When word first got out about the upcoming documentary Michael Moore Hates America, many were thrilled that finally somebody was doing unto Michael Moore as he has done to so many others. But some weren’t too thrilled with the title. It evokes an over-the-top, spittle-flecked invective filled with, well, hate.
I recently met with the 28-year-old director, Michael Wilson, at a trendily retro Los Angeles hotel. And I didn’t detect a single fleck of spittle anywhere. With his baggy jeans, pooka-shell necklace, goatee, and frosted hair, he didn’t look like the stereotypical conservative. Not a blue blazer or rep tie in sight. Despite residing in Minneapolis, he could easily pass for any of the legions of struggling Hollywood filmmakers who haunt the Starbucks and Coffee Beans of L.A.
It turns out that Wilson doesn’t consider himself a conservative. He told me, “I’m more of a small-l libertarian.” But he was deeply upset at what he perceived as Moore’s attacks on the American spirit of self-reliance.
He’d been considering making this movie for some time. But the final kick in the seat was Moore’s notorious acceptance speech at the 2003 Academy Awards. Wilson vowed to start making his film the next day.
A year and a half later, here I was in a hotel room with Wilson, watching his completed project on a twelve-inch laptop screen. (Plan A, to view it on the television set, fell through when the DVD player refused to cooperate. Perhaps it’s a Michael Moore fan.)
What’s Hate Got to Do With It?
And now I’ve got a new bone to pick with Wilson: The title is nearly as misleading as one of Moore’s deceptively spliced-and-diced scenes. It’s not a hateful film at all. In fact, in parts it’s downright sweet.
Viewers looking for nasty jokes, blind rage, and cheap shots (such as, ahem, showing people unguardedly preparing for a TV appearance, for no other reason than to get some easy laughs at their expense) are going to be disappointed. This isn’t that kind of film. In other words, it isn’t a Michael Moore movie.
Okay, so what’s with that title, then?
Wilson said it’s meant to be both ironic and provocative. Whenever he read a polemic attacking Moore’s movies, he noticed that the author would invariably end with something like, “The truth is, Michael Moore hates America.”
Even though Wilson agreed with the specific criticisms of Moore’s films, he was turned off by the venomous, ad hominem tone that permeated many anti-Moore rants.
“How does that advance the dialogue?” Wilson said. “People end up just talking past each other.”
Wilson says he hopes that people of all persuasions come to see his film. His crew was politically eclectic, including Democrats and Republicans (Wilson is a registered independent); the editor worked on campaign ads for Ralph Nader.
Wilson’s interview subjects reflect a similar ideological diversity. There are conservatives: Dinesh D’Souza, Andrew Breitbart, David Horowitz; and liberals: the editors of a leftist Flint-based magazine, famed documentarian Albert Maysles.
And then there is the unclassifiable Penn Jillette, the (very) vocal half of punk-magic act Penn and Teller. Penn is also a small-l libertarian. He and his silent partner host Bulls***, a political-correctness-busting program on Showtime.
With his trademark exuberance, Penn declares what is likely to garner the biggest laugh: “If the majority of the [American] people had their say on Michael Moore, it would be, ‘Shut the [bleep] up!’” (Only the word isn’t bleeped out in the movie.)
Michael Wilson Loves America
Let me answer the chief question on your minds up front: MMHA is a good movie. And considering the $250,000 budget, tight timeframe, and the fact this is Wilson’s first full-length feature, it’s an extraordinary achievement.
What few stabs at independent moviemaking conservatives have made in recent years (with the notable exception of The Passion of the Christ, if that can be considered a conservative film) have generally had the production quality and entertainment value of a kindergartener’s drawing. You ooh and aah over it, because after all it’s your baby, but deep down you know it’s excrement. In the case of MMHA, however, I don’t think you’ll be faking it.
Wilson is remarkably ambitious, cramming far more into his one-and-a-half-hour film than a mere point-by-point debunking of Moore’s movies (though there is a fair share of that). He covers everything from the American dream to the tenor of contemporary political discourse to the ethics of documentary filmmaking.
It’s a surfeit of territory to cover in such a short time, like trying to tour Western Europe in five days. The film suffers a little for it, as it occasionally wanders out of focus, and some of the transitions seem a bit awkward. Of course, that’s true of Moore’s work as well.
Comparisons to Moore’s movies are inevitable, so let’s address them now. MMHA isn’t as slick as a Michael Moore film–which is a good thing to anybody whose notion of depth transcends MTV’s The Real World.
