Michael Moore is the saint of cinema. Since he first burst onto the screen with 1989’s Roger & Me, with his trademark wit, compassion, and motion picture panache, Moore has arguably set America’s public discourse more than any other single artist.
Roger & Me documented the havoc wreaked on workers by corporate outsourcing and downsizing, framed through Moore’s dogged pursuit of General Motors’ CEO Roger Smith. Bowling for Columbine raised the issue of school shootings when mass murders by gun were still rare, instead of the regular occurrences they’ve now become. When the film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary of 2002, Moore delivered an acceptance speech like an Old Testament prophet:
“We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times. We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious President. We . . . live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons . . . . We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you . . . .”
Moore followed this up with 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which exposed the Bush regime’s lies about the Iraq War, winning the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or and earning a quarter of a billion dollars as possibly the most widely seen documentary in film history. His Oscar-nominated 2007 film, Sicko, tackled America’s health-care crisis, and the financial crisis received its close-up in 2009’s wry Capitalism: A Love Story, which helped inspire the Occupy Wall Street cause.
Now, Moore has returned with his first documentary in six years. The droll conceit of Where to Invade Next is that the Joint Chiefs of Staff “summon” Michael to the Pentagon and deploy him to “invade” countries around the world. But instead of looting them of their natural resources, such as oil, Moore brings their best ideas—including free university education, expanded leisure time, worker representation on boards of directors, school reform, punishment of bankers for recklessly wrecking economies, prison reform, and increased female involvement in government—back to the United States for Americans to put into practice.
The son of a GM auto plant worker, Moore was born in 1954 in Flint, Michigan, where lead poisoning in the water recently caused Mayor Karen Weaver to declare a state of emergency. Moore has denounced the decisions that led to this crisis and called for the arrest of Michigan’s Republican Governor, Rick Snyder.
“To poison all the children in an historic American city is no small feat. Even international terrorist organizations haven’t figured out yet how to do something on a magnitude like this,” he wrote in a letter to Snyder that became a petition. “But you did. Your staff and others knew that the water in the Flint River was poison . . . .”
After Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s demagogic call for banning Muslims from entering the United States in December, Moore picketed in front of Manhattan’s Trump Tower with a large sign declaring: “We are all Muslim.” In an open letter to the image-conscious billionaire on michaelmoore.com, he wrote, “I was raised to believe that we are all each other’s brother and sister, regardless of race, creed, or color. That means if you want to ban Muslims, you are first going to have to ban me.”
Recently, I spoke with Moore about Where to Invade Next, Bernie Sanders and the presidential campaign, socialism, American exceptionalism, his creative process, mass shootings, his onscreen proletarian persona, Black Lives Matter, the Occupy movement, and more.
Q: Love your new movie. How did you get the idea for Where to Invade Next?
Michael Moore: [Laughs.] Well, considering that’s all we’ve been doing for the last decade and a half, it wasn’t too much of a stretch. I just thought, “What if we started invading countries in a different manner?”
Q: And for different reasons?
Moore: And for different reasons—and not use violence.
Q: Where to Invade Next implies that it’s time for a woman President in the United States. What do you think of the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina?
Moore: Well, the movie implies that the countries that elect women—not just as President, but in their parliaments and legislatures, the more women that are elected, the better off people are. But that can’t happen with just one person in the White House, in this case. And I have a lot of problems with Hillary, obviously.
Q: What do you think of the candidacy of Bernie Sanders and what will come out of that campaign?
Moore: Here’s what I’ve been telling people: Eighty-one percent of the electorate next year is going to be either female, people of color, or young adults between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. Eighty-one percent. The Republicans, especially Donald Trump, have alienated all three groups, so I think whoever has a D beside their name is going to win. So I encourage people to vote for the person they’d like to see President and not worry about who’s going to win. I think Bernie can win, I think Hillary could win. [On February 1, Moore officially endorsed Sanders.]
Q: What do you think of American exceptionalism?
Moore: The idea of American exceptionalism is like a very bad snakebite. And I see this movie as an antidote to that snakebite.
