Not So Stupid White Men Fight Back
Clive Davis – The Times June 18, 2003
With his gift for generating controversy, Michael Moore was always likely to create a stir at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. The terminally dishevelled film-maker delivered exactly on cue as he collected his Oscar for Best Documentary for Bowling for Columbine, unleashing a tirade against America’s “fictitious” President George W. Bush.
A bestselling author on both sides of the Atlantic, Moore can lay claim to being the most influential performer-cum-activist of our times. Harold Pinter merely publishes in-your-face haiku in the literary columns; Moore commands the attention of millions. His left-wing polemic, Stupid White Men, was declared Book of the Year at the British Book Awards. A hero to many on the Left in Europe and the US, Moore is hailed as the principled voice of the anti-Bush, anti-capitalist movement. With the Democratic Party still in disarray, and with conservative “shock-jocks” storming America’s airwaves, he functions almost as a one-man opposition party. When he came to London last year to deliver a curious mixture of satire and speechifying at the Roundhouse, in the heart of liberal North London, the atmosphere was as reverential and ecstatic as a Billy Graham rally.
Bowling for Columbine got a standing ovation when it was screened at Cannes last year, and was awarded a special prize by the jury. A vitriolic assault on the gun lobby, corporate greed, the military-industrial complex and media hysteria, the film shows the famous muckraker roaming the land in search of the causes of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. His quest reaches a climax when he confronts the actor Charlton Heston, a champion of the pro-gun National Rifle Association (NRA), at his home. Heston seems ill at ease with the line of questioning (it has been disclosed that he is suffering from a form of Alzheimer’s) and eventually walks off camera, leaving Moore to savour a moral victory.
But having made his name with a brash form of guerrilla journalism, Moore is becoming the target of the same brand of tactics. Step into the sometimes murky hall of mirrors that is the internet, and you find his work coming under increasingly hostile scrutiny. If the mainstream press has been slower to dissect his modus operandi, the so-called online community has plunged ahead. Moore’s enemies seldom miss an opportunity to mount personal attacks, too. The fact that this self-styled blue-collar man of the people lives in some style on New York’s affluent Upper West Side has been a source of wry amusement to his foes.
At first sight, much of the coverage seems merely the kind of abusive satire that Moore enjoys inflicting on his own victims. A cheerfully disrespectful website called moorewatch.com has sprung up alongside moorelies.com. And in the weeks since he carried off his Academy Award, a new site, revoketheoscar.com, has begun urging malcontents to support a campaign to have the accolade withdrawn on the grounds that Bowling for Columbine contains errors and distortions.
Is this yet more evidence of a deranged right-wing conspiracy? Moore’s many admirers will certainly think so. The internet is, after all, the perfect place to dress up rumour and gossip as hard facts. But there is a serious undercurrent to all this dissent.
The studiously non-partisan political fact-checkers at Spinsanity.org have lambasted the reliability of the big man in the baseball cap. (Spinsanity also points out that Moore ran into similar trouble over his first hit documentary, Roger and Me.) Doubts have surfaced here and there in the print media as well. At the highly respected New Republic magazine — certainly no friend of Dubya’s — the staff rarely miss an opportunity to question Moore’s veracity. Another liberal journal, The American Prospect (one of the “must-read” journals recommended on Moore’s own website, michaelmoore.com), pointed out that his analysis of US gun crime is highly misleading because it underplays the appallingly high level of black-on-black violence: “There is a point at which an effort not to perpetuate offensive stereotypes turns into an impoverishing erasure of the facts.”
When the conservative Wall Street Journal’s political columnist, John Fund, joined in with a caustic attack on the film’s techniques, it was a sign that Hollywood’s hero might have a fight on his hands. After summarising some of the most serious allegations, Fund said: “Moore would deserve an Academy Award if there were an Oscar for Best Cinematic Con Job. If Bowling for Columbine is a comedy, most of its fans don’t know it. They believe they’re watching something that is in rough accord with reality.”
Does Moore have a case to answer? Some of the claims I have seen — such as the complaint that he faked footage of the dangerous hunting dog shown early on in the movie — are merely a sign that some of his antagonists lack a sense of humour. Another assertion, that he staged the scene where a Michigan bank hands him a shotgun as his reward for opening an account, has been denied by Moore on the film’s website, bowlingforcolumbine.com.
