At least half a dozen people have tried to kill Michael Moore. But the attempt that really stands out in his mind is the guy with the fertilizer bomb back in 2004. "He was going to plant it under my house in Michigan and blow it up," says Moore. "But one night he was cleaning his AK-47 and it went off. Neighbors called the cops, and when they showed up he had all this ammo, bomb-making stuff and a hit list, with me at the top. He went to the federal penitentiary."
Not wanting to inspire copycats, Moore's team worked hard to keep the story out of the press. But that didn't stop an assailant on the corner of 19th Street and Broadway in New York who charged him with a sharp metal object (which ended up lodged in the hand of Moore's security guard), or the attacker in Nashville who ran onstage during a speech and tried (unsuccessfully) to stab him with a knife. "In Fort Lauderdale, a nicely dressed man walking out of Starbucks sees me, turns purple, takes the lid off his cup and throws scalding coffee at my face," says Moore. "My security guard took the hit and wound up with second degree burns."
Few liberal activists have a stronger track record of infuriating conservatives than Moore, whose new movie, Where to Invade Next, hits theaters nationwide on February 12th. In recent years, though, the death threats and murder attempts against him have subsided — as has Moore's ubiquitous public presence. His last documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, came out more than six years ago, and since then he has devoted his time to lower-profile projects, like renovating historic movie theaters in his native Michigan, launching his own film festival and writing Here Comes Trouble, a 2011 collection of essays and reminiscences.
Moore spent the six years between films in other, less pleasant ways, too: He endured the death of his father, divorced his wife of 22 years, and got sucked into a nasty lawsuit with movie executives Bob and Harvey Weinstein over profits from his hugely successful 2004 anti-Iraq War flick, Fahrenheit 9/11. (The case was settled on undisclosed terms in 2012 — "amicably," according to the Weinsteins.)
"It's a subversive and dangerous film because it pulls the rug out from [under] Fox News ... I'm carrying the flag and trying to make the country a better place. They won't want people to see it because it exposes the lie that is Fox News."
But, Moore explains, the main reason that he sat on the sidelines through most of the Obama administration is simple exhaustion. "I was tired after Capitalism: A Love Story," he says. "I said, 'I'm not going to do this anymore. I'm not going to be the only one doing this. I want to be one of millions. I don't want to be a leader.' I also realized that I couldn't just keep making these movies forever if we didn't change the central problem, which is an economic system that was unjust."
Moore was finally inspired to make movies again after witnessing the Occupy Wall Street movement and the beginnings of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. "A younger generation no longer saw 'socialism' as a bad word," Moore says. "I just waited until people came a little more around to where I was, or what I've been saying for the past 25 years."
So he got to work on Where to Invade Next, in which he travels all across Europe, demonstrating that countries like Tunisia, Finland and Iceland are doing a better job of letting their citizens experience the American dream than America itself. He has lunch with public-school kids in France, marveling at their elaborate, healthy meals, and visits with convicted murderers in Norway who are housed in prisons nicer than most New York City apartment buildings. At each stop, Moore plants the American flag in the ground and claims the great ideas he’s encountering for his home country.
"It's a subversive and dangerous film because it pulls the rug out from [under] Fox News, because I'm carrying the flag and trying to make the country a better place," he says. "They won't want people to see this movie because it exposes the lie that is Fox News."
Where to Invade Next has generated Moore's best reviews since Fahrenheit 9/11 (more than a decade ago), though some critics have accused him of cherry-picking facts and presenting a glowing image of European life at a time when the continent is going through serious economic and social turmoil. "I came to pick the flowers, not the weeds," says Moore, who has gotten used to this kind of scrutiny. "The purpose of the film is not to do a documentary on European countries and their ups and downs. And those lunches in France? I went to the poorest school in the poorest district. You can see the chicken was a little too fried."
Above all, he believes that the film is a powerful argument against one of conservatism's longest-running pet notions. "This movie is an inoculation shot against American exceptionalism," he says. "We aren't the first culture that's had this idea of' 'Hail Caesar!" But it will be our undoing."
It's about four weeks before the national release date for Where to Invade Next, and Moore is sitting in a plush reclining chair in his Manhattan high-rise apartment. He's surrounded by maps of the U.S., marketing materials for the movie and a lifetime's worth of memorabilia. Perched by a window is the actual camera he used to shoot his breakthrough 1989 film, Roger & Me. A framed poster from the Quebec City stop on Bob Dylan's 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue hangs on the wall (Moore saw the show when he was 21); another vintage poster advertises Bruce Springsteen's legendary 1975 stand at New York’s Bottom Line. There are books everywhere (including, curiously, at least three about the Unabomber). Near his computer sits a holiday cart from the Obamas with a long handwritten note from the president on the bottom.
Moore was an outspoken supporter of Obama in 2008. But like many liberals, he's a little disappointed by the past seven years. "When he [Obama] appointed [Wall Street pals] Larry Summers and Tim Geithner to run our financial institutions, I knew exactly what was going on," Moore says. "He's lived his life as the only black kid in the room, and so he had to learn at an early age how to make white people comfortable, because they would get very nervous around him. So he gets into the White House, and right away he starts compromising, before they even ask for a compromise."
He has a close relationship with Sanders that goes back decades, but he's reluctant to get too involved in Sanders' campaign. Primary season happens to coincide with the rollout of Where to Invade Next, and he doesn't want to send out the wrong message. "Fahrenheit 9/11 was seen as part of an effort to elect John Kerry," Moore says. "That was never my intention. Stop Bush? Yes. Stop the war? Yes. Elect John Kerry, who voted for the war? No. And then the film gets judged on whether or not Bush got re-elected. Well, that wasn't the point." (He ultimately decided to endorse Sanders.)
"Bill O'Reilly is the real anti-American. He's the one against the economic interests of his viewers — he needs to misdirect and make me that person."
Moore feels Sanders is more electable than Hillary Clinton. "The only possible way for Trump to win is for Hillary to be the nominee," he says. "I like her personally, but talking to people in their twenties and their thirties, and even forties, there is absolutely no enthusiasm for her running for president of the United States. There is nothing where a 27-year-old, on Election Day this November, is going to go, 'I can't wait to get out of bed today and go vote for Hillary!'"
In many ways, Moore has regained his fighting spirit. He was one of the loudest voices calling attention to the recent crisis in Flint, in which the city's water supply was tainted with poisonous amounts of lead. This past month, he even spearheaded an effort to have Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder arrested for failing to prevent the situation.
Though he has avoided cable talk shows for years, Moore is gearing up for a round of TV appearances to promote Where to Invade Next. "I'll go on O'Reilly, I'll go on Hannity. I'll just stand right there and, in a nice way, with some humor, essentially rub their nose in their own shit," he says. "Bill O'Reilly is the real anti-American. He's the one against the economic interests of his viewers — he needs to misdirect and make me that person."
It's easy to leave a Michael Moore movie — especially Where to Invade Next — with an overwhelming feeling of despair about where America is heading. But Moore remains hopeful, and sees the extreme right-wing turn of the Republican Party as a clear sign that they are losing the long game.
"It must have been very loud and stinky when the dinosaurs were in their final days," he says. "It really must have looked and smelled awful. But it's just that the dinosaurs were dying. The planet wasn't dying. In the end, young people, women, blacks and Hispanics are going to rule this country. That's why I'm an optimist about the future of America."
In line with this optimism, Moore decided a few years ago to get rid of his entire security team and take his chances out in public, knife-wielding maniacs be damned. "I don't worry about it anymore," he says. "I gotta go sometime, and I've just made peace with that."