Saturday, August 25, 2007

Manufacturing Dissent: Uncovering Michael Moore

One last festival review.

Deborah Melnyk and Rick Caine's documentary started life as a relatively admiring biography of Michael Moore and, somewhere along the line, mutated into an attack on Moore's working methods. Of course, in general terms, the criticisms of Moore's films are well-rehearsed, but they come largely from the American right. And frankly, nobody really takes the American right seriously on these things, because (a) they complain about the liberal bias in everything, and (b) they think Fox News is just fine. Consequently, although a miniature industry has sprung up in Moore rebuttal films, they tend to preach to the converted.

But there are ample, well-attested problems with Michael Moore's films, and there's a place for a film that approaches them without the same ideological baggage. Unfortunately, this probably isn't it.

The film is certainly persuasive about the fundamental dishonesty of large chunks of Moore's films. Roger & Me, it claims, contains two scenes which are completely fictitious. Moreover, even though the film is built around Moore's supposed quest to get an interview with the chairman of General Motors, it omits to mention that he did get a face-to-face interview, twice. A fairly fundamental omission when your film is built around criticising the guy for refusing to talk about the problems.

You could go on - and frankly, they'd have been well advised to spend more time making the comparable points about Moore's more recent and more influential films.

Instead, we get an awful lot about the directors' own attempt to get an interview with Moore and his (admittedly striking) lack of co-operation. There's a clear attempt here to portray themselves in a parallel with Moore in Roger & Me, and there's the glimmer of a valid point. If Moore is going to criticise other people for refusing to give him interviews, he inevitably comes across as a hypocrite for declining them himself. But that's a completely separate point from the more fundamental charges of deceit that they're levelling at him.

Here's the problem. There's a wider issue here, which the film never quite gets to grips with. The reason people are prepared to put up with Moore is two-fold (and these are essentially the arguments which were put forward at length after the screening by some very tetchy supporters). First, his falsifications tend to be in the detail, rather than on points that truly affect the substance of his argument. Second, this is simply the way in which political debate now works in the United States. Moore is no more dishonest than Fox News, and accuracy is an ineffective mode of political debate. Of course, a similar end-justifies-the-means mentality is implicit in many of Moore's right-wing counterparts.

But the fact that it's even possible to have an argument about the very ground rules of political debate in terms such as these is, or at least ought to be, alarming. When politics is being conducted on the basis that any amount of dishonesty is permissible so long as it gets the voters to support the correct programme, true public debate has effectively ceased and democracy is in crisis. This really won't do. But as any subscriber to FactCheck will be aware, systematic deceit has become a feature of American politics.

(Britain is not exempt, but the problem is hardly on the same scale. The British press seems much more willing to treat minor factual inaccuracies by politicans as stories. The current crisis of confidence which the television industry is working through indicates that many journalists and documentarians have clearly been in the habit of fudging things to make a better story, the public emphatically rejects any notion that this is a legitimate form of behaviour. Nobody is seriously questioning where the ground rules lie over here, merely whether they are being properly enforced.)

Yet this is a far wider issue, and Moore is only one instance of it. At best he's merely a case study of a wider malaise. This film sets out to do a straight biopic, ends up wanting to make another film entirely, but still has to deliver the Michael Moore profile that everyone signed on for in the first place. Neither a consideration of the wider issues of journalistic ethics, nor a proper biography of Michael Moore, the film ends up falling between two stools. It doesn't help that the European distributors apparently removed 20 minutes of footage about Moore's early career on the grounds that Europeans probably wouldn't be interested - even though this reduces the running time to 75 minutes.

There's a much better film to be made about this subject, but I suspect this one has been hamstrung by its origins as a straight biography.