On Michael Moore’s Here Comes Trouble

The activist filmmaker Michael Moore grew up in a suburb of Flint, Michigan, a city synonymous with working-class struggle. The site of one of the most notable events in US labour history – the 1937 strike, in which the fledgling United Automobile Workers took on, and triumphed over, General Motors – Flint was also one of the first casualties of the neoliberal economic policies introduced by President Ronald Reagan. In the 1980s, General Motors, till then the city’s biggest employer, moved many of its operations abroad and laid off the majority of its Flint-based workers. The city never recovered from this trauma and is now one of the most economically depressed areas in the US.

This history shaped Moore’s politics and gave him the subject of his first film, the 1989 documentary Roger & Me, in which Moore tries to get GM chairman Roger Smith to visit Flint and witness firsthand the effects of deindustrialisation. The film was a popular and critical success, not least because of Moore himself, whose demeanour gave him a credibility a more polished presenter would have lacked. Overweight and underdressed, here was no sophisticated auteur, but a man who, though critical of US culture, was also clearly a product of it. Here, indeed, was a man who knew that the American dream often masked a nightmare. That he could be clear on that point while also being funny did nothing at all to harm his brand.

In Here Comes Trouble, Moore tries to show that this brand is based on something real, that underlying his man-of-the-people, David-versus-Goliath shtick is a bedrock of genuine principle. Comprising ‘stories’ from his early life (we are warned in a note that ‘many of the names and circumstances have been changed’), it’s a sort of spiritual autobiography – an exploration of the values and experiences that have made Moore what he is today. It’s also a spectacular failure. Far from deepening our understanding of the brilliant shambles that is Michael Moore, Here Comes Trouble will strike most readers as a blatant exercise in self-publicity.

The book begins with an ‘Epilogue’ that recounts, in self-aggrandising terms, the moment at which Moore became, as he puts it, ‘the most hated man in America’: his speech at the 2003 Academy Awards, in which he berated President George W. Bush for his decision to invade Iraq. Moore suggests that the reaction to this speech was one of the lowest points of his life. Indeed, he even identifies himself with another Michael Moore awaiting execution on death row. That this is a comparison and not a contrast the reader is left in little doubt, though Moore is self-effacing enough to leave it to his friend and admirer Kurt Vonnegut to describe his treatment as a ‘crucifixion’.

Nor is this the only point at which Christ is invoked in Here Comes Trouble. Recalling his enthralled reaction to Michelangelo’s Pietà in 1964, Moore, a former seminary boy, remarks on the uncanny resemblance between his mother and ‘the mother Mary’. Later, he pens a one-act play (an ‘avant-garde number’) about the crucifixion, the immediate inspiration for which is a disagreement with his fellow representatives on the Davison Board of Education, to which, remarkably, he was elected at eighteen. Whether or not these delusions of grandeur are revealing of something seriously awry beneath our hero’s trademark baseball cap is not for me to speculate. I only note that he offers these anecdotes without a trace of humour or irony – a remarkable detail when you consider his ability to be wearingly jocular about almost everything else.

There are moving stories in Here Comes Trouble. Though Moore is not big on complexity, political or otherwise, the chapters dealing with Sammy Good, a bullied homosexual turned homosexual bully, and Father Zabelka, who blessed the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, do introduce a touch of moral nuance into his otherwise rather simplistic worldview. Elsewhere, however, one is constantly reminded of the sloppiness and demagoguery of Moore’s lazier documentaries. Of his short and unsuccessful stint as editor of Mother Jones he writes as if the source of the tension between him and his staff was purely a class matter, repeating the discredited allegation that one of the reasons he fell out of favour was his decision ‘to give a monthly column to an autoworker on the assembly line in Flint’. In fact, Moore’s successor invited Ben Hamper (the autoworker in question) to stay on as a columnist, but Hamper declined out of loyalty to his old boss. This is the sort of misrepresentation at which Moore, it seems, increasingly excels.

The book ends with the premiere of Roger & Me. In that film, Moore hit upon a brilliant formula: he would get into shot with a well-heeled businessman and invoke the jester’s privilege of speaking truth to power. But in Here Comes Trouble, he doesn’t play the fool; he merely makes a fool of himself. The purpose of this book is to explore and explain the experiences that led to its author’s success. Its achievement is to demonstrate, in glorious technicolour, the devastating effect that success has had.

Michael Moore, Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

Allen Lane; $29.95; 427pp

*

First published in The Australian.