Not a good start for the conspiracy theorists, then. But other points are disconcerting, to say the least. One of the most important concerns the depiction of the Lockheed Martin factory, the largest employer in the Denver suburb where the Columbine shootings took place. After a caption introduces Lockheed as the “world’s largest weapons maker”, a spokesman, Evan McCollum, is interviewed in front of a huge section of a rocket. Moore suggests that there is a connection between the presence in the town of a weapons manufacturer and the demented violence unleashed at nearby Columbine: “So, you don’t think our kids say to themselves, ‘Gee, you know, Dad goes off to the factory every day and, you know, he builds missiles. These are weapons of mass destruction. What’s the difference between that mass destruction and the mass destruction over at Columbine High School?’”
McCollum initially appears bemused by this question. The bland reply that he eventually offers appears to be the typical evasion of Corporate Man. (Throughout his career, Moore has been very good at making “ordinary” people, from receptionists to shopkeepers, look foolish on camera.) Later, we see a rocket being transported through the streets in the dead of night, en route to an air force base, passing close to the homes where, as Moore ominously intones, “the children of Columbine are asleep”.
The forces of evil are on the prowl, it seems. But that hardly tallies with Moore’s own subsequent admission, on the <>Bowling<> website, that the plant does not actually make weapons: the rockets are used to carry satellites, including TV satellites, into space. Given that the film is so intent on drawing an analogy between rampant militarism and school violence, this surely undermines Moore’s entire thesis.
When you read Moore’s explanation for the error (“Lockheed rockets now take satellites into outer space”) it is possible to infer — if you wish to give him the benefit of the doubt — that there could simply have been a misunderstanding. But when I spoke to McCollum this week he insisted that Moore was given the correct information at the time of the visit.
Blissfully unaware of his previous work and, he says, having been told by Moore’s company that he was making a film about suburban life, McCollum had given him a tour. When Moore mentioned weapons, McCollum says he made it clear to him that the plant did not build any. Now something of a figure of fun to cinema audiences around the globe, McCollum says that he feels “used and abused”.
As for the question of rockets being transported at night, McCollum says he again explained the reasons to Moore: the launch vehicles are so cumbersome that they would cause long traffic delays if they were driven through the area during the day. Later, however, before the film was released, McCollum heard rumours that the film would show the company in a much harsher light. He told me that he contacted Moore’s production company to double-check, and to ask if he could see the footage that was going to be used. The company refused. McCollum later considered legal action, but shelved the idea. “We thought he was getting a lot of publicity already. We didn’t want to give him an even bigger pulpit.”
All very puzzling. A long list of similar anomalies has been put together by David T. Hardy, a former Department of the Interior lawyer. An Arizona gun enthusiast who has handled cases for the NRA, Hardy is one of the organisers of the Revoke the Oscar campaign. Clearly, he has his own reasons for wanting to discredit Moore. Yet many of his allegations — which were aired in The Wall Street Journal — appear to be backed up by persuasive evidence. The most striking example concerns Heston, who is shown stirring up supporters in speeches in Denver and Moore’s home town of Flint, Michigan.
The Denver appearance, at the NRA’s annual convention, comes days after the Columbine shootings. Heston is shown brandishing a firearm and aggressively declaring “from my cold, dead hands” before proceeding to claim the right for his members to hold their meeting in defiance of the city’s mayor.
Hardy claims that the first line came from a presentation speech made a year later in North Carolina. (Watch the extract closely, and you see, after a long cutaway, that Heston’s shirt and tie have changed colour. If that appears obvious to some viewers, I have to admit that I missed it the first time.) It is, perhaps, a minor point, but it’s worth noting that a Time magazine review, proudly posted on the Bowling website, repeats the error: “quizzes Charlton Heston on the propriety of proclaiming, at an NRA convention in Littleton, Colorado, just ten days after the Columbine shootings, that his gun will have to be pried ‘from my cold, dead hands’.”
A more serious charge concerns a later scene in which Heston resurfaces in Flint, where a six-year-old black girl, Kayla Rolland, had been fatally shot by a boy in her class. Moore describes at some length how the boy’s mother had been forced to go out on low-paid jobs as part of a callous welfare-to-work programme. Her son found the gun in his uncle’s house, where he had been staying, and took it to school. (Moore’s critics have pointed out that the uncle was, in fact, a drug dealer and that the home was a crack house. The gun is said to have been left as payment for drugs. The details of the mother’s financial circumstances have also been challenged. All this goes unmentioned in the film.) Hardy argues that Moore manipulates the fast-moving screen images at this point. Moore’s narration tells us: “Just as he did after the Columbine shooting, Heston showed up in Flint to have a big pro-gun rally.”
