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Michael Moore’s new theatrically released feature-length documentary should probably not have been theatrically released. Despite the crying, aching need for Moore’s voice to be heard at this dire moment in the American story, in America itself this film was, relative to the immense success of Moore’s other films, a miss at the box office. This time, when Moore finally spoke, few listened, and I think the medium was the mistake. Moore should have made this film for Netflix.
I’ve sat in a hotel lobby in California and watched US cable news. It’s all Trump, and all rage, all the time. Combined with everyone’s news feeds, which everyone’s constantly swiping down to update, news saturation is a thing. The idea of trotting off to the cinema to get “more of the same” perhaps seemed redundant to the American cinema-going public. Especially to get more Trump. I imagine that people either reckoned they already knew what Moore had to say, or they felt content to get it from the “takeaways” on their feeds.
It’s a shame, because Moore’s film is absolutely worth seeing, impossible to reduce to bullet points, and – the big surprise – not really about Trump. Its call to arms is Trump’s election, absolutely, and its final act is a very persuasive argument for Trump as calculating fascist that puts a terrifying new spin on even his dumbest-seeming acts. But the bulk of the film offers a comprehensive account of a more localised example of sheer, jaw-dropping, morally incomprehensible corruption within the US political system, and holds that up, not only as a mirror to Trump, but as and example – to Trump – of what you can get away with once you’re in charge.
That would be the Flint water scandal – and by scandal, I mean abomination. What was done to the people of Flint, Michigan, by its Governor, Rick Snyder, in pursuit of his and his friends’ wallets and at the expense of his mostly poor black constituents is so unbelievably callous, reckless and obviously criminal that it feels like a war crime. Australian audiences will be aghast; it really does feel impossible that someone actually did this to their own constituents and pretty much got away with it. And that’s part of Moore’s point. He shows that corruption at this hellish scale has not only set up Trump, it has inspired him. When politicians can be as fundamentally evil as Snyder, voters disengage – give up – and shameless sociopaths like Trump can move in and make absolute hay.
By offering a thorough, moving and furious exposé of what happened in Flint, Moore is linking back to his first major documentary feature, Roger and Me, and, later in the film, when he examines the Parkland school shooting and its aftermath, to his second, Bowling For Columbine. This has a profound effect. Both those films highlighted serious flaws in the American system, whereby people were not only losing their jobs and their houses but their lives. By returning to both subjects – Flint and guns – again, with such focus, we see, shatteringly, that not only have things in the USA gotten worse, they’ve gotten substantially worse. Moore’s collective filmography thus charts sustained systemic decline. Oh, for the days when Flint’s only problem was the loss of all sustainable income, rather than the systemic poisoning of its children.
In sympathy with its sober content, the new film has a darker hue than Moore’s previous work. Unlike Roger and Me and Bowling For Columbine, there is barely any humour here; it’s hard to smile in the face of kids drinking lead, and kids eating lead. It’s the stuff of despair, and anger, and the film is full of each. That anger also strikes at the Democratic Party; Moore exposes its hijacking of Bernie Sanders in yet another instance of such brazen corruption as to feel unreal, and Obama comes in for a massive serve for his actions when he finally decided to deal with what was happening in Flint.
So, no. It’s not all about Trump. It’s never about Russian collusion, Comey, the first 100 days, Stormy Daniels, Michael Avenatti, Michael Cohen or money laundering, and there is no pee tape, N-word tape, sex tape or other smoking gun. It’s about the system, the prevailing winds, that allowed for all of the above. It’s about a country in serious trouble, and it’s compelling and deserves a massive audience.
It should have been on Netflix. But it’s not, so go see it at the cinema. The last thing we need is for people like Michael Moore to give up, too.