Toronto Film Festival 2018: Michael Moore, Errol Morris and the Pitfalls of Political Docs
A man sat in an office, railing that conservatives did not have a voice in the liberally-biased, mainstream-media landscape. So he started a channel of his own to give them a loud megaphone. A man sat at a desk, staring at the online site he oversaw after its creator shuffled off this mortal coil — maybe it rhymes with Schmeitbarts, maybe it doesn’t — and bemoaned the fact that the post-Tea Party deplorables didn’t have enough say in things. So he signed on as a campaign consultant for a man who he thought might help him accomplish that goal.
A man, quite a boorish one, a constant celebrity presence on the periphery spewing nonsense about birth certificates and such, had been insulted by a sitting President at a press banquet and incensed over the fact that NBC was paying Gwen Stefani more money than him. So he decided to run for President, and played to populist fears and pumped up the racist rabble-rousers. He ran on a platform of slurs and lies and extremities. He won, and, well, do we have to tell you what he did next? Check the news. Check your Twitter feed. He’s probably said or done something new that’s sowing chaos and dissent since you started reading this piece.
These three stooges — Moe is their leader! — have shaped the world that you and I are living in right here, right now, and not for the better. All three of them figure prominently in documentaries that have splashed down at the Toronto Film Festival over the past week or so, all attempts to explain the great $64,000 questions of “What The Hell Happened?” That aforementioned Stefani tidbit, in fact, shows up in Fahrenheit 11/9, Michael Moore’s doc that attempts to do for the 2016 election what his 2004 hit Fahrenheit 9/11 did for the Dubya era. (See what he did there? He reversed the title’s numbers! Sweet move!) Part of why Trump decided to descend that elevator in June of 2015, we’re told, were his ruffled feathers over a Peacock Network pay disparity issue. Never underestimate a rich man’s pettiness, we’re reminded. Or, via the requisite montage of 2016’s Greatest Misses (media arrogance, rally-fueled blind allegiance), the reliability of that well-worn P.T. Barnum quote regarding the birth rates of folks easily taken in “on both sides.”
Of course, because this is a Michael Moore movie, it’s also about the cult-of-personality filmmaker himself, which means we’ll eventually get him charging into the Michigan State Capitol to make a citizen’s arrest of a politician, and trying to get an aide to drink local water after the lackey claims it’s no longer contaminated, or spraying Governor Rick Snyder’s house with the same Flint H2O that’s caused fatalities in largely working-class, African-American households. It’s almost like his old TV show The Awful Truth never went off the air. Here come the gonzo gotchas! Other targets are derided then dismissed — #MeToo offenders, ineffective Dems, our screwed-up electoral college, convention delegates who gave Bernie Sanders the shaft, a co-opted media — as if he’s ticking boxes on a checklist. A Trump speech plays over Hitler footage. It’s a warning that can’t be heard over the crowd’s weary sighs.
When Moore focuses on his old hometown, however, and what started happening there in 2014 — a water crisis that predates Trump’s reign — the doc starts to find solid ground to stand on. Gone, for the moment, are the Trump mixtapes of outrageous pre-campaign statements and Access Hollywood scandals. Instead, the filmmaker details how Snyder declared a state of “emergency management” and began stacking the bureaucratic decks with cronies. A plan to build a second pipeline to pump water into the Michigan city, for no other reason than to get the politician’s friends paid, bypasses Lake Huron for the polluted Flint River as its source. The result was an immoral, profit-driven, totally unnecessary and completely unforgivable catastrophe.
All politics are local, and by returning to the scene of this particular crime, Moore makes it personal — and wisely opens up an attack on two fronts. First, he points out that the dismantling of government, the putting of proxies in power, the use of denial and obfuscation once shit starts hitting the fans (and pouring out of taps) — this was a blueprint for how to get away with big-league corruption, and per Moore, that Trump was taking notes on all of it. (Lest you think our current POTUS is the only one in the crosshairs, his predecessor also gets raked over the coals; the filmmaker hasn’t forgiven Obama for showing up in Flint and pulling that hey-guys I’ll-drink-the water-kickin’-back-no-big-deal stunt. Not good, Barack.)
