How Do You Pay?

Bee Wilson

Because the man himself is so ungainly, it is easy to overlook Michael Moore’s voice. Where his body seems ungovernable and a source of embarrassment to him – he often can’t bear to watch himself on screen – his voice is confident, almost suave. There’s a moment in his least known movie, The Big One (1997), where he launches effortlessly into a gravelly imitation of Dylan singing ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ before reverting, with a chuckle, to his own spoken voice. In his films, his physical appearance – in flannel shirt and outsize jeans – represents Moore the underdog, the champion of regular working folk.

His voice, however, is that of a clever Catholic boy who comes, as he never tires of telling us, from Flint, Michigan, the birthplace of General Motors. (He actually grew up in the more affluent suburb of Davison, ‘a city known for its churches’, according to Roger Rapoport.) He was taught by the Sisters of Saint Joseph and was known at school for his singing voice and his ability to make the nuns giggle. One of the nuns remembers him as the ‘brightest student’ she’d encountered in her entire teaching career. It seems that he always felt himself to be cleverer than the people around him, and he has described the frustration of being told he could skip first grade, only to be held back by his well-meaning mother, who didn’t want her son to be the littlest in the class. At school, he made several attempts to set up underground newspapers, but he also won an essay competition with a work entitled ‘What the Flag Means to Me’. He could be difficult and rebellious; or he could be surprisingly conformist. He even contemplated the priesthood, studying at a seminary for a year before realising that he missed baseball too much. He didn’t make friends easily – even as a teenager, people found him egotistical. But when he felt he had a cause, he could be a good listener. In 1974, at the age of 20, around the time of the first wave of layoffs in the local car industry, he set up the Davison Hotline, a Catholic counselling service. The skills he developed would prove invaluable when he discovered his vocation in film fifteen years later.

The best bits in Moore’s films exploit the rhythms of good conversation. Despite his huge ego, he knows when to talk and when to shut up. In Bowling for Columbine (2002), his anti-gun film, he secures an interview with Charlton Heston, then the president of the National Rifle Association, at Heston’s house. To start with, Moore is deferential and Heston loftily in control. Moore tells Heston he is a member of the NRA and, like Heston himself, from Michigan; Heston twinkles benignly. ‘I assume you have guns in the house here,’ Moore says, humbly. ‘Indeed I do!’ Heston replies: ‘Bad guys take notice!’ Are the guns loaded? Yes they are – ‘the Second Amendment gives me a right’ – at which Moore is heard to murmur: ‘Oh I agree, I totally agree with that.’ We share Heston’s discombobulation when Moore subtly shifts the tone of the conversation, asking why America has more gun murders than many other countries. ‘We have more mixed ethnicity than some other countries,’ Heston replies and instantly regrets it. Moore has him trapped. Would he like to apologise to the people of Columbine? Heston stalks out, silent now. The voice of God has been outmanoeuvred by the voice of Everyman USA.

Moore’s wonderfully enticing voice explains a lot of his success. It explains (at least in part) how he gets strangers to say things they shouldn’t – from receptionists and bank tellers to game-show hosts and the Michigan militia. You can see that most people enjoy talking to him; they want to prolong the conversation even when it is not in their interests to do so. His speaking voice – so intelligent, so humorous – also explains why his political satire, which generally comes across as crass and simplistic on the page (Stupid White Men, Dude, Where’s My Country?), rises to a different level on the screen.

By the time he found his medium, with the film Roger and Me in 1989, he had spent more than a decade in various ventures in print journalism, all of which ended in failure. First, there was the Flint Voice, a local alternative rag which took on such subjects as police brutality and the looming presence of General Motors. In 1983, this morphed into the Michigan Voice, where Moore met his wife, Kathleen Glynn, who has produced all his films. Next came his disastrous editorship of Mother Jones, the muckraking San Francisco magazine, from which he was fired after five months (Moore says that there was a disagreement about how to cover the Sandinistas, but it seems that Moore had also alienated most of the staff and consistently failed to meet deadlines); and Moore’s Weekly, a kind of media watch funded in part by Ralph Nader. Each of his editorships had the same faults: a focus on a tediously small range of subjects, a tendency to preach to the converted, a lack of attention to detail, a brash tone, too much evidence of his ego. Print journalism wasn’t his métier.

When he began work on Roger and Me, everything fell into place. His cameraman, Kevin Rafferty, was startled by Moore’s ‘amazing . . . story sense’. He had developed the habit of going to the movies every day after he was fired from Mother Jones. More startlingly, this lumbering man had what it took to be a movie star. Rafferty had advised him it would be ‘absolutely a mistake to put himself in the film, that it wouldn’t work. It was the worst piece of advice any filmmaker has ever given to another filmmaker. Thank God he didn’t listen to me.’ Anne Bohlen, one of his producers, noticed from the beginning the implausible charisma he had on screen. ‘Michael can pump up, he can project on screen. Performing is about timing and Michael has very good timing.’