Michael Moore overpowers the thinking part of his audience with rapid cuts and loud rock music. Of course, that’s an essential element of his technique: He keeps things moving so fast that he doesn’t leave you time to think through the implications of one point before he’s moving on to the next, which oftentimes directly contradicts the “logic” behind his earlier contentions.
Wilson’s pace is more deliberate, more thoughtful. He actually gives his interviewees time to complete a sentence, to finish a thought–which may consternate some of the more fidgety members of his audience.
The “plot,” if MMHA has one, loosely parallels Moore’s now-classic debut, Roger and Me, where Moore uses his attempts to nail down an interview with Roger Smith, chairman of General Motors at the time who was closing a plant in Flint, Michigan, as a frame story for his vignettes of the economic downturn in that town.
Some scenes showcase Wilson’s thwarted attempts, sometimes comical, to land an interview with the elusive egalitarian. Indeed, as word got out about Wilson’s work in progress, a TV journalist asks Moore why he won’t talk to Wilson. Moore replies, “I don’t appear in anybody else’s movies but my own.” Wilson then rapidly scrolls a lengthy list of other people’s movies that Moore, yes, appeared in.
Wilson treads some of the same turf as Roger and Me, both thematically and physically, when he takes his camera to Flint. But Wilson spotlights the hope and promise in Flint’s people, which he argues more truthfully reflects the spirit of America than Moore’s wallowing in despair and powerlessness.
Instead of finding a crumbling, blighted city, Wilson sees hopeful signs of urban revival. Wilson juxtaposes these scenes of economic vitality with a shot of Moore from just about a year ago, sadly shaking his head as he writes off Flint: “It’s a dead city.”
According to Wilson, Moore’s message to America is that if success doesn’t come easily to you–if you can’t make it–it isn’t your fault. It’s the fault of those fat-cat corporations and the politicians in their pocket. You are helplessly trapped by the grip of forces beyond your control. Moore’s is a self-defeating message that doesn’t empower people, but hobbles them.
Wilson couldn’t disagree with that message more. Through interviews and examples (including his own Midwestern blue-collar background), he illustrates his belief that in America, through hard work and optimism, you can achieve anything. Ironically, nothing makes that point clearer than the careers of Michael Moore and, hopefully, Michael Wilson.
An intriguing sub-theme pops up throughout MMHA concerning the ethics of making documentaries. Wilson interviews Albert Maysles, co-director of such classic documentaries as Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens. Maysles, no Bush supporter, nevertheless rebukes Moore for deceiving his audiences. “People say it’s okay for Moore to tell half-truths and be mean to people…because they want to get rid of Bush,” Maysles says. “I don’t go for that.”’
Wilson isn’t afraid to question his own choices. For instance, he fears that if he tells interview subjects the title of the movie he’s making, they’ll clam up. So he tells the city manager of the town Michael Moore actually grew up in (it ain’t Flint, but Davison) he’s doing a documentary about small towns.
Afterward, producer Chris Ohlsen admonishes Wilson for using false pretenses–indeed, Wilson is in danger of becoming another Michael Moore. Ohlsen threatens to pull out of the project unless he rights things. So Wilson writes the manager and fesses up. The manager thanks Wilson for his honesty and gives his consent to use the footage anyway.
Because it covers so much ground, it’s difficult to sum up this movie in a few paragraphs. But easily the most powerful sequence is a visit with Peter Damon, a soldier who lost both arms in the Iraq war. In a transparent attempt to elicit pity, Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11 included footage (taken from an NBC News report about a new painkiller) of Damon in the hospital while he was recuperating from his grievous wounds.
In MMHA we see a recovered Damon at home with his family, enjoying life, proud of his service. Damon has no patience for those who feel sorry for him. The only anger he feels is at Moore for exploiting him.
Asked by Wilson what he would like to say to Moore, Damon addresses the camera: “I don’t want any part of your propaganda. I don’t agree with what you’re doing.”
At the movie’s recent premiere at the American Film Renaissance in Dallas, Wilson said, the audience grew really quiet during this scene: “You could hear a pin drop.” But that changed when Wilson asks Damon if Moore had the right to make his movie.
Despite his obvious distaste for Moore’s film, Damon says without hesitation, “That’s the reason we go off to fight–to defend his right to make a movie.”
At that, Wilson said, the audience erupted into the loudest cheers of the evening.
As of this writing, Wilson is still hammering out the final details of a distribution deal, but he is optimistic that the film will be in theaters by early October.
–Andrew Leigh is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles.