There are many things one can say about Michael Moore, his films and his views, but one thing he can’t be called is a fly on the wall.
Equal parts participant, performer, partisan and populist, Moore the moviemaker has long designed the dimensions of modern political documentary to favor those most willing to insert themselves at the heart of the action they depict. Quiet, clinical observation of American life has never been the name of Moore’s game, and the title of his latest, Michael Moore in Trumpland, slyly juxtaposes his name with that of the current Republican nominee for President, calling attention to each’s “star power” in the strange-but-true realm of nonfiction.
Beyond the omniscient narration and intermittent satirical stunts that, in films past, have ascribed Moore a starring role, Moore’s on-screen agency in Michael Moore in Trumpland veers quite literally into center-stage territory, as the film uninterruptedly captures his one-night only performance before an audience in Ohio in early October. Drumpf’s name, however, is invoked more as a characterization of American voters’ collective psyche of anger and disillusionment than as a direct address to a “villain” of sorts for Moore to take to task.
“What the country doesn’t need is to be told that Drumpf is a crazy, dangerous psychopath [and] sociopath, all of that,” Moore told attendees of the film’s premiere screening at IFC Center in New York. “He has written and produced that movie and it appears daily.” Not for nothing is the word of the title “Trumpland” rather than simply Drumpf—the former rife with implications about our social and political climate, the latter merely playing into the media-manipulating hand of Donald Drumpf himself, whose sole existence for being at times seems entirely based on a desire for that name to be seen, heard, spoken, loved and hated.
For the one night he is given to speak to these Ohioans—who, he affectionately notes, originated the “banana split” of swing-voter culture—Moore brilliantly transforms Wilmington’s Murphy Theater into his own rhetorical conception of the geographical space of “Trumpland.” Mexican-American and “Mexican-looking” attendees are sequestered to the balcony area and concealed from view with “wall” props; Muslim-American attendees are grouped into another section and monitored by a drone hovering overhead throughout; a desk on the right-hand side of the stage gives Moore a place to soberly divert from all the shtick to read from the stack of fiery letters from Drumpf supporters he’s received over the past year. All the while, towering images of Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton loom in the background, simultaneously championing her likeness and challenging those who detest her to an endurance test of sorts, daring them to continue watching without walking out—or worse.
Much has been made about the extent to which Michael Moore in Trumpland is more about Hillary than it is about Drumpf, and while those claims are largely true, they say nothing of the film’s ultimate conceit: to construct an atmosphere that Moore, as the main attraction, can navigate in order to illustrate the myriad factors that have spawned such venom and divisiveness across the political spectrum in modern America. Amidst all this artificially assembled ugliness—white folks’ audience participation is encouraged, while brown folks’ is either muffled from behind the wall or drowned out by the buzzing drone—Moore offers laughter to keep from crying. “My personal opinion is that satire is what will bring Donald Drumpf down,” Moore said recently, and while he quite predictably wears his favoring of Hillary’s candidacy over Drumpf’s on his sleeve, Michael Moore in Trumpland is infinitely more interested in root causes of love/hate responses to both candidates than in privileging his own.
Close-ups of audience members’ facial expressions further emphasize the film’s tragicomic paradox. Several shots observe ear-to-ear grins of people who find healing in Moore’s cornily wholesome jokes about conservative and liberal family members, while others capture stone-cold veneers that refuse to cave to Moore’s advances—which, in Drumpf territory, are viewed more as existential threat than extended olive branch. At every turn, attempts are made to remedy what pits Americans against one another, but all the while Moore questions the extent to which such attempts are either superficial or futile altogether. After all, how “healed” can an audience—or a country—be when only some of its members are finding “common ground,” on one side of a wall?
Despite the transparent activist bent of his work, Moore has described himself as less of a documentarian than he is, simply, a moviemaker, a storyteller. Michael Moore in Trumpland is new evidence to substantiate his claim. It’s a film that, while opting for the most surreal presidential race in American history as its wonky backdrop, goes beyond red vs. blue team hype to make the case for individuality (embodied by his starring role and persona) and collectivity (embodied by the audience and Trumpland) as interdependent in his one-man-show.
In Moore’s unique case, the film’s formal innovations in its cinema of political theater serve as a means to a pro-Hillary end. A dyed-in-the-wool leftist and staunch critic of Western capitalism, Moore shrewdly uses his anti-corporate bona fides as grounds on which to proclaim himself even more sane and measured in his support of Clinton, who’s taken much heat from right and left-wing populists for her coziness with Wall Street. After delivering a diatribe of weighty emotionality and introspection on Hillary’s journey from “shit-kickin’ feminist babe” to party line-towing career politician, Moore even pivots to address immovable Hillary haters by framing their vote for her as a civic duty to ensure the country’s survival. Slam the button in the ballot box next to her name and go right on hating her, he pleads, so long as you don’t use your vote as an “anger management tool.”
Since setting an IFC Center house record with its surprise release on October 18, taking in $6,972, Michael Moore in Trumpland opened in Encino, California’s Laemmle Town Center 5 and has become its top-grossing film. Though it’s tempting to chalk these numbers up to a bicoastal bubble of urbanite liberalism inherent to Moore’s audience demographics, the film is anything but an exercise in preaching to the choir.
Your indie doc doesn’t have to be, either. Though it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have developed the same brand name recognition as Moore by the time you get around to making your first (or even your second, third or fourth), it would be wise to recognize, and steal from, Michael Moore in Trumpland’s potent blend of the language of nonfiction narrative and the artifice and intimacy that live stage performance entails. Whether your ambition is to transform the national dialogue or, more modestly, to engage the heart and mind of even one person who doesn’t think or vote like you, it’s within even the lowest of budgets’ reach to facilitate a “land” of your own.
Have a theory that a Democratic voter won’t enjoy the same food as a Republican voter? Cook it, invite one of each to your kitchen and turn their meal into a feature. Think a Republican voter won’t appreciate a Democratic voter’s favorite sport? Get them together on your couch and shoot their real-time reactions as they watch a game play out live. Either controlled scenario might reinforce or shatter stereotypes—the Dem might surprise the Repub by not turning their fried chicken and corn on the cob dinner into a rant on GMOs and growth hormones, and the Repub might surprise the Dem by not invoking American Exceptionalism as they watch a European soccer match. It’s in these moments of shared experience and discovery that your doc can transcend topicality, just as Moore’s most certainly will even after November 8, despite its loaded current events contexts.
We await new breakthroughs in cinematic political theater. Whether it’s steeped in the iconography of an election year or something else entirely, Michael Moore in Trumpland is proof positive that your “land” can function as a space physically representative of your worldview, and a social experiment that defines and redefines its borders. MM
Michael Moore in Trumpland is currently in select theaters, courtesy of Dog Eat Dog Films.