American filmmaker and activist Michael Moore has developed a reputation for making politically charged documentaries that direct powerful questions towards the status quo. While the answers he presents are often incomplete, his works remain important because of their ability to make the audience think and feel about the pernicious problems plaguing us today. Moore has several accolades to his name, including an Academy Award and the prestigious Palme d’Or as well as commercial success.
In an interview, Moore once said: “They now show my films in business ethics classes to business majors. Mostly, I think, as a means of how to avoid me, or somebody like me. I’ve seen direct change, there’s been a direct effect from some of the things I’ve done. In my last documentary, The Big One, Phil Nike was forced to end child labour in his Indonesian shoe factories as a result of the film. So I do think it can have an impact, but these corporate titans will always go kicking and screaming into any sort of change that’s good for the world.”
He added, “I’m never afraid of the bully, the bully wants you to be afraid. If you stand up to the bully – you remember this from when you were a little kid – the bully went some place else, cos you’re too much work if you stand up to him. The bully needs you to be afraid, the bully thrives on your fear. If you cease to be afraid, the bully can’t function, it disarms him. That’s true on the playground or it’s true with Gandhi. The power comes in not being afraid.”
On his 67th birthday, we revisit Michael Moore’s oeuvre in order to understand how his documentaries and films have shaped the public consciousness over the years.
Michael Moore’s 10 best films ranked:
10. Canadian Bacon (1995)
This 1995 comedy is a satirical take on the public perception of the relationship between the United States and Canada. The only non-documentary film Moore has ever made to date, the film explores the relationship between politics and mass paranoia when it comes to national identities.
Moore said, “We’re transferring digitally to high definition and going straight to 35mm negative, eliminating the l6mm bump-up process. So The Big One looks like it was shot on film. Now if you want to shoot a 35mm film, you can spend ten grand a day on a low budget film and seventy grand a day on something as modest as Canadian Bacon. With the new technology you can spend a couple hundred dollars a day and have a real movie.”
9. Michael Moore in Trumpland (2016)
A documentary about the 2016 presidential campaign, Moore based his film on a one-man show conducted by him. Originally intended to be performed at the Midland Theatre in Ohio, the venue refused to follow the contract after Trump supporters managed to shut down the show. The documentary was a critical and commercial failure but it offers a relevant insight into the political atmosphere just before the start of the Trump era.
While talking about Trump, Moore recalled: “I was in a green room with him in 1998 when Roseanne Barr had a talk show [and had us as guests]. He came in and saw that I was on the show with him and freaked out. He went to the producers and said, ‘I can’t go out there. He’s just going to attack me.'”
8. Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018)
A sequel to Moore’s celebrated Fahrenheit 9/11, this 2018 documentary is a study of the 2016 election and Trump’s reign as president of the United States. The Writers Guild of America nominated it for Best Documentary Screenplay and Donal Trump ended up winning the Worst Actor prize at the Golden Raspberry Awards for his appearances in the film.
The filmmaker commented, “I didn’t realise just how insidious the infrastructure and the power is and how the old school and old guard politics and politicians of the Democratic party are probably our No. 1 obstacle to getting our country back in our hands, the way it should be. It’s painful to say that but I do not shy away from it because you have to remove that which is standing in the way of progress, standing in the way of justice.”
7. The Big One (1997)
On a promotional tour for Moore’s book Downsize This!, the filmmaker chronicles the sentiments of American people who are unemployed and impoverished. The film is also notable for its inclusion of surprise interviews with figures of authority, especially Moore’s confrontation of Nike’s Phil Knight.
“I went to Flint because I was insulted by his [Phil Knight] saying that Americans don’t want to make shoes, and I wanted to prove him wrong. So I gathered 500 people who said they would make shoes,” Moore revealed.
He added, “When I went back, I honestly thought he would never allow me back in there, on camera, to show him the footage unless he was going to use the moment to make Nike look good. So I went out there with a sense of hope, and I was honestly surprised when he said that Flint was nowhere on his radar screen for a factory.”
6. Where to Invade Next (2015)
Structured as a travelogue, Where to Invade Next is Moore’s attempt to compare the governance of the United States with other countries like France, Italy and Germany among others. The film was shortlisted by the Academy for Best Documentary Feature and received generally favourable reviews.
The director explained, “I’m also satirically commenting on the fact that when we visit other countries, it tends to be in a tank or a bomber. I wanted to ask: what if we were to visit these countries or, in the American terminology, ‘invade’ them, in more typical ways and do things that might actually benefit us as a people?”
5. Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)
With a special focus on the financial crisis in the US during the late 2000s, Moore investigates the connections between capitalism in the US and the Christian conservative mindset. In doing so, they reveal their own hypocrisies when they cannot reconcile their materialistic views with the spiritual preachings of Jesus.
“What I’m asking for is a new economic order,” Moore said. “I don’t know how to construct that. I’m not an economist. All I ask is that it have two organising principles. Number one, that the economy is run democratically. In other words, the people have a say in how it’s run, not just the 1%. And number two, that it has an ethical and moral core to it. That nothing is done without considering the ethical nature, no business decision is made without first asking the question, is this for the common good?”
4. Sicko (2007)
A scathing indictment of the health industry in America, Sicko examines the privatisation of the health sector in the US and conducts a comparative study with other countries that have socialised systems. The film ended up garnering a box office total of $36 million, marking one of Moore’s biggest commercial successes.
“To me there is a big confrontation in this movie,” the filmmaker said in an interview. “Because I am confronting the American audience with a question: ‘Who are we, and what has happened to our soul?’ To me, that’s maybe more confrontation than going after the CEO of Aetna or the CEO of Pfizer.”
3. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
A critical examination of the Bush presidency, Fahrenheit 9/11 provides relevant insights into the war in Iraq and the media coverage that surrounded the phenomenon. The title of the documentary is an allusion to Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel, suggesting that dystopias are no longer relegated to the realm of fiction.
“This is a movie about the four years of Bush,” Moore elaborated, “It begins with the first act of immorality; the reason it begins there is that it all rots from there.” He added, “If you allow someone to steal your White House, to steal an election, what else will these people do? Thus begins the decline from that moment in Florida to the lie after lie after lie to manipulate the people, all for their own gain and their own friends’ gain.”
2. Bowling for Columbine (2002)
Probably Moore’s most famous documentary and an incredibly important one at that, Bowling for Columbine presents a horrifying analysis of America’s unique obsession with guns and the violence that is generated as a consequence. Following school shootings and cases where children kill each other, Moore asks pertinent questions about gun violence in the country by comparing the situation to Canada. It ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
“The film took so many twists and turns in terms of what I thought it would be or should be that I finally threw caution to the wind. And it came to be something much greater than whatever I was thinking. See, I didn’t go to college – I went for a year and dropped out. So I don’t really organise my thoughts: Here’s the thesis, here’s the outline, here’s the structure,” the filmmaker said.
Adding, “What happens when you do that in a documentary is you end up filming to fit the outline, as opposed to letting the film sort of decide what the film should be. Everyone knows there’s a gun problem. You don’t need to waste two hours of your time and eight dollars of your money being told that. You might connect to it, but when you left the theatre, you’d just feel despair. I think despair is paralysing. I don’t want people to leave my movies with despair. I want them to leave angry.”
1. Roger & Me (1989)
Roger & Me marked Moore’s directorial debut and remains his best work up till now. Based in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, the filmmaker explores the consequences of Roger Smith’s (CEO of General Motors) decision to close multiple factories in the area. In 2013, Roger & Me was preserved by the Library of Congress for being culturally significant.
Moore explained: “I am partial. The film has a point of view, but I did not distort the facts or, as Harlan Jacobson says, play fast and loose with the truth in order to make my political point. There’s a certain comedic license that is being taken with the film.”