But even more than pointing out the micro-macro connection between a crisis in one town and another on a federal level, he also uses this case study to introduce us to April Hawkins, the whistleblower who helped turn Flint’s water crisis into a national story. She’s part of the wave of folks still fighting the good fight, the ones who give him hope for the future — like progressive congressional candidates such as Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the teachers who went on strike in West Virginia and the Parkland kids who turned into gun-control cause célèbres. It’s a roll call of revolutionaries, folks designed to serve as flip-side antidotes to the rogue’s gallery perp-walking through the nightly news. “We should all consider ourselves part of the French Resistance,” he noted at the movie’s premiere. His wildly flailing jeremiad doesn’t make much of a case for how to form a much-needed American counterpart. Those folks he highlights, though — they’ve already taken up the call. Fahrenheit 11/9 gives them a stage on which to rage. It makes up for a lot.
You say you want a revolution? So did Roger Ailes and Steve Bannon, the two princes of darkness — eh, that plays to their egos way too much, let’s call them rent-a-Mephistos — who turn their respective docs into inadvertent Fahrenheit 11/9 prequels and semi-sequels. Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes is perfectly acceptable if you need a back-to-basics primer for how this TV producer on The Mike Douglas Show went from being Nixon’s “media adviser” to G.O.P. candidate whisperer to the CEO of, per Jon Stewart, “Bullshit Mountain.” There were some sex scandals in there as well; perhaps you heard about those.
Director Alexis Bloom lays it all out from rise to fall, with a few field trips to Cold Springs, NY — a small-town USA haven where Ailes took over the local paper and proceeded to use big-city smear tactics on the locals — and an answer to the question, “How a hemophiliac from the Buckeye State took over the world and helped ruined it.” It’s meat-and-potatoes docmaking, served blandly and without much sauce. But it does give you a keen sense of how this nightmarish American — don’t just take my word for it — laid the trackwork for our runaway train POTUS. It would take someone else to kickstart the express into motion.
When news hit that Errol Morris was going to do one of his interview films with former Breitbart-er/Trump enabler (and recent New Yorker fest disinvitee) Steve Bannon, the sense that something special was going to happen — some corner was going to be turned, we thought, with visions of The Fog of War dancing through our heads. Everybody remembers that revelatory, Oscar-winning Robert McNamara conversation; few recall The Unknown Known, the director’s 2013 face-to-face (face-to-Interrotron, really) with Donald Rumsfeld, who slithered away from any attempt at garnering accountability.
The latter, it seems, is the template for what happens in American Dharma, which doesn’t exactly give the man who’s called for European ethno-uprisings and has mongered more than his fair share of hate a pulpit to mainstream his “ideas.” (We apologize to the word ideas for its inclusion in that sentence.) It does, however, let Bannon blather on about John Wayne and Gregory Peck and 12 O’Clock High and other aspects of his self-mythologizing bullshit, and pretty much unchecked. When Morris does try to engage him or get him to admit that he’s a walking contradiction — that his populist grandstanding for the little guy is, in actuality, severely screwing the little guy over — the subject counters with his own queries and marathon-length chin strokes. Then, more “American pioneer, mavericks taking over” bootstrap talk. Just to make things aesthetically neat, the filmmaker sets a map on fire and eventually, the entire fake WWII bunker set they’re in. Cool.
It pays to remember that we are no longer tilting at windmills but real-life dragons in our political arena right now, a fact that Moore keeps returning to in between Fahrenheit rants on the subject. But to watch American Dharma and feel like Morris, a man who’s elevated longform interviewing on screen to high art, has screwed the pooch so profoundly here is upsetting. The pitfalls of political documaking right now is not just engaging in us v. them partisanship but amplifying it — not just explaining how we got here but being unable to get the players to own up to the damage they’ve done by being a part of it. To switch metaphors: If Bloom shows us the planting of the seeds and Moore is suggesting the forest fire from the fully grown trees is nearer to us than we think, Morris is trying to snatch the matches away from one of arsonsists and ends up grabbing at nothing but hot air. Docs are not going to save us. But they can inspire us, or make us feel even more hopeless. We have proof of that.
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