IT'S A GLOWING Mediterranean late-afternoon and Richard Gere is ambling up the red carpet at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is up for the Festival's top prize. A reporter in the crowd asks Gere what he thinks of the man from Flint.
"I agree with a lot of what Michael Moore says. I don't always agree with his methods. But I agree with what he says."
This is a brief scene from Manufacturing Dissent, a new documentary on Michael Moore--the man, the filmmaker, the publicity machine. It's been almost 20 years since Roger & Me premiered, and audiences are hip to Moore's methods: his ambush interviews and deft ability to re-make facts on the editing table. Yet he has no rival as the most successful documentary-maker in history. And while left-wing politicians and intellectuals pour him the top-shelf respect usually reserved for Al Sharpton, there's something disturbing about who Michael Moore is and what he does. Like it or not, however, millions of Americans more or less agree with Gere's summation.
When they began the project two-and-a-half years ago, Manufacturing Dissent's Canadian co-writers/directors (and self-described liberals) Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk wanted to do an interview with Moore and use it as the basis of a standard profile.
"We thought this was going to be purely celebratory biography," says Caine. But Moore's office blew off repeated interview requests. The only way to get footage was to reprise Roger & Me and tape themselves asking Moore to talk to them.
BETWEEN UNSUCCESSFULLY HOUNDING Moore for a sit-down at stops on his 2004 Slacker Uprising tour, Caine and Melnyk visit his past in Manufacturing Dissent. It turns out that the Michael Moore at the height of his triumph, thundering his famous anti-Bush acceptance speech at the 2003 Academy Awards, isn't that different from the Michael Moore at the beginning of his career. Photos from the early '70s show a long-haired kid with an impish grin covering his self-doubt. When he ran for a school board seat in his hometown of Davison, Michigan (a placid suburb; he's not, as he claims, from Flint) at age 18, he beat the odds and won, becoming the youngest elected official in the state. Playing the rebel has always worked for him and Moore seems to be wearing that same grin in every frame.
Manufacturing Dissent interviews some of Moore's long-time associates. Some are straightforward admirers. Some know a man completely different from the one they see on television. Some have been burned by him. They mention how he lies, hogs credit, avoids responsibility for his bombast and still affects his little-guy pose while living in a lakefront mansion.
For Moore's detractors, Manufacturing Dissent offers a freezer full of red meat, although Caine and Melnyk don't dwell on it. Because while Moore may be a less-than-ideal human being, it is his work, not his character, which is uniquely repellant.
For instance, in one old interview featured in Manufacturing Dissent, the Canadian film critic David Gilmour asks Moore to respond to criticism that his 1995 comedy Canadian Bacon wasn't that funny. Instead of laughing it off, Moore glares at Gilmour and calls him a snob. When another film critic asks Moore about the honesty of his slick editing in Roger & Me, Moore accuses him of being a tool of GM. Caine recalls an interview with one of Moore's friends that didn't make the final cut. "He said 'Michael has an almost pathological need to be right. If you look at a lot of what he does in that light, it makes sense."
In archive footage, a reporter asks Moore what techniques should be off limits to a documentary filmmaker. "I think you should be allowed to use any technique available to tell a true story," he replies. This interpretation has produced lots of money for Moore, and a revolution in the genre. Yet it hasn't produced much literal truth. In a Roger & Me montage, Moore chronicles Flint's embarrassingly desperate efforts at economic revitalization. He leads viewers to believe they occurred after GM left town. In fact, they were tried and failed well before it.
In another bit from Roger & Me, Moore explains how Nightline planned to do a special on Flint, where struggling local leaders were to talk with Ted Koppel via satellite hook up. In the next scene, a local TV reporter informs audiences that the special has been cancelled because ABC's satellite truck was stolen by an unemployed GM worker. What a gem. How did Moore get it? Caine and Melnyk made some calls.
The answer is, he made it up. There was no laid-off car thief. No truck had been stolen. There was no truck to be stolen. Nightline had never attempted to do a special on Flint. Moore made the entire incident up, gave a script to a cooperative reporter and passed it off as real.
MANUFACTURING DISSENT doesn't resolve as satisfyingly as did Roger & Me, where Moore finally caught Roger Smith at a GM Christmas party, asked him an honest question, and watched as the callous plutocrat barreled right past him. In Manufacturing Dissent, Melnyk sneaks into one of Moore's press conferences, tells him about the project and pleads, again, for an interview. "It's the Canadians again," Moore says, making an exasperated face. But after the press conference he does grant a 10 minute interview.
But the contrast isn't as great as you might think. The premise of Roger & Me was that Roger Smith would not talk to Michael Moore. In Manufacturing Dissent's big payoff, Melnyk and Caine learn that Moore actually did get two interviews with Roger Smith, in which they talked--for longer than Moore talked to Melnyk--about Flint and GM. There are videotapes, transcripts, and witnesses (whom Moore subsequently asked to deny everything). So the very founding conceit of Roger & Me, the film that launched Moore's career, is predicated on a lie.
At the end of Caine and Melnyk's meta-documentary, it becomes impossible to "agree" with Moore's work, the way Richard Gere and so many others seem to do. One can no more "agree" with Moore in Roger & Me or Bowling for Columbine or Fahrenheit 9/11 than one can "agree" with Steven Spielberg in Jaws. There's nothing to agree with. They're just stories.
Of course it's still possible to enjoy Moore's stories for what they are. And if you share his political reflexes, his antic-driven storytelling imparts a soaring sense of pleasure, which for some people, must feel very much like sympathetic agreement.
Louis Wittig is a media writer in New York.