The Great Missed Opportunity of Michael Moore in TrumpLand

Sierra Pettengill on Moore's October surprise doc, and its failure to do what would have truly given it value: connect with Trump supporters.

The patron saint of American politics, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The election of the President is a cause of agitation, but not of ruin.” It’s a comforting thought in an election cycle where the very essence of American democracy is threatened by the frightening chaos of our post-truth dance with fascism. The United States of America is simultaneously the world’s greatest experiment in democracy and also a nation built on the unconscionable twin evils of genocide and slavery. If our nation has lived this startling contradiction since its founding, how, then, should we define ruin? All I have is: civil war.

Michael Moore’s new film, Michael Moore in TrumpLand, opens with the strains of the 1863 tune “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” as a chipper anonymous voiceover intones, “It’s Support the Troops Week here in Wilmington, Ohio … And don’t forget, the big county corn festival is just around the corner … Also a reminder about that big Wilmington gun festival…” The broadcast is interrupted by a bearded man with a Magnum on his hip (“You want to see my .357?”) and a woman with curly gray hair (“A lot of people think that Trump is a clown … he won’t be when he’s President.”) Back to the radio: “And speaking of guns, and the people who want to take them away from us, controversial filmmaker Michael Moore will perform a one-man show tonight at the Murphy Theatre.”

This pre-title intro, purportedly narrated by a local radio personality from an actual broadcast – though notably not listed anywhere in the archival credit section – is intercut with community member vox pops praising Trump, claiming dead people will vote for Hillary, and stating matter of factly, “around here, I ain’t heard nobody for Clinton.” It sets up a shorthand stereotypical sketch of a dyed-in-the-wool Republican town, with the title placing Michael Moore – whose name at this point may as well be a metonym for “liberal” – in hostile territory. On stage, Moore opens the show by stating, “We put the word out that we wanted all types of people to come here tonight,” asking the audience to cheer to indicate their political allegiance. Indeed, his Facebook posting advertising the show stated: “I want to talk to these voters. I want to see if I can meet them halfway.” I’m being exhaustively transcriptive with this set-up for a reason: this whole section clocks in under two-and-a-half minutes, and is nearly the only glimpse of the titular region “TrumpLand” that Moore’s new film gives us.

The main act that follows is a live multimedia stand-up performance unfolding within the confines of the ornate Murphy Theatre. Over the course of the next 70 minutes, Moore swerves from praising conservatives for being more organized and dependable (in a they-never-misplace-their-house-keys kind of way), to sarcastically yelling, “You don’t like abortion? Then don’t have one!” to male members of the audience. He speaks movingly about how powerful it was, as a member of the working class, to hear a politician – Trump – come to Detroit and warn Ford execs against exporting factories, and then does an impression of Trump supporters by employing a long, low primitive Neanderthal grunt. He plays a clumsy, lowest-hanging-fruit satirical video imagining Trump’s first day in office and also the audio from Hillary Clinton’s moving 1969 Wellesley College commencement speech. Watching this film feels like scrolling way too fast through a Facebook timeline. There is the winking solidarity transmitted through a clickbait headline, the reposted DNC commercial, and someone yelling at their aunt for posting an uninformed right-wing meme, followed by the clammy nausea that greets you at the exhausted moment you finally close the tab. The point-of-view is prismatic, shifting, confusing, and so scattered in its voice that I kept returning to the beginning for clues. Who is he talking to? What does Moore want from this?

Though there are many Trump supporters in the audience, Moore’s pronoun of choice in referring to the group remains mostly “they,” implying that this work is intended for the already-sympathetic world outside of the hermetically sealed theatre nestled within GOP borders. Why set this film here, then – just to wink over their heads? While watching, I craved seeing not Moore but rather the audience, finding myself spending the entire runtime straining my ears to assess the audience reactions to jokes, grasping at any shred of sensory information – the applause-o-meter as national pulse-taking. The periodic cutaways to the faces of audience members – smiling, nodding, stoic, tearful, blank – were all-too brief. I hung on to every second of these shots, and frustrated, I fantasized about a film made entirely of the raw footage from the B camera trained on the theater seats. I wanted Moore to pull a Herz Frank, borrowing from that filmmaker’s 1978 short film Ten Minutes Older, which records the reactions of young children watching a puppet show that the audience never sees. As a nation, we all could use 72 minutes of this, though I’d take even 10.

Perhaps it’s now painfully clear that what I wanted from this is something that Michael Moore wouldn’t make; like earnestly requesting a rubber duck from a blacksmith. But I’ve seen Kirsten Johnson’s soul-shaking doc memoir Cameraperson several times now, and in each viewing, an extended scene from Fahrenheit 9/11 has stayed with me. In it, Moore is meeting with a conscientious objector, Marine Cpl. Abdul Henderson, and tells him that he’ll do anything he can to help with his legal battles. It’s a generous offer, for sure, but it’s not the words that matter, it’s Moore’s manner – the look in his eyes and the way he reaches out to Henderson, how he positions his body, the understated emotion between them – that grabs me by the throat. He is more than capable of connecting with people on a human level – perhaps uniquely so in this election, given his background; Roger & Me is a feature-length testament to this.

And accordingly, in one of the film’s most powerful passages, Moore invokes the power of the electorate as a Molotov cocktail; the ability of the “fucked over and fucked up” to legally throw a hand grenade into the system. He follows it by saying that it will only feel good for a day (or a week or a month), but the emotion he embodies here far outstrips his closing caveat. In his RNC speech, Donald Trump asserted, “I am your voice,” to a raucous crowd of mostly white Americans. What Michael Moore knows as well as anyone is the empowerment that comes from having a voice, regardless of its tone, and what happens to that voice when it either propels a candidate into office, or is rejected by a majority of fellow voters. Moore is a working-class hero whose blue-collar bonafides are unimpeachable – another angry white man whose days, as he himself says in TrumpLand, are numbered. I’m frustrated that he didn’t use those final days to actually try to connect.

Sierra Pettengill is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker. Her directorial debut, Town Hall, was broadcast on PBS in 2014. She produced the Oscar-nominated Cutie and the Boxer, which premiered at Sundance in 2013, and is currently producing The Reagan Years, an all-archival film directed by Pacho Velez.