Volume 42, Number 2: March/April 2008

Manufacturing Dissent

Review: Manufacturing Dissent: Uncovering Michael Moore

Directed by Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine
2007, 96 min.

Why would a couple of supposedly left-leaning directors like Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine have it in for Michael Moore? Isn’t it already difficult enough for the public figures in our movements to make their (our) messages heard? Is their film, Manufacturing Dissent, just another case of “the Left eating its own”?

We are shown Moore’s self-serving career beginning with his days in Davison and Flint, Michigan, working for the Flint Voice, from where he moved to Mother Jones magazine, promising “to return Mother Jones to its hell-raising roots.” His tenure there was brief, and his firing is widely (but erroneously, we are told) understood as a genuine case of the Left eating its own.

Similar material follows – but such stuff is old hat for anyone who’s followed Moore’s career even a little. Let’s face it, many pundits and politicos “take liberties with the truth,” or use it (Moore: “edit it”) selectively – a fact the filmmakers acknowledge. Moore’s manipulation of NRA president Charleton Heston and creative recontextualization of a Dubya speech fall into this category. Must we hold Moore to a higher standard than a Bill O’Reilly or an Anne Coulter? Everyone has a different answer to that question.

But Manufacturing Dissent also reveals some pretty dark moments – if genuine – in Moore’s past. Moore supported Ralph Nader in the 2000 election, for example – but after it became widely understood that Nader’s campaign narrowly cost the Democrats the election, Moore abandoned this “principled position” and switched sides. Since then, he’s sought to disown his Naderite past.

In the end, “it was great for him,” says John Pierson, author of Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes. “If Gore is in the White House, fundamentally Michael Moore has no career.”

Worse, in shooting Roger & Me, the doc that made him a celebrity, Moore took a great deal of footage of union organizing, community activism and town-hall meetings in Flint, Michigan. But in Roger & Me, Moore reports that, while the United Auto Workers promised a massive protest on the GM factory’s last day in operation, a mere four demonstrators showed up (in the film they carry a single picket sign sporting a big, goofy question mark).

In reality, the UAW was anything but apathetic, holding town-hall meetings of hundreds of people. All that footage ended up on the cutting-room floor, says Jim Musselman, an employee of Ralph Nader’s to whom Moore showed the edits. “All of a sudden, the whole movement changed into … Michael.”

Roger & Me ended up being not about the real organizing taking place in Flint – which might have inspired other struggles elsewhere – but about Moore’s futile personal quest to speak with General Motors CEO Roger Smith. Or not so futile: Premiere magazine reported in 1990 that Moore in fact received two interviews with Smith, a fact Musselman says Moore later asked him to deny. According to Musselman, the UAW and the citizens of Flint were thrown under the bus for the sake of Moore’s career.

But Manufacturing Dissent runs into some credibility trouble in that most of the Moore critics interviewed in the film are Nader affiliates. Their criticisms of Moore certainly are damning – but given recent history, what else would anyone expect from them?

Music critic David Marsh supplies the kernel at the heart of Manufacturing Dissent: “Moore could only have become popular in a vacuum. If there were a vibrant Left in the United States, Michael Moore’s milquetoast liberalism would be laughed at, not laughed with.”

That may be so, but in fact, a lot more people are laughing with Moore than at him. After watching Moore’s most recent documentary, Sicko – a superb (though we may grant, emotionally manipulative) call for socialized medicine for America – surely even the most die-hard, radical leftist would have to admit that the world is a better place for Moore’s presence in it.

The problem with trying to pin down talented egomaniacs is that their worst qualities, when recontextualized, are sometime also their best. The filmmakers interviewed various people who worked with Moore on his satirical T.V. show, TV Nation, which ran briefly from 1994 to 1995, and all of them speak of the experience with uniform heartfelt, nostalgic enthusiasm – and the same of Moore as its director. Maybe this is because TV Nation featured Moore in the role to which he’s best suited: not a prophet, not an intellectual, nor even a politician – just a clowning, nosey, arrogant, manipulative, bloody-minded – and superbly talented – shit-disturber with a camera and a microphone.