As a cinematic pugilist, documentarian Michael Moore knows how to take a punch and how to land one. Moore has been mixing it up ever since his documentary Roger and Me became an indie hit. The first time I ever saw Moore's unglamorous mug, it was covered with tread marks on the cover of a 1989 film magazine, foreshadowing the anti-Moore takedown on the pages within.
Moore's leftist politics have especially invited the wrath of the conservative media, who respond with the kind of attacks that resemble "killing the messenger." The flag-waving, war-mongering comedy An American Carol roasts Moore in a parody of A Christmas Carol, in which a schlubby liberal filmmaker learns the true meaning of patriotism. The anti-Moore broadsides tend to flail hysterically, but that doesn't mean the filmmaker is above reproach. His latest documentary, Slacker Uprising, spotlights some of his worst qualities while eclipsing his virtues.
Moore released Slacker Uprising for free online Sept. 23, although it debuted at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival under the title Captain Mike Across America. Most of Moore's films offer snarky polemics against specific issues, and two of them (Bowling for Columbine's treatment of gun violence and Sicko's look at health care) attempted to rise above right/left orthodoxy. Slacker Uprising proves disappointingly insubstantial, offering little more than a tour film of Moore's 62-city get-out-the-vote blitz near the end of the 2004 presidential election.
After fulminating in his 2005 Oscar acceptance speech for Bowling for Columbine, Moore seemed to realize that he polarizes viewers so much, he can distract from his own arguments. (You don't see him for nearly an hour into Sicko.) Slacker Uprising primarily shows him speechifying before adoring campus throngs, with few glimpses of his satiric wit. In the most amusing moments, Moore presents some over-the-top negative ads he offered the Bush re-election campaign, including one that suggests former Sen. Max Cleland was a coward because he "only" lost two legs and an arm in Vietnam.
Slacker Uprising mostly offers repetitious crowd shots, speech sound bites and acoustic songs from the likes of Joan Baez and Eddie Vedder. Almost shockingly, Slacker Uprising avoids the chance to score points in the 2008 election: The fact that the Iraq War still goes on, four years after the events of the film, goes unexplored. Slacker Uprising better serves as background noise for a fundraising mixer than a film worth arguing over.
Moore invites Republicans to his rallies and clearly relishes mixing it up with them. At one point he leads an audience in a standing ovation for a U.S. serviceman. Not surprisingly, An American Carol's portrait avoids those kinds of moments. Kevin Farley (the younger brother of the late Chris Farley) plays an Oscar-winning, baseball-cap wearing filmmaker named Michael Malone, whose films have titles like Shame on You, America, and Die You American Pigs. Early in the film, a little girl refers to Malone as "a fat, ignorant, traitorous sack of shit," which gives you an idea of the level of discourse.
Malone plans to hold a peace rally calling for the end of the Fourth of July holiday, and avoids his nephew Josh (Travis Schuldt), who's soon to ship out for the "Persian Gulf." The film conspicuously avoids mentioning Iraq and emphasizes the fight in Afghanistan, home to wacky terrorists. Malone receives a visit from several spirits, including John F. Kennedy and George Washington, but General George S. Patton (Kelsey Grammer) serves as his primary guide. Meanwhile, three terrorists (one mean, two quickly Americanized) dupe Malone into enabling a public bombing.
Director David Zucker made Airplane! and the Naked Gun films with Jim Abrahams and his brother Jerry Zucker, but American Carol's slipshod storytelling emphasizes predictable pratfalls and fat jokes. Zucker successfully zings the left in a few moments. Malone envies a George Clooney-esque movie star (Kevin Sorbo) who wows the critics with a film called That McCarthy Sure Was Bad, and salutes filmmakers for taking on causes that no longer exist, like slavery. A caricature of Rosie O'Donnell tries to argue that Christian fundamentalists are as bad as Islamist terrorists through clips from a film called The Truth About Radical Christians, which shows priests and nuns hijacking planes and blowing up buses.
Zucker hasn't thought through some of his jokes, though. In a goof on Dickens, Josh not only has the disabled son Tiny Tim, but a huge brood of kids encumbered from different ailments. All of the children blame "Uncle Mike" for not loaning the family money to pay for their health care. Oh, so they need a handout to pay for their medical bills? They're saying the U.S. health care system is inadequate? Clearly these children are traitors. Similarly, the film raps Malone for saying that JFK wouldn't have gotten us into Vietnam, without realizing that amounts to an endorsement of the Vietnam War.
An American Carol tries to make a running joke of the assertion that documentary films are unpopular and basically lame, as if to minimize Moore's effectiveness. You get a sense that conservative media would rather mock Moore than engage him on the substance of the issues in his films. Real anti-Moore documentaries include Michael Moore Hates America and Fahrenhype 9/11, but it's almost impossible to find nonfiction, conservative films that match Moore's level of activism. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, hosted by Ben Stein, provides the lone exception. Are right-wing documentarians chicken? Do they even exist?
In Christopher Hitchens' attack on Fahrenheit 9/11 at Slate.com, he argued, "A documentary must have a 'POV' or point of view and that it must also impose a narrative line. But if you leave out absolutely everything that might give your 'narrative' a problem and throw in any old rubbish that might support it, and you don't even care that one bit of that rubbish flatly contradicts the next bit, and you give no chance to those who might differ, then you have betrayed your craft." Moore, like many leftist documentarians, tends to offer lively, persuasive arguments that are heavily one-sided: Sicko conspicuously avoided acknowledging the drawbacks of other nations' health care systems. In Carol, however, George Washington (Jon Voight) accuses Malone of abusing his First Amendment rights, which seems more like an attempt to muzzle free speech.
Near the end of An American Carol, country singer Trace Adkins points to his audience and tells Malone, "This is the real America!" in contrast to New York and Hollywood, one supposes. Presumably those thousands of college students and war protesters at Moore's rallies in Slacker Uprising belong to some kind of "fake" United States. Given that Slacker Uprising features R.E.M. and Steve Earle, while An American Carol includes Bill O'Reilly and Paris Hilton, you can imagine Moore looking at Zucker's portrayal and reasoning, "With enemies like these, who needs friends?"
I can see Rushdie's stuff adapting well. Lots of plot to play with.