“When I think Labor Day, I think Chinese, don’t you?” texts Michael Moore, suggesting I book Shun Lee, an Upper West Side staple close to the documentary filmmaker’s New York apartment. I call, and the receptionist lights up at the mention of my guest. “Michael Moore? Oh, he’s very regular in the restaurant,” he says. I mention this to America’s best known provocateur as he pushes the table back to squeeze into the high-backed booth seat opposite me and get a puzzled look from beneath his Sundance Film Festival cap. “I come here, maybe, three times a year.”
Moore comes to the city to work, most recently on a memoir, and “to get some privacy”. He is a public figure in Traverse City, his home on Lake Michigan, not just for his Oscar and Palme d’Or wins but for starting a film festival in 2005 that has given its economy a much-needed boost. He relishes the irony of the Republican-dominated local business association naming him businessman of the year, an unexpected accolade for the man behind leftwing film, television and print polemics including Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), a post-crash indictment of big business.
His new book, Here Comes Trouble, is in a different vein, pulling together vignettes from his life before he made his name with Roger & Me (1989), his unsparing account of what General Motors’ lay-offs did to his one-time hometown of Flint. Being kicked out of his seminary for asking questions, shaming racist social clubs and getting elected as a teenager to the Board of Education to have revenge on a sadistic teacher were only a foretaste of the trouble Moore has made since.
Moore’s take-downs of the gun lobby (Bowling for Columbine, 2002), the Iraq war (Fahrenheit 9/11, 2004) and drug companies (Sicko, 2007) have made him as demonised by the right in America as he is lionised by the left. Yet not a day goes by in Traverse City, he says, without a Republican giving him a handshake or a hug. “They have had, I guess, the benefit of getting to know me as a human being. We’re all Americans. We are all in the same boat.”
Was that the point of the book, I ask, to present a more nuanced figure? He surprises me by saying his bigger motivation was to write “something that aspired to what the nuns tried to teach us, which was literature.”
Like much of Moore’s work, the book takes liberties with traditional definitions of non-fiction. Roger & Me may have shocked traditional documentary makers by making no claim to objectivity but Moore says that made it “authentic”. Critics have used his success to challenge his authenticity, however. The Washington Times, for example, has called him a hypocritical “jet-setting millionaire”, “a fraud” brought up in a “bourgeois” suburb and “a traitor”, driven by “hatred of America”.
“This attack is never made by anyone from the working class, if you notice,” Moore responds. “Obviously I do well now … Not George Clooney well. But, let me tell you, when you’re from the working class, you want to get out of the working class,” he says. Back home, “I never get anything but ‘Way to go, Mike.’”
Shun Lee, “the only non-greasy Chinese place in New York”, according to Moore, is a low-lit, black-lacquered square room on two levels with translucent, red-eyed dragons snaking around the walls. On this humid holiday Monday, just half a dozen tables are occupied.
As I look for a waiter, Moore says he plans a second memoir but is also working on new films and another project – “movie, book, internet, stage show, Ice Capades, could be anything” – that “will address the political situation in the country”. He won’t disclose more.
Ten years ago, on the morning the Twin Towers fell, HarperCollins was shipping 50,000 copies of Stupid White Men to shops. The publisher urged Moore to tone down its critique of the “thief-in-chief”, George W Bush. He refused, and it went on to become 2002’s biggest-selling non-fiction book but time has not mellowed Moore’s view of the former president. “Bush’s presidency is revisionism-proof,” he argues. “We’re going to be recovering from it for the rest of our lives.” I ask whether he feels disillusioned with Bush’s successor. “I was overcome with emotion, voting for [Barack Obama] on that day,” he says, suddenly looking down, jowls bulging under his chin’s pale stubble, arms folded as if hugging himself. “I think he’s a person of good heart and he means well, but …” There is a long pause. “I thought he’d come in swinging … come in like Franklin Roosevelt … What an opportunity to go down as a great president – squandered.” He looks pained.
The Republicans “decided to treat him as the invisible president”, he adds bitterly, making sure I catch the reference to Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel about racial injustice.
I scan the room in vain for a waiter and ask Moore whether he thinks Obama will be re-elected. “It depends who’s running against him,” he replies. “You have a Republican group of candidates that are certifiably insane. They think the country is as crazy as they are. It’s not. Granted, I think a good 50m people are probably certifiably nuts too but this is a big country. There’s over 200m voters. We can weather 50m idiots.”