The films continue to be comforting, thanks to the gentle lull of the narration (and Moore’s ironic use of upbeat rock music), even when the message is grim and unsettling. Before Roger and Me, set in Flint, few would have believed that a documentary about the evils of General Motors could be ‘billed as the feel-good film of the holiday season’, as Emily Schultz wrote in her 2005 biography of Moore. Roger and Me opened on 22 December 1989, a traditional release date for crowd-pleasing blockbusters. Other movies released that month included National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Driving Miss Daisy and The War of the Roses (starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner). Roger and Me may not have done quite the same at the box office as these big hitters – $6.7 million dollars in the US, as against more than $100 million for Driving Miss Daisy – but given that it only cost $140,000 to make, this was a huge return. It proved that documentary film could reach a mainstream audience, if it had enough entertainment value; and it proved that Moore could find entertainment value where others wouldn’t think of looking for it.

Like every film that he has made since, it also laid him open to charges of manipulation and deception, charges that are inseparable from the films’ comic sense. As the title suggests, much of the narrative of Roger and Me follows Moore’s failed attempts to get an interview with Roger B. Smith, the then chairman of General Motors, to hold him to task for his role in the worker lay-offs of 1986. We see Moore travelling from country club to golf club, vainly trying to track Smith down. Meanwhile, he shows the devastation visited on Flint by GM job cuts – the boarded-up houses, poverty and despair. At last, he takes the microphone at a GM shareholders’ meeting, only to be cut off before he gets the chance to ask his question. Smith’s refusal to engage with underdog Moore is presented as being of a piece with his imperviousness to the predicament of former GM workers, whose factories in Michigan were replaced by new ones in Mexico. It is crucial to the rhythm of the film that Moore never gets to confront Smith.

In fact, he did get to meet him. Manufacturing Dissent, a new documentary critical of Moore’s methods, makes much of the fact that he did secure a 15-minute interview with Smith, on camera, in 1988, at a champagne press luncheon. Moore questioned Smith about job losses and Flint, and according to someone who was there, ‘Smith answered every question in an evasive and at times whiny and irritated manner.’ No hint of this conversation makes its way into Roger and Me and Moore has denied that he was under any obligation to use it. The footage, he points out, was shot before he started work on Roger and Me and not by his own film crew. Anyone who says different is a ‘fucking liar’. Besides, his critics don’t understand what it takes ‘to tell a story with fifty hours of film footage edited to an hour and a half’.

Whether we are prepared to accept this defence will depend on the extent to which we are happy to surrender to the bear-like embrace of Moore’s onscreen persona. Pauline Kael wasn’t. In her New Yorker review of Roger and Me, she called it ‘a piece of gonzo demagoguery that made me feel cheap for laughing’. Uncharmed by this ‘big shambling joker in windbreaker and baseball cap’, she complained: ‘I had stopped believing what Moore was saying very early; he was just too glib.’ She was particularly unconvinced by his presentation of the grandiose tourist schemes with which Flint city council supposedly tried to counter the effects of GM job cuts. Moore makes much in the film of the lunacy of the city spending ‘$13 million of tax dollars’ on a luxury Hyatt Regency hotel and $100 million on the abortive theme park, AutoWorld (slogan: ‘Our New Spark will Surprise You’). Kael ‘began to feel’, she said, as if she ‘was watching a film version of the 1930s bestseller A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity’. Others have since claimed that Flint city officials were not as stupid as Moore painted them. The Hyatt Regency and AutoWorld were actually built in 1982 and 1984, before the plant closures of 1986, and were strategies for shoring up a failing local economy rather than remedies for an economy that had already failed.

The film critic Roger Ebert disagreed with Kael’s judgment. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, he wrote that to accuse Moore of being glib was missing the point:

He was thumbing his nose at GM, he was taking cheap shots, he knew it, we knew it, and it was about time . . . What Roger and Me supplies about General Motors, Flint and big corporations is both more important and more rare than facts. It supplies poetry, a viewpoint, indignation, opinion, anger and humour.

This fits much better with Moore’s intentions as a film-maker. He wants us to hear the rhythms of his indignation.