Q: As the Oscar winner for a 2002 documentary about gun violence, what do you think of the spate of U.S. mass shootings?
Moore: Well, I feel pretty bad about it. I tried to warn people about this, that this was going to get much worse. When I made Bowling for Columbine, school shootings were, you know, one or two a year. Now we have all kinds of mass shootings. We’re over 300 already for this year and I feel sad that Bowling for Columbine could open this Friday and feel like it was made last month.
Q: Michael, what took you so long to make Where to Invade Next? It’s been six years since Capitalism: A Love Story.
Moore: Well, I’m only interested in making a movie if it’s gonna be, you know, great. I wait and make sure that it’s going to be a great work of cinema and will reach people. So I don’t really think about the clock or the calendar, in that respect. Sometimes I’ve made a movie the year after I made the last one. Sometimes it takes longer.
Q: If Washington keeps on invading nations around the world, in the ways we’ve been seeing, will this cause the American empire to fall?
Moore: Oh, I believe that’s true. And I believe that we’re in deep trouble now because of the situation we’ve created in the Middle East. Deep, deep trouble. I fear a lot of people are going to suffer as a result of our actions. And I think we should be called to account. The fact that the Germans and other countries are willing to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees from a problem that we created is admirable for them—and shameful on our part.
Q: One of the things that delights me about your films is your proletarian persona. I enjoy that very much. Other documentary filmmakers don’t have any narrator or don’t appear on camera. What do you want to say about that?
Moore: I think there are many ways to make a documentary. And many of these ways work. I see myself basically as a stand-in for the audience. I want the audience to live vicariously through me as if they get to be there inside the corporate offices, or wherever I am.
With the persona that you refer to, maybe what’s different from other filmmakers is that I grew up in the working class. My father was a factory worker. And I have a high school education. So I process things differently. I don’t really know what a term paper is. I don’t know how to tell a story in a way that maybe would have been taught to me in college. For good or bad. So I’m acting much more viscerally from a working-class perspective. And as long as I stay true to that, I think my films will be different in that way and will hopefully be a voice for those who don’t have a chance to speak.
I get emails from people every day who live in the Flint, Michigans, of this country and this world and they’re grateful that one of us was able to break through to have our voice heard. So I feel a lot of responsibility for that. Believe me, I’m not putting down anybody who went to college—many days I regret that I didn’t go. But I do think it’s OK to have one or two filmmakers who tell their stories from a working-class perspective.
Q: What do you want to say about the Black Lives Matter movement and the spate of police killings of unarmed blacks?
Moore: There are two great movements since I made my last film: Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. And I think that these two movements have really moved the ball down the field in terms of getting us to a better place. The relentlessness of it, the refusal to mince words or to compromise with those in power, has done us well. And I’m very happy that the Black Lives Matter movement is taking place and I think that the police are on notice.
Q: Where do you see the spirit of the Occupy movement going now?
Moore: It’s with us every day. Every politician talks about income inequality now. The reference to the 99 percent or the 1 percent is part of the lexicon. You know, that came out of that movement. It got everybody to think a little differently. The movement itself as an organization may not have continued but it did some incredible work in terms of turning people’s heads around and pointing us in the right direction.
Last month, in one of the national polls, Democrats were asked how they felt about capitalism and how they felt about socialism. Forty-six percent said that they had a positive feeling towards socialism. Thirty-seven percent said they had a positive feeling towards capitalism. That’s pretty amazing. I think this dates back to Occupy Wall Street.
Q: Is there anything you want to add about Where to Invade Next or any other subject?
Moore: See this movie in a movie theater. It’s much better to see it with a couple hundred other people. There’s a real different mood in the room and a real sense of solidarity. Don’t wait for it to be streaming or on home video. Come watch it with 200 of your fellow Americans. It’s a great experience.
L.A.-based film historian and critic Ed Rampell is The Progressive’s “Man in Hollywood.” His Progressive interview with America’s former Poet Laureate is in the new book Conversations with W.S. Merwin.