It is hard to tell whether he is joking but Moore has experience of weathering idiots and far worse. After the 2003 Academy Awards, when he accepted his best documentary Oscar with a speech about “a fictitious president … sending us to war for fictitious reasons”, he was bombarded with threats. When he writes about recruiting security experts, former Navy Seals “used by the federal government for assassination prevention”, it sounds like paranoia but his book details a long list of attempted attacks – assailants armed with knives, “blunt objects” and sharpened pencils, and one man caught plotting to blow up Moore’s house.
Does he still feel threatened? He looks down as he folds his arms again. “It’s less now, because the country’s changed … I couldn’t live like that.”
Here Comes Trouble opens with a long quote from Glenn Beck, whose mix of polemical entertainment and political rabble-rousing on the right has echoes of what Moore has done from the left. “I’m thinking about killing Michael Moore,” it begins, and if it was meant as a joke, it is a disturbing one. “I feel kind of sorry for him,” Moore says. “I don’t think he’s well.”
The vitriol seems to fire up a hardcore of voters but Moore argues that the vast majority – even those who would never call themselves liberals – want stronger environmental laws, lower executive pay and troops brought home. “I’m in the middle now of political thought in this country,” he says. But that’s not how Americans have been voting, I say, a little stunned at this claim.
“Well, because the electoral process is controlled by money,” he replies. Moore sees capitalism as “a rigged game”, where the 400 richest Americans control more wealth than half the US population. But “the capitalist class” has overplayed its hand by snatching the American dream away from the middle class, he says.
The restaurant looks even emptier, not least of waiters, as Moore argues that next year’s US election could feature as many as four candidates – Obama, a mainstream Republican, a Tea Party representative and a prominent “leftie” standing for Democrats frustrated with the president. Are you announcing your candidacy? I ask, taken aback, and he quickly denies it.
A waiter breezes past, saying: “Take your time, don’t worry.” We have been talking for almost an hour, and we hurriedly call him back to take our orders. Shun Lee offers such delicacies as Hunan tripe, “tangy, spicy kidney” and “Lion’s Head with vegetables” at night but the lunch menu is tamer. Moore orders shredded sesame chicken and brown rice, checking it is not fried and not too spicy.
It is almost 2.15pm and I am hungry. I had been eyeing the appetisers but I follow Moore’s restrained lead and ask what the “heavenly fish filet” is. The description of sea bass sautéed with water chestnuts sounds good enough, and peer pressure prompts me to order my rice brown. Moore wants only tap water, and I follow suit.
I ask whether the “average working class Joe” that Moore likes to talk about has shifted from Moore’s brand of politics towards Tea Party-pleasers such as Beck and Rush Limbaugh. He looks offended. “They aren’t the majority,” he says. A majority of Americans is not going to vote for Michele Bachmann, he insists. “They’re not going to vote for crazy.” Despite Moore’s polemic in Fahrenheit 9/11, Bush was re-elected in 2004 and the Iraq war dragged on, so I ask whether he believes films influence voters. “They can be a part of it, sure,” he says: “Nobody was talking about healthcare until Sicko came out … [But] a movie or a book can only get it going.”
Our dishes arrive – Moore’s a heap of steaming chicken and mine a pale plate of fish, shrimp and snow peas. The bowls of rice look small. “I read that you went on a fitness kick,” I say, wondering why Moore has ordered so little. “One? Like all people my size I’ve been on dozens of them,” he laughs, describing his weight-loss plan as “eat less crap, move around more”. He adds: “Where I come from in the Midwest, I’m considered normal. That’s not good.”
As I dig in, discovering a welcome hint of ginger, Moore posits two theories of why the British are less obese than Americans. “You’re a little island and everything’s a little smaller; hotel rooms, plates …” he says: “And your football. You do not benefit from bulk, playing your football.”
He fell for English football on a trip to Arsenal, and suddenly breaks into song. “Vieira, whoah-oh-oh-oh, He comes from Senegal, He plays for Arsenal.” His terrace chant echoes around the restaurant. The two countries’ takes on football say much about their cultures, he laughs: “You score, you get one point, right? We score, we hand out six.”