The most memorable parts of Roger and Me are more like a musical than a documentary. There is the annual Great Gatsby party for Flint high society, at which mountains of shrimp jostle with giant ice sculptures of swans, and local blacks who have been hired as living statues stand in demeaning poses. ‘I don’t think it’s real fair to pick on the negative things,’ about Flint, a rich woman says. A man in a tuxedo chips in: ‘There’s the ballet, the hockey . . . it’s a great place to live.’ (Off screen, that man, a Democrat called Larry Stecco, sued Moore and Warner Bros for defamation, and won, but in Moore’s operatic treatment of Flint high society he will always be a wealthy stooge.) Another magnificent sequence has footage of Roger Smith reading out loud from A Christmas Carol intercut, Godfather-style, with clips of poor people being evicted from their run-down homes on Christmas Eve because they have defaulted on their payments. A third sequence, the most famous, features the so-called ‘Bunny Lady’, a Flint widow who has resorted to selling rabbits for a living (‘pets or meat’), skinning one of these creatures as it hangs from a tree, getting it ready to be fried. None of these images is subtle. All are what Kael would call ‘cheap’. But on screen they are electrifying.

Moore’s critics – and he has plenty, on both the right and the left – are driven mad by the things he leaves out. On the right, Moore-hating websites such as Moorewatch.com are incensed by the way he will, for example, invoke Cuba’s healthcare regime without setting it in a political context. ‘The Unbearable Wrongness of Moore’ is one subject heading on Moorewatch. More interesting are his critics from the left, who support his politics but dislike the form it takes in his films. Both Manufacturing Dissent and Citizen Moore – Roger Rapoport’s earnest biography – fit into this category. More in sorrow than in anger, they cite the labour activists in Flint, many of them Ralph Nader associates, who felt betrayed by the way Roger and Me turned out. Jim Musselman was a clever young law graduate and one of ‘Nader’s Raiders’ who collaborated with Moore on numerous anti-GM stories when Moore was the editor of the Michigan Voice. Musselman’s work is not mentioned in Roger and Me. ‘He never once said thank you. He never recognised that so much of what he did was the result of people who helped and influenced him.’ Mike Westfall, of the Union of Auto Workers, also felt bitter. Before Moore started shooting, Westfall, working with Ralph Nader, had drafted a seven-page treatment for a film about the GM workers in Flint. ‘Our movie was not going to be a malicious comedy farce promoting Michael Moore at Roger Smith’s expense . . . It was to be a serious movie, intelligently sounding an alarm and targeting the many problems by thoughtfully telling the honest story of the suffering of America’s workers.’ Which is all very well, except that this movie would probably never have got made; and even if it had, would surely never have been distributed by Warner Bros.

Despite Moore’s support of Nader during the 2000 election (for which some Democrats still cannot forgive him), there is a fundamental difference of approach between the two. Nader’s campaigns as a lawyer have been collaborative and careful. In his 1960s battles against the auto industry, he steadily accumulated facts and evidence until his case that many cars were ‘unsafe at any speed’ was watertight and manufacturers were forced to adopt basic safety measures. By contrast, Moore starts from the premise that his case is already proven – we all know who the bad guys are – and then uses every trick he can think of to present his evidence in the most entertaining light.

This means that when he blunders into real politics, the results are often cringe-making. His Oscar acceptance speech in March 2003, three days after George Bush had gone to war in Iraq, came across as grandiose and self-important. ‘We like non-fiction and we live in fictitious times,’ he bellowed, dragging his fellow documentary nominees on stage with him. Coming from someone whose films have always depended on picking the facts to suit the story, this seemed a bit rich. His participation in the 2004 election was also an embarrassment. With the help of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein he commandeered a private jet and spread his message – along with his books and DVDs – around the country in a rock star-like tour. It wasn’t clear if he was campaigning on behalf of John Kerry or on behalf of his own ever-swelling celebrity. He attended a Madonna concert (she is a fellow dropout from the University of Michigan) and listened as she tearfully told everyone in the audience to go and see Fahrenheit 9/11.

But however off-key he may be as a political figure, in the cinema he often hits the right notes. His technique is to hammer away at a single idea, to the point where the audience finds it comically self-evident. In Roger and Me, the idea was that Roger Smith and GM were to blame for the collapse of Flint; in The Big One, that the more profitable their business the more likely modern corporations are to ‘downsize’ their workforce; in Bowling for Columbine, that the American gun culture is dysfunctional and wrong; in Fahrenheit 9/11, that American soldiers were sent to Iraq on the basis of self-interested fictions concocted by politicians; and now, in Sicko, that America’s health insurance system is sick and that socialised medicine is the answer.

Moore has approached the Byzantine question of healthcare provision with the simple-mindedness of an innocent. In the first half of the film, we are shown case after case of Americans who have been failed by health insurance. First, there are the nearly 50 million people who don’t have any insurance at all – like the man we see in the film who loses two fingers in an accident. He is given the choice between replacing the middle finger for $60,000 or the ring finger for $12,000. He opts for the ring finger. There are the people who apply for insurance and are refused it – for being too thin, too fat, too anything. Then there are the millions more who have insurance, but of a kind that proves to be wholly inadequate. We see a mother whose child died because she was rushed to hospital with meningitis, only to be told that her insurer did not have a contract with this particular hospital. We hear a former health insurance claims processor who admits that his job depended on turning down as many claims as possible. Sometimes patients whose case is denied feel that they are slipping through a crack. Wrong. ‘You’re not slipping through a crack. Somebody made that crack and swept you through it.’

