture (e.g., “suckers deserve to get suckered”).
Just read Michael Moore’s open letter to Donald Trump entitled “WE ARE ALL MUSLIMS”. It’s maddening, like so much of Moore’s stuff. Here’s the thing: although I agree with much of his politics, his ethics drive me insane. Moore talks a great deal about good and evil, social justice, and doing the right thing; but he so often does the wrong thing. His open letter to Donald Trump is a case in point. If you have a private conversation with someone (in this case, “Donny”), that’s a private conversation. You don’t go and blab about it in an article years later. This is, incidentally, part of a long-standing pattern with Michael Moore.
I remember seeing Bowling for Columbine (2002) with five of my friends. All of us are big supporters of gun-control. So he had us at hello. And yet he managed to lose us. We walked out of the theater disgusted with Michael Moore. Although the film was manipulative and misleading throughout, the moral nadir of the propaganda piece—the real low point of the film—was when he went to Charlton Heston’s house. We were all furious by the end of that scene. What an abuse of trust, hospitality, decency, and good will. As my buddy put it, as we walked out of the theater:
“Wow, Moore almost makes you wanna join the NRA!”
I sure hope Moore’s well-meaning intervention into the American presidential election campaign doesn’t have a similar effect. Sure hope he doesn’t make people wanna vote for Donald Trump!
Documentary film has been good to the left for well over half a century—not, I hasten to add, because most documentary filmmakers have been left-leaning, but rather because the genre is itself remarkably well-suited to the transmission of progressive ideas. Unlike slow-paced, text-heavy mediums (like the scholarly book), which privilege a kind of dry intellectualism devoid of heart, or fast-paced, image-heavy mediums (like the TV news), which privilege a sordid sensationalism devoid of intellectual content, the very format of the documentary film facilitates the construction of long arguments, with lots of moving parts; arguments which clarify, and make manifest, the subtle connections between large social processes (like globalization) and the lived reality of people—people just like you.
If you’re looking for the most devastating critique of Michael Moore, you won’t find it on Fox News, or among his right-wing detractors; you’ll find it, instead, after a few glasses of wine, at a documentary film festival. Nobody loathes the man more than other progressive filmmakers. David Redmon and Ashley Sabin—the brilliant minds behind award-winning documentaries like Girl Model (2011) and Mardi Gras: Made in China (2005)—are a case in point. They’ve told me, on numerous occasions, that Michael Moore hasn’t just compromised the specific causes he’s championed; he’s undermined the credibility of the entire genre. When you undermine the credibility of something like documentary film—something which has been immensely useful to progressive causes—you’re ultimately undermining the left.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)
This article was originally published on Committing Sociology.