Moore, who is recording a baseball game while we eat, says he leads a “a very conservative life” with the wife he met 30 years ago, going to Mass on Sundays. He complains that many on the left have lost their sense of humour, and tells conservatives that, if they would turn off talk radio and watch his films, “you may still disagree with me politically but you’ll know that I love this country and I have a heart, and you’ll laugh a little because they’re funny too.” It is a surprisingly optimistic statement, which he follows with another proposal for reaching across the aisle.
“The Republicans run people [for office] who are beloved by the American people,” he says, citing Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Fred Thompson. Why, he asks, do Democrats not put up Tom Hanks or Oprah Winfrey? “What is this about being afraid to win? They need to be thinking more along the lines of the Matt Damons and less along the lines of the Harry Reids.” Or the Michael Moores, I ask? “Oh, God, no. That would not be a good idea,” he says hurriedly.
The waiter takes our plates. “All done? Ice cream?” he asks, and there is no time to look hopefully at Moore before he declines.
As we get up to leave, I note that his book is both sentimental and unsparing about the America of his youth. The idyllic childhood of BB guns in the woods, Motown on the radio and modest income disparity between the dentist and the mechanic was also marred by the era’s racism, homophobia and other cruelties. “I love this country but loving it doesn’t mean silence or turning your head the other way when you see things are going wrong,” he says.
We walk out, and within a few steps, he is stopped by a student from Texas. “Mr Moore, I’m a huge fan. Thank you for everything you’ve done,” he says, handing me an iPhone to snap their picture. By the time we reach the corner, more passers-by are shouting greetings. Moore looks uncomfortable and we part. He disappears into a crowd on Broadway and I head to a sandwich shop, looking for a bite to eat.
Michael Moore first burst into the public consciousness in 1989 with Roger & Me. Many loved it, above all because it was a leftwing documentary that was fun. Others criticised it because, they said, it distorted reality in the aid of Moore’s polemic against the heartlessness of corporate America.
Throughout the history of the documentary there have been two opposing camps. There are those, such as Moore, who believe that you take fragments of recorded facts and use them to construct a higher truth. The other camp believes documentary makers should record reality and be a mirror to society. To understand who is more “real” in this battle for reality, you have to examine the past.
The documentary film was invented in Britain in the 1930s. Led by people such as John Grierson and Humphrey Jennings, it saw itself as a political movement. Like Moore, they wanted to change society but were convinced you did this not by ranting but by observing “the drama on the doorstep”. But there was an odd elite conservatism underneath their films. My father, when he was a young man, was Humphrey Jennings’ cameraman and he told me that, despite all the radicalism, Jennings was suffused with a nostalgia for an old Britain that mass culture was destroying.
The movement spread to America and, with the invention of hand-held cameras in the 1960s, documentary directors such as DA Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers recorded a dynamic and often frightening time. It was called ciné vérité and the aim, said one of the pioneers, Richard Leacock, was “to give a feeling of being there”.
Documentary makers had believed that they were at the centre of the liberal dream that culture could transform society for the better. But with the economic crisis of the 1970s, society – and politics – went hurtling off in a direction that many found hard to understand. There were still plenty of observational films about families and institutions that became an integral part of British TV in the 1980s. But mostly documentaries recorded what the filmmakers saw as the terribleness of “Thatcher’s Britain”. And they refused to say anything – voiceover narration was considered bad form. At times a snobbishness peeked through – the documentary makers sniggering at the ambitions of the “ordinary people”. It was all they had left to do.
Moore came hurtling into this world from a completely different idea of the “real”. His roots lie in the populist progressive political movements that grew up in the US in the early part of the past century. At their heart was the belief that the elites (Washington, the banks, big business) exercised power through controlling information, thus shaping what ordinary people thought and felt. To challenge that power you had to reshape what people think is true and real.
This is what Moore’s work tries to do. At its most successful – as in Bowling for Columbine – it is brilliant but it offends the other documentary school because it has no time for the classical niceties of observation. Moore’s Achilles’ heel is his desire to turn the world into a battle between goodies and baddies. And today this feels inadequate as a way of understanding the frightening new reality that the economic crisis has led us into. Saying “bankers are bad” is not enough. Yet again we need a new idea of what is real.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.