In the second half of the film Moore travels to Canada, Britain, France and Cuba and shows how laughably easy life is – from a sick American’s perspective – in countries where healthcare is free at the point of delivery. He suggests that Americans should start marrying Canadians to get the health benefits. He is particularly taken with a French service, offered to new mothers, where a state employee will come and do the laundry. This becomes symbolic of the ease of life in social democratic Europe. In the final frame of the film Moore takes a giant pile of laundry to Washington, and asks the government to wash his dirty clothes for him. In another stunt, he takes a group of 9/11 ‘heroes’, rescue workers with severe health problems, for treatment in Cuba, where they are rendered speechless by the cheapness of the drugs and quality of care they receive.

There’s no question that Sicko is simplistic. (Not everyone in Castro’s Cuba is enjoying a healthy life.) Moore picks the very worst things about America and the very best things about the other countries to make his case. The film lacks balance. It lacks analysis. It treats its audience – and indeed pretty much all the subjects – like children. On the other hand, this childishness is what makes Sicko Moore’s best film since Roger and Me; he operates best when he can stick to a single narrative tone, and when this tone is naive. Moore is the past master of the faux naif interview, a technique he passed on to Louis Theroux when they worked together on TV Nation in the early 1990s. His gift is to ask innocuous-seeming questions that reveal more than hostile cross-examination ever would. A good example is the moment in Bowling for Columbine when Moore tries to open a bank account that comes with a free gun. He has to fill out a background check, which asks him if he has ever been ‘adjudicated mentally defective or committed to a mental institution’. He asks the bank lady what ‘mentally adjudicated’ means and is told ‘something involved with a crime’. ‘Oh I see,’ Moore replies, innocently, ‘so if I’m just normally mentally defective, but not criminally, that’s OK.’ ‘Yeah, exactly!’ says the lady, enthusiastically.

The audience senses Moore’s intelligence behind the naivety, but for the persona to be fully effective, he has to stay in character. This is why Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Big One are his most uneven films; he jumps between different personas, which undermine one another. In The Big One, he veers between the personality he adopts when promoting his books – cynical, scathing, worldly – and that of a well-meaning everyman taking on big corporations. But it’s harder to take Moore seriously as an underdog when we have seen him as the hotshot author on a Random House book tour. In Fahrenheit 9/11, still more disastrously, he moves from being a knowing conspiracy theorist in the first half of the film to an unknowing local in the second half. The second half – which sees Moore simply exposing the links between poverty and army recruitment in Flint, Michigan – would be powerful by itself, but is rendered disingenuous by all the silly conspiracy stuff that has preceded it.

Sicko works so well because the film’s subject matter enables Moore to remain innocent throughout. In fact, he is more innocent here than he has ever been. In his previous films, he asked questions to which he already knew the answer in the hope of tripping up adversaries. Here he employs his naive questioning against friends – patients, doctors, Tony Benn – as a way of making himself look buffoonish. His persona is that of an American wide-eyed with amazement at socialised healthcare. ‘Where’s the bread and the milk and the candy and the detergent?’ he asks a British pharmacist. ‘How do you pay?’ he asks a pregnant British woman. ‘What do they charge you for that baby?’ he asks some new parents in an NHS hospital. ‘You’re laughing at me!’

Another line of questioning plays on the deep American fear that free healthcare is somehow Soviet – the fear of Ronald Reagan that the government will tell doctors where to live and ‘one day we will awake to find that we are socialists.’ He quizzes a pair of French doctors about their income and whether it is taxed into oblivion and professes astonishment at their bourgeois comforts – a fridge full of vegetables, a collection of different sands from all the holidays they take. ‘What’s it like to live under state control?’ he asks a highly paid British GP and marvels at his flash car. ‘You’re a government-paid doctor and you live in a million-dollar house!’

Because he asks simple questions, he gets simple answers. ‘No, we’ve never told someone we won’t put their finger back on because they can’t afford it,’ a Canadian doctor tells Moore, incredulously. No, he has never felt tempted to sell detergent like an American drugstore, the British pharmacist says; he has trained too long for that. It doesn’t rankle that Moore offers nothing but simple solutions. He is not pontificating; he is singing. ‘In America we’ve socialised a lot of things,’ he says in his lilting brogue, before listing some of them: the fire brigade, libraries, schools, postal services. ‘I kinda like having a police department. Why don’t we have more of this socialised thing?’ Moore has been mistaken for a political commentator. Really, with that beautiful voice of his, he is the last great American protest singer.