Michael Moore isn’t the apologetic type.
Any regrets over proclaiming to millions around the world during last year’s Academy Awards ceremony that George W. Bush was a “fictitious president ... sending us to war for fictitious reasons”? No way.
But the crusading author and filmmaker does have a small confession: That rip-roaring acceptance speech after his “Bowling for Columbine” won the Oscar for best documentary almost went undelivered.
“Every bone in my body wanted to just thank them, blow them a kiss and walk off the stage,” Moore confides, stirring whipped cream into a steaming cup of hot chocolate during an interview at a local bookstore. “This was my night! How many times in your life do you win an Oscar?
“And yet that good Catholic schoolboy inside me is saying, ‘You know, this life is not about being honored with golden statues.’ ... In the end, I have to do what is right as a human being and a citizen. But I was fighting it. I’m a normal person, you know.”
And that’s one thing Moore wants to make clear — that he is normal. A regular guy.
Regular guy with spectacular passionFair enough ... at first glance. With his bespectacled, bearded face, tousled brown hair flecked with gray, jeans-and-baseball-cap ensemble and pudgy build, he’ll never be mistaken for a Hollywood hunk.
But there’s nothing ordinary about this formerly obscure, muckraking journalist becoming an international celebrity — nor about having two best-selling books and an Oscar-winning film in the same year. And not everybody can write books and make movies that have people rolling with laughter one minute and fuming with righteous indignation the next.
That delicate mixture of anger and humor is Moore’s weapon of mass denunciation. In books, films, speeches and on his Web site, the 49-year-old gadfly fires rhetorical fusillades at the National Rifle Association, conservative politicians, corporate executives and assorted “stupid white men,” grinning all the while.
Taking on terrorism
Now he’s working on another film, “Fahrenheit 9-11,” due for release late this summer. As the title implies, the subject is terrorism.
It will feature Moore on a quest for answers to troubling questions — a recurring role he first assumed in “Roger & Me,” the hilarious and heartbreaking 1989 tale of woe in his hometown of Flint after General Motors Corp. shuttered 11 auto manufacturing plants and laid off 33,000 workers.
True to form, his queries will be verbal whacks on the head; diplomacy isn’t Moore’s strong suit.
“You know the question a lot of people were asking after Sept. 11 — ‘Why do they hate us?’ The question I want to ask is, ‘Why DON’T they hate us?’ — and then take my camera around the world a bit and show what’s done in our name,” Moore says.
Terrorism is wrong, he says. But when he has finished cataloging misdeeds by the U.S. government and corporations, viewers will feel lucky their country hasn’t drawn more attacks.
And why, he continues, are Americans so obsessed with terrorism in the first place? Sept. 11 was horrific. But the typical citizen has almost no chance of encountering terrorists.
He accuses the Bush administration of exaggerating the danger to frighten voters into giving the president another term: “It is one of the most successful lies ever perpetrated upon a people.”
Do his critics just not get the joke?Such gloves-off rhetoric is one reason why Moore’s critics — and they are legion — just don’t get the joke. One of many Web sites devoted to him is labeled: “Michael Moore Hates America.”
“He is beyond mean-spirited. He is hate-filled,” said Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center in Arlington, Va.
Nope, Moore replies. Those labels are more fairly applied to purveyors of right-wing invective such as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly. (Fact is, he says, they’re all in the same fraternity of opinion merchants packing best-seller lists with white-hot political screeds.)
The difference, Moore says, is he and fiery liberals such as Al Franken and Molly Ivins champion justice for the underprivileged while their conservative counterparts promote smug self-centeredness.
Besides, Moore says, “We’re funny. What’s so funny about Ann Coulter? Even if you agree with her politically, I’ve never seen a conservative sit there and go, ‘Ho, there’s a real knee-slapper!”’
Humor key to getting through to people
Without humor, his books and productions would be simply depressing, he maintains. He wants audiences to come away entertained but hopping mad, asking themselves, “What am I going to do about this?”
Moore admires Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, Charlie Chaplin and George Carlin — humorists with deep resentment of social and political wrongs.
“A lot of the best comedians are very angry people. They find a way to use their sense of humor sort of like a release valve on a pressure cooker. I’ve always been that way.”
He was back in 1972, anyway. Then a high school senior in Davison, a Flint suburb, he was elected “class comic” by his peers. “He was always making cracks in class under the radar screen,” recalls Jeff Gibbs, a longtime friend and collaborator.
The same year, the 18-year-old Moore got so fed up with things at school that he ran for the board of education — and won. He served a four-year term. He attended college briefly at the University of Michigan in Flint and considered following his father and grandfather’s footsteps to a career at GM, but decided on his first day that the auto industry wasn’t for him.
