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Michael Moore

Lightning Rod of the Left

Michael Moore is an outspoken critic of big corporate greed, America’s gun culture, major-party politics as usual and wartime fear-mongering, as well as a passionate advocate for the rights of the common man. 

In person, he seems an unlikely candidate for the title of one of America’s most famous and infamous liberal commentators and documentary filmmakers of the last 25 years. He is tall, corpulent, bespectacled, unshaven, and usually dressed in baseball cap and baggy jeans. His unkempt appearance and affable manner has disarmed many an unsuspecting interview subject, while he uses humor and a passive-aggressive interview style to elicit the information he wants.

Michael Moore -- Lightning Rod of the Left
 
Moore was born in Davison, Michigan, just outside Flint, in 1954. His mother and father were both Irish Catholic, and working class. Both his father and grandfather worked for General Motors, the largest employer in the area. Moore attended parochial school until he was 14, and then attended Davison High School, where he was on the debate team and worked with the student government. 

From Student Activist to School Board Member

Moore often came into conflict with his high school principal over school rules and resented his authoritarian manner. In 1972, when 18-year-olds were given the right to vote, he ran for and won a seat on the Flint School Board on the platform of getting that principal fired. He had become the youngest elected official in the country and nine months after he took office, the principal was gone.

Michael Moore at 21

Moore came into conflict with other members of the school board over his support for student rights and a teacher’s union. He discovered that administrators were awarding contracts illegally, so he reported them to the local prosecutor. He successfully sued the school board for the right to tape-record their meetings. Moore was constantly battling with the other members of the school board over things like student rights, school rules and administration that they began holding meetings in secret without telling him. Moore reported them to the State Attorney General and they were hauled into court.

When Moore tried to get an elementary school named after slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King in a district that was 99% white, local business leaders and the school board started circulating a recall petition to have him removed. Even though many of the signatures they collected were declared invalid, a judge allowed the recall election to proceed. It seemed certain that Moore would be ousted, but a groundswell of support caused the recall effort to be defeated.

Meanwhile, he briefly attended the University of Michigan-Flint, but dropped out because he was so busy with legal actions against the school board and the city of Flint he couldn’t concentrate on his studies.

Journalist

He began as a writer for The Flint Voice, an alternative weekly newspaper and soon became its editor. He expanded the coverage and the name to The Michigan Voice and served as its editor for 10 years. He tackled volatile subjects that no other newspaper would touch and that caught the attention of the publisher of Mother Jones magazine who offered him the job of managing editor. Mother Jones had once been a very important voice for the working class, but over time the magazine had forgotten its roots and was catering to "yuppies" because that demographic was more attractive to advertisers. Moore was hired to reshape the content of the magazine to appeal to a more liberal audience, so that the magazine would be true to its origins and still be attractive to a desirable demographic.

It wasn’t long before he got into a dispute with the publisher over running a story about the Sandanistas in Nicaragua that he thought was misleading and unfair to them because it said they were, "Leninist souvenirs of the New Left" who "had betrayed the promise of the revolution." Moore was fired and so he filed a two million dollar lawsuit against the magazine for wrongful termination and received an out of court settlement.

Documentary Filmmaker

Moore had become disillusioned with mass-market print media, so after a brief stint working with a Ralph Nader organization, he tried his hand at documentary filmmaking. His first documentary, Roger and Me was released in 1989. The title refers to Moore’s unsuccessful attempts to interview Roger Smith, the Chairman of General Motors. The film is about General Motor’s decision to shut down their facilities in Flint, the main source of employment for its citizens, and how that decision turned a once-thriving city into an industrial ghost town. The film detailed how the effects of corporate greed and Republican "trickle-down economics" had robbed the middle class of its job security and economic status.

Roger & Me

During production, Moore ran out of money and had to sell his house and hold bingo games in order to raise enough money to complete the film. His sacrifices paid off though, because Roger and Me went on to be the most successful documentary of its time.

He followed that up in 1992, with a short film called Pets or Meat: the Return to Flint, where he went back to Flint to check on many of the characters that were introduced in Roger and Me. The title refers to a sign in the driveway of Rhonda Britton, aka the Rabbit Lady, who earned money by raising rabbits until Flint authorities shut her down. The film showed that Rhonda and most of the other residents of Flint were continuing in the downward economic spiral that began with the closing of the General Motors plant.

In 1994, Moore produced a news-magazine style television show called TV Nation for NBC. Moore was allowed a lot of freedom by NBC, which maintained a hands-off policy, but the ratings weren’t what NBC had hoped and the show was in danger of being cancelled when it was picked up by FOX. Unfortunately FOX executives tried to exert a lot of control over Moore and the show. After many battles with Moore, the executives cancelled the show at the end of its second season.

In 1995, Moore produced his first fictional film, a comedy called Canadian Bacon. The film was about an American president who decides he can improve his waning popularity by invading Canada. The film’s release was delayed for two years because one of the film’s stars, comedian John Candy died. By the time it was finally released, another very similar film named Wag the Dog came out shortly thereafter and was much more popular.

In 1996, Moore published his first book, Downsize This!: Random Threats from an Unarmed American, a collection of scathing political essays. Moore decided to film a documentary of his 47-city book tour that was released in 1997 and called The Big One. During the tour, Moore managed to get himself banned by the Borders Chain for an incident at the Borders Bookstore in Philadelphia. Moore didn’t want to cross a picket line of workers who were demonstrating for a union, so he invited the workers into the store with him and let them speak to the assembled crowd after he finished. Even though he had gotten the store manager’s permission, Borders executives retaliated by banning him from entering any Borders outlet.

Moore returned to television with a program called The Awful Truth for Channel 4 in Great Britain that was very similar in format to TV Nation. It was eventually picked up by the Bravo network and broadcast in the US.

Political Activist

In 2000, Moore campaigned for Ralph Nader, promoting his belief that there was little difference between the two major parties. Nader didn’t have a chance of winning, but to Moore’s chagrin, he took enough votes away from Al Gore to get George W Bush elected.

Moore’s next book, Stupid White Men was scheduled for release in the fall of 2001, but the release was postponed by the publisher because in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, Random House believed that it was too critical of the president and his administration. The book was in danger of being cancelled altogether when an email campaign by librarians saved it. Random House finally released Stupid White Men in the spring of 2002 and it became a best-seller.

Liberal Propagandist or Documentary Filmmaker?

After the massacre at Littleton Colorado’s Columbine High School in 2002, Moore decided to do a documentary about the causes of the massacre, which he believed were rooted in America’s obsession with guns and violence. Bowling for Columbine was released in the fall of 2002, and it became the most successful documentary in history as well as winning the Oscar for Best Documentary.

Moore used his acceptance speech to make a strong statement against the war in Iraq, that really inflamed his critics. "We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons, whether it is the fiction of duct tape or the fiction of orange alerts. We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush . Shame on you. And any time that you have the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up."

In an 2004 interview published in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Moore said, "Since 9/11, the Bush Administration has used that tragic event as a justification to rip up our Constitution and our civil liberties. And I honestly believe that…we are inching toward a police state...At that point, you will find millions of Americans clamoring for martial law. I'm not talking about a takeover by Bush and his people. They won’t have to fire a shot. The American people will be so freaked out they will demand that the White House take action, round up anyone and everyone. That's what I fear. It won't happen with a bang but with the whimpering sound of a frightened nation."

Fahrenheit 9/11

Moore understood that his support of Ralph Nader during the 2000 presidential election had taken a lot of votes away from Al Gore and was instrumental in electing George Bush, so during the 2004 election he put all of his efforts into defeating George Bush. He produced Fahrenheit 9/11, a scathing indictment of the Bush Administration and its justifications for the war in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.

Fahrenheit 9/11

The Disney corporation decided the film was too controversial for them and they would not allow their Miramax subsidiary to distribute it. Eventually a distribution deal was completed with IFC and Lion’s Gate. As the June 2004 release date for Fahrenheit 9/11 approached, Bush supporters mobilized to block theater chains from showing it and tried to get the Federal Election Commission to prohibit advertising the film based on campaign finance laws that prohibit third-party advertising for or against a candidate so close to an election.

Conservatives called him a propagandist and a leftist flamethrower, and they mounted a substantial effort to discredit him. Right-wing pundits went on all the talk shows and condemned the film. Talk show host Bill O'Reilly likened Moore to Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels. A plethora of anti-Moore books and films were produced and there are nearly one million web pages containing the words "Michael Moore" and either lie or lied or liar.

Despite all their efforts, or perhaps in part because of all the good and bad publicity, the film made nearly $22 million in its first weekend, breaking the record previously set by Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. Since its release Fahrenheit 9/11 has become the highest-grossing documentary of all time.

Moore seems to enjoy his new status as the conservative’s favorite whipping boy, and he can trade shots with the best of them:

"These so-called patriots hold the flag tightly in their grip and, in a threatening pose, demand that no one ask questions. Those who speak out find themselves shunned at work, harassed at school, booed off Oscar stages. The flag has become a muzzle, a piece of cloth stuffed into the mouths of those who dare ask questions."


SiCKO

Moore's next documentary film, titled SiCKO, a look at America's malfunctioning health-care system, was released in June 2007. SiCKO is the single most important film about healthcare ever made in the US and perhaps the rest of the world as well. Moore illustrates the deaths, injuries, bankruptcies and destroyed lives that the US healthcare system leaves in it's wake and contrasts that with the healthcare systems in much of rest of the Western world. The US is, after all, the only country in the West that doesn't provide universal health care.

Moore also shows how the American people have been conditioned by their leaders not to expect decent healthcare as a basic human right, to reject any discussion of universal healthcare as "Socialized Medicine," and to believe that the other countries who have universal healthcare; i.e. Canada, the UK, France, etc are much worse off than we are.

Moore illustrates how the entire US healthcare system is run by a few insurance companies who value profits over people, and who dictate nearly all medical decisions and literally hold the power of life and death over innocent people who have no one to turn to when they are screwed-over.

SiCKO

America spends more than twice as much per capita on health care as France, and almost two and a half times as much as Britain. And yet it falls down in almost every key indicator of public health, starting, perhaps, most shockingly, with infant mortality, which is 36 percent higher than in Britain. Much of the billions of dollars we spend goes to the doctors, the insurance companies, administrators, the pharmaceutical industry and other purveyors. And you -- the patient -- are the last to be served.

Moore asks, "How did America come to be like this? We are a good and generous people who are always willing to lend a hand to those in need."

Moore says it should never be all about the money, "It's about how we treat each other in this country, as human beings....and how a system set up during the Nixon years has turned the United States into a post-apocalyptic nightmare when it comes to health care."

Moore said, "The Americans fear the government, but in France, the government fears the people." You see, we have lived to long in a state of fear, constantly running from one crisis to the next, never wondering why we have such crises. Or how we could prevent ourselves from reaching the levels of poverty that we have achieved in what is supposed to be the richest nation EVER.

But the movie doesn't deal only in generalities. It tells stories so horrifying and so pathetic, that it just screams insanity. Like the story of a mother who lost her toddler due to Kaiser's reluctance to pay an out-of-network, or the 50somethings who have to move into their daughter's basement after co-pays forced them to sell their house. Or the man who found a perfect bone marrow donor, but the health group said the transplant was "experimental". No, it was abundantly clear that insurance companies are becoming the weak link in our health care delivery, if not the thief in the night. They seek to deny care. That is their job, not to ensure a healthy population, not to "thrive", but to keep their "medical losses" to a minimum.

Moore shows us an insurance company medical director confessing she had killed people by intentionally denying treatment coverage to boost company profits. A security camera catching a woman in dementia dumped on the streets in flimsy hospital gown. A former insurance claim adjustor in overwhelming remorse. The utter bewilderment, grief and anger of survivors who lost loved ones to no coverage or coverage reversal.

This is America today. This is how we treat -- not just the least of us -- but all of us, except of course for those who can afford to pay their own way.

Moore interviewed a guy whose job it was to deny claims after they were already paid. It goes like this: You have a major operation and the insurance pays for it. You are very grateful and count your blessings. You think it's all over--but you are wrong because your file has just been sent to some bean counter whose job it is to try to find anything wrong with the applications you originally filled out when you got the insurance and any paperwork you have filled out at your doctor's office. If they find anything that they can use as a pretext to retroactively deny your claims, you'll be billed for the entire cost of the incident; surgery, hospital stay, drugs, etc.

Moore interviewed a woman who was accused of failing to disclose that she once had a yeast infection many years prior. I don't remember what operation she had or how much it cost, but the insurance company decided based on this yeast infection that she had a pre-existing condition and that she should pay for everything they already paid for.

The guy Moore interviewed who told him these things said it was very easy to find something in someone's file and use it to deny a claim, and save the insurance company the entire cost of whatever health crisis brought the file to their attention. He even described a legal principle that says that even if you didn't seek treatment for a particular condition, if you had a symptom that a "reasonable" person would seek treatment for then it could still be considered a pre-existing condition and used as the basis for throwing out an entire group of claims.

Word to the wise; don't ever leave anything out when filling out medical forms (well, except for illegal drug use) or it could end up costing you everything you own.

Capitalism: A Love Story

In Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore goes eyeball to eyeball with the entire free-market economy.

"It's a crime story," says Mike. "But it's also a war story about class warfare. And a vampire movie, with the upper one percent feeding off the rest of us. And, of course, it's also a love story. Only it's about an abusive relationship." He started shooting about six months before the economy melted down in 2008.

"It's not about an individual, like Roger Smith, or a corporation, or even an issue, like health care," Mike notes. "This is the big enchilada. This is about the thing that dominates all our lives -- the economy. I made it as if it was going to be the last movie I was allowed to make. Oh, by the way" Mike says, "it's also a comedy, probably the saddest one you'll eve see."

Capitalism: A Love Story is now available on DVD. Michael Moore says, "The fact that Wal-Mart is carrying this movie -- a movie that specifically exposes Wal-Mart's past practice of taking out secret "dead peasant" life insurance policies on its employees and naming itself as the lone beneficiary should the employee meet an "untimely" early death -- well, my friends, need you any further proof that Corporate America is so secure in its position as the ruler of our country, so sure of its infallible power that, yes, they can even sell a movie that attacks them because it poses absolutely no threat to them?"

Moore continues, "I am passionate about this movie. It is not only my most personal film, it is the most vital and necessary film I've made in my 20 years as a filmmaker. As gloomy as our situation in the world looks these days, I refuse to give up. If there's even the slightest chance that we can turn this around, then I want to help, I want to be part of the fight along with you."


 

 

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