“When God wants to punish you, He sends a person of bad character who shares all of your opinions.”—Aaron Haspel, Everything (2015)
I saw Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) with five friends. All of us are big-time supporters of gun-control. So he had us at hello. And yet he managed to lose us. All of us. We walked out of the theater disgusted with Moore. Although the film was manipulative and misleading throughout, the moral nadir of the propaganda piece—the real low point of the film—was when he went to Charlton Heston’s house. We were all furious by the end of that scene. What an abuse of trust, hospitality, decency, and good will. As my buddy put it, as we walked out of the theater: “Wow, Moore almost makes you wanna join the NRA!”
I’ve often suspected that the extreme self-righteousness one often finds amongst documentary filmmakers who specialize in exposés is a kind of psychological defense mechanism. People like Michael Moore need to believe that their cause is perfectly just, and people like Charlton Heston are perfectly evil; it’s the only way to avoid facing up to the fact that what they’re doing is often profoundly unethical. After all, people like Moore get people to trust them so they can publicly humiliate them. It’s hard to make that look good. In fact, on the face of it, it makes them seem about as decent and respectable as the scandal-mongering gossips who write for celebrity mags like The National Enquirer. Of course documentary filmmakers don’t want to see themselves as bloodsucking parasites, and that’s precisely why they need to demonize their opponents. The ends justify the means only if your opponents are devils and your friends are angels. The rationalizations one overhears at certain film festivals are, at bottom, not unlike the rationalizations one overhears at certain pubs frequented by sleazy salesmen: “Suckers deserve to get suckered.”
Documentary film has been good to the left for well over half a century—not, I hasten to add, because most documentary filmmakers have been left-leaning, but rather because the genre is itself remarkably well-suited to the transmission of progressive ideas. Unlike slow-paced, text-heavy mediums (e.g., the scholarly book), which privilege a kind of dry intellectualism devoid of heart, or fast-paced, image-heavy mediums (e.g., the TV news), which privilege a sordid sensationalism devoid of intellectual content, the very format of the documentary film facilitates the construction of long arguments, with lots of moving parts; arguments which clarify, and make manifest, the subtle connections between large social processes and the lived reality of people—people just like you.
If you’re looking for the most devastating critique of Michael Moore, you won’t find it on Fox News, or amongst his right-wing detractors; you’ll find it, after a few glasses of wine, at a documentary film festival. Nobody loathes the man more than other progressive filmmakers. David Redmon and Ashley Sabin—the brilliant minds behind award-winning documentaries like Girl Model (2011) and Mardi Gras: Made in China (2005)—are a case in point. They’ve told me, on numerous occasions, that Moore hasn’t just compromised the specific causes he’s championed; he’s undermined the credibility of the entire genre. When you undermine the credibility of something like documentary film—something which has been immensely useful to progressive causes—you’re ultimately undermining the left.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2017)