Instead, he worked for an alternative newspaper, the left-wing magazine Mother Jones and a Ralph Nader organization before returning home to produce “Roger & Me,” a darkly comic documentary that became the prototype for his subsequent screen endeavors.
Over the next decade, he turned out three other films, had a couple of short-lived television series and wrote his first book: “Downsize This! Random Threats From an Unarmed American,” a 1996 best seller. He later wrote another satirical work, “Stupid White Men,” which stirred a tempest even before its release.
Book stirs up controversyThe book was to be published in fall 2001. But HarperCollins held off after the Sept. 11 attacks, fearing its irreverent tone and Bush-bashing would offend readers.
Amid complaints of censorship by Moore and his fans, the book finally was released in February 2002. “Stupid White Men” quickly became a best seller and remained atop the lists last year, when it was joined by a follow-up, “Dude, Where’s My Country?”
Despite their popularity, Moore’s works have been criticized for being sloppy with facts. The complaints reach back to “Roger & Me,” when he was accused of altering the chronology of plant closings and other events for dramatic effect, and have continued with each film and book.
Spinsanity, an Internet-based watchdog that claims to sniff out misleading political rhetoric, says Moore uses “lies, distortions, and nonsensical arguments to mask cheap attacks and promote his own political agenda.”
Critics call him ‘inaccurate’At times, Moore shrugs off the attacks as motivated by right-wing hopes of damaging his credibility or, in the case of liberal critics, jealousy over his success. He also has pleaded poetic license. “How can there be inaccuracy in comedy?” he asked CNN’s Lou Dobbs in 2002.
But more recently, he has taken pains to defend his accuracy. Posted on his Web site are police reports and other documents that support assertions in “Bowling for Columbine.”
During a recent interview, Moore acknowledged the occasional error but bristled at suggestions that his works are flights of fantasy.
“I have a staff of researchers, and I have two lawyers consecutively go through the entire book and movie, tear it apart, try to find something wrong with it. If I say something is a fact, it is a fact.”
Regardless of the medium, Moore’s message has remained constant: Abetted by self-serving politicians, the rich and powerful are sticking it to the little guy and should be held accountable.
“He’s not so much a pure progressive as a maverick populist,” said Katrina vanden Huevel, editor of The Nation. Still, she regards him as a valuable counterweight to the likes of Limbaugh.
“This is his moment,” vanden Huevel said. “Scandalous corporate abuses, economic decline across the heartland ... these are his issues, and he speaks to them in humorous and effective terms.”
Moore vs. liberals
Not every liberal is so enthusiastic about Moore. Aside from the accuracy issue, some critics question the effectiveness of his in-your-face approach and his blending of serious politics with entertainment.
“Moore takes shortcuts when it comes to politics,” Kevin Mattson wrote last year in the magazine Dissent. “He entertains, but he doesn’t always do much more.”
Moore, in turn, accuses some liberals of being too elitist and ideologically rigid.
In “Dude, Where’s My Country,” he chides animal-rights activists, contends SUVs are not “inherently evil,” and faults many liberals for being contemptuous of religion. “This arrogance is a big reason the lower classes will always side with the Republicans,” he writes.
Working against Bush's re-electionAside from “Fahrenheit 9-11,” Moore’s top priority this year is campaigning against President Bush. He drew criticism in 2000 for backing Nader, whom many Democrats blame for siphoning enough votes from Al Gore to put Bush in the White House.
No dallying with third parties this year; Moore supports Democratic hopeful Wesley Clark. He likes the retired general’s views but says Clark’s biggest asset is electability.
Media Research Center’s Bozell shudders at the thought of voters taking advice from Moore.
“He feeds a growing vein in American society ... that sees conspiracies in everything,” Bozell said. “He’s a walking, talking hypocrite. His whole shtick is that he’s a blue-collar working guy on a jihad against corporate America, when in fact he’s made millions off corporate America.”
Moore acknowledges being wealthy enough to have an apartment in New York City and a home in northern Michigan’s resort country. But greeting locals and signing books in the Traverse City store while downing his hot chocolate, he insists the down-to-earth guy he portrays on movie screens remains the genuine article.
He still buys clothes at outlet stores and says much of his money goes to his projects, political candidates and other causes.
“I have the same friends that I’ve had for decades,” he says. “I’m married to the same woman (producer Kathleen Glynn) that I was before. I haven’t altered my life in any significant way. I think once you’re working class, you’re always working class.”
And perfectly normal.