The impression of ambulance-chasing is heightened by the fleeting shot of a report taken from an NRA webpage: we see, in bold type, the words “48 hours after Kayla Rolland is pronounced dead”. Hardy points out that the rest of the sentence, which you can read when you freeze-frame the tape, actually refers to pro-gun-control comments made by the then President Clinton on TV. What is more, Hardy learnt that Heston actually gave his address in Flint <>eight months<> after the shooting, when he spoke at an election rally as part of the 2000 election campaign. The film also ignores Heston’s record as a civil-rights pioneer: he was a leading member of the actor’s contingent in Martin Luther King’s historic march on Washington in 1963.
When I spoke to Moore last week, he confirmed Hardy’s point about the date of the speech, but angrily denied the allegation that he had misled viewers. Moore said he had not even read Hardy or Fund’s claims, dismissing both men as “right-wing kooks”. He added: “I wouldn’t respond to anything like this. These are people who have no credibility. The facts in the movie are correct.”
When Bowling for Columbine was released in this country, one broadsheet reviewer lavished praise on its “superb investigative journalism”. The Times’s critic, Ian Johns, was more circumspect, noting that the film was “undermined by Moore’s subjectivity and contradictory arguments”.
Curiously enough, the leading US critic Roger Ebert, an avowed admirer of the film on its release, has now posted a web link to Hardy’s site presumably so that his readers can decide for themselves. I left calls and an e-mail for Ebert this week, but he did not reply. Richard Schickel, arguably America’s most distinguished observer of the cinema, was rather more forthcoming about Moore’s general approach: “I despise our gun laws in the States, too. But Moore’s tactics, I think, give aid and comfort to the enemy. In short, he’s careless with his facts, hysterical in debate and, most basically, a guy trying to make a star out of himself. He’s a self-aggrandiser and, perhaps, the very definition of the current literary term, ‘the unreliable narrator’. This guy either can’t or won’t stick to the point, build a logical case for his arguments. It’s all hysteria — but, I think, calculated hysteria.”
Moore’s personality seems a recurrent factor in the criticism of his films and his working practices on and off screen. An even more heated assessment comes from his former manager, Douglas Urbanski, a Hollywood insider — and avowed conservative — who also handles the actor Gary Oldman’s career.
“He’s the only client I ever fired in writing. He was the most difficult human being I’ve ever met. There was no one who even came close.
“Michael Moore would never withstand the scrutiny he lays on other people. You would think that he’s the ultimate common man. But he’s money-obsessed.”
Fund, meanwhile, believes that much of the cultural establishment has given Moore gentler treatment than he deserves, because his left-wing views reflect their own. “Mr Moore’s allies have basically defended him with silence,” Fund told me. “He is getting a pass because he’s frankly indefensible. I’m not saying he’s not funny, but he’s irresponsible with the facts.”
Part of Moore’s defence is that he has always made a point of mingling opinion and fact. Sometimes his methods are so cheerfully exaggerated that it is hard to decide whether he is trying to make a serious point. At his live show in London last year, which I reviewed, he built an entire segment around his argument — presented not as satire, but as a straight-faced statement of fact — that, if all the hijack victims on September 11 had been black, they would have fought back. Moore argued that, because the passengers were pampered members of the bourgeoisie, accustomed to being waited on at every turn, they did not know how to defend themselves. Now, it takes only a second to realise that there is an obvious flaw in this: we know that once the passengers on the third plane heard about the attacks on the twin towers, they rose up and fought their hijackers. Even the more sympathetic reviewers acknowleged that Moore crossed the line into absurdity at this point.
Bowling for Columbine contains many similarly dubious assertions. But because Moore peddles a fashionable anti-Bush line and claims, when it suits him, to be nothing more than a comedian, his work tends not to be analysed as closely as it would be if he were a conventional film-maker or author. As the left-wing writer and critic Christopher Hitchens points out: “I have a sneaking sympathy for his claim that he’s using comedy to make a point, but it should be a metaphorical technique.”
Hitchens insists that facts must remain sacred. Something of a gadfly in his own right, he nevertheless professes himself “appalled” by the prestige that Moore enjoys in Europe.
Of course, journalists and writers have often been known to bend facts to suit their purposes. Reviewers of the new biographies of George Orwell have noted that the writer, a renowned stickler for accuracy, was occasionally willing to embellish reality in books such as The Road to Wigan Pier. In a film, on the other hand, the line separating truth and fiction is much more delicate; it is all too easy to use subliminal effects or deft editing to bamboozle the viewer.
It is depressing to think how many people base their view of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Oliver Stone’s film, JFK, a technically brilliant, but extraordinarily misleading, movie. Michael Moore is not quite as clever at juggling genres. It will be fascinating to watch the next phase of his battle with his detractors.
Last updated 09/07/2004