Film News

Balanced documentary lifts lid on Michael Moore

AUSTIN, Texas (Hollywood Reporter) - Unlike the majority of often shoddy and questionably motivated deconstructions of Michael Moore, “Manufacturing Dissent” comes from filmmakers sharing his political bent, and it labors to present the pro and the con on the divisive figure. In a documentary arena overshadowed by Moore, it has an obvious draw. Many will embrace it for cutting through the smoke both its subject and his attackers have created.

Using the activist-filmmaker’s 2004 “Slacker Uprising” tour as an anchor, Canadian documentarians Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine find parallels with “Roger & Me”: Moore, insisting that his sole focus must be on persuading Americans to vote, is oddly (and persistently, as they follow him around the country) unwilling to sit with them for an interview. Melnyk, narrating the film, doesn’t have the oversized personality to make the most with this echo of Moore’s debut, but she has done her homework.

Jumping back to Michigan, Melnyk starts digging into Moore’s early career. In interviews with colleagues from the Flint Voice and Mother Jones, we hear complaints about an itchy personality whose eagerness to make waves outweighed a concern with day-to-day responsibilities. Disdain for inconvenient details becomes a theme, leading to well-publicized factual issues in his films. Viewers can decide themselves which examples are serious sins and which are the kind of quibbles made about almost all public figures, particularly showmen.

Most of these revelations have been made in other documentaries or news articles. Many will be new to viewers who don’t track Moore obsessively: his egregious manipulation of the bank gun-giveaway sequence in “Bowling for Columbine,” for instance. In some cases, it’s astounding that something is not more widely known: If Premiere reported it more than a decade ago, how is it still surprising that Moore actually did get to interview Roger Smith while making “Roger & Me,” making the movie’s whole narrative framework a lie?

Melnyk and Caine, for their part, are upfront about exactly what access they get to their would-be interviewee. The opposition they face sometimes looks like an outtake from “TV Nation”: Moore’s handlers employ some of the same bullying PR moves that corporate villains have pulled on their client in the past, conveying a streak of hypocrisy better than a dozen talking-head interviewees ever could.

“Dissent” observes Moore using his opponents’ tactics in other ways as well. After complaining in “Columbine” about the use of fear mongering in public discourse, Moore promises a crowd of college kids that, if Bush is re-elected, their generation will definitely be subject to a reinstated draft.

Not all the film’s jabs connect with their target this well, and the whole thing occasionally feels a little futile: Yes, Moore’s growing box office grosses suggest he mighty be gaining influence, but most of that mainstream moviegoing fan base would never bother with “Manufacturing Dissent.” On the other hand, audience response after this festival screening suggests that even hardcore docugoers can benefit from some well-put-together facts to help work out mixed feelings about Moore.

Screenwriter-director-producers: Debbie Melnyk, Rick Caine; Director of photography: Rick Caine; Music: Michael White; Editors: Bill Towgood, Robert Ruzic.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter