Michael Moore no longer wants to make you angry.
That’s a weird departure for the filmmaker whose documentaries (Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko, etc.) have become known for surveying broad sources of American anger — from gun control to 9/11 to health care — and coaxing something sharper and purer out of them.
Moore’s movies revolve around a simple credo: Anger is an agent for progress. If you get angry enough about an issue, you will fight for (or against) it. And if you fight, you can effect real change.
The documentarian’s past works have all showcased his superhuman knack for riling up and motivating viewers by spotlighting certain societal ills and cultivating maelstroms of frustration and righteousness. But his latest, Michael Moore in TrumpLand, feels more like a summer breeze.
Touted as a smirky October surprise, the 73-minute film — which was announced with only three weeks left until the 2016 presidential election — is a cinematic version of the one-man show Moore performed in Ohio earlier this month.
Moore staged his act in a town called Wilmington; it’s located in Ohio’s Clinton County, where residents bleed GOP red despite their home sharing a surname with the Democratic presidential nominee. His show was aimed at all voters, regardless of political affiliation. And its filmic counterpart isn’t nearly as incendiary as you might expect.
Like an unruly ribbon, TrumpLand quickly spirals away from its title, its director and star, and its apparent premise of dropping an incendiary progressive into the guts of a Republican town to start fights and cause conflict. Instead, it offers up a peculiar amalgam that’s part commencement speech, part policy analysis, and part gentle GOP ribbing. Aside from a couple of slapdash comedic interludes (including a fake Trump commercial), it’s just Moore reciting from a podium.
Then in its last third, it curls into a full-on love letter to Hillary Clinton, spurred by Moore’s clearly unshakable fear that she won’t get elected.
He traces Clinton’s life — her work at the legal aid society in Arkansas, the way she changed her name to help her husband get elected in that state, her work in researching universal health care, and the general mistreatment at the hands of the press and politicians she suffered when she was the first lady of the United States.
Instead of trying to incite anger, Moore tries his hand at Midwestern nice, aiming to pry laughs from his audience with jokes about liberal indecisiveness versus conservative convictions, wry observations on Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime performance, and testimonials about Clinton being a real person. Naturally, some of them are more effective than others. Here are five takeaways from the film:
Good: Moore is at his best when he talks about young people
The most touching part of TrumpLand comes when Moore morphs into a college commencement speaker and begins talking about millennials. He cracks a couple of shopworn jokes about young people fixing their parents’ printers and electronics, before explaining that what he loves about millennials is that they’re “not haters.”
My first response to hearing Moore talk about haters was cynical; the theme from Jaws crept into my head, and I braced myself for a series of slang-themed punchlines about YOLO and bae. Instead, Moore praises millennials and other young people for being the least racist, least misogynistic, and least homophobic generation America has ever seen. He also notes that for the most part, their “non-hater” status remains intact no matter what political party they belong to.
“They don’t hate someone based on the color of their skin or who they love,” he says, explaining that when it comes to raising children, the baby boomers must have done something right.
It’s earnest, heartfelt, and uplifting. It’s also a testament to the legacies of both boomers and millennials that Moore has found hope in the idea of leaving the country in millennials’ hands. He seems to have faith that fairness and empathy will reign.
And the way Moore talks about young people and the relationship between boomers and millennials in the context of parents being proud of their children is something we don’t often see in pop culture or politics.
Bad: Late-night hosts like Samantha Bee and John Oliver make Moore’s comedy feel less daring
The least effective parts of TrumpLand are its occasional pretaped sketches, like a fake Trump commercial and an imagining of Trump’s inauguration. They come off a bit like Moore is imitation versions of segments from Full Frontal With Samantha Bee and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.
In making their weekly TV programs, Bee, Oliver, and their respective creative teams work relentlessly to keep their material fresh while grounding their satire and jokes in intelligent commentary. They use laughs to make a political point or to give their audience a better understanding of the issues at hand.
But Moore’s only intent in these bits is to make fun of Donald Trump. Thus, the sketches look dodgy, and they rely on the same dull jokes we’ve heard over and over again throughout this election cycle. We get it, Trump’s strange speaking style is funny — but Moore doesn’t go much deeper than that.
Good: Moore’s impression of Coldplay’s aggressively pleasant music is really great
In one of TrumpLand’s stranger stretches, Moore tries to draw a parallel between an increase in single women in this country, women’s success in schools and white-collar jobs, the disenfranchised straight white male voter, and Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime performance from earlier this year.
His hypothesis: that straight white men saw the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show as the allegorical death knell of their power, because even though Coldplay headlined, Beyoncé won the night.
There are better parallels in pop culture, and this one might be a bit thin. (If we’re going by Super Bowl halftime shows, Beyoncé’s 2013 performance was the true death knell of straight white male power, as the event was essentially a Beyoncé concert with a side of football.) But that doesn’t diminish the delight I felt in seeing Moore, while trying to convey the aggressively mild pleasantness of Coldplay, spout an impersonation that’s basically a “bee-doo-boop be-doo-boop” of Coldplay’s music.
It’s not only cute, it’s also a really incisive take on Coldplay (though perhaps an unintentional one), and it won me over.
Bad: Moore’s political jokes are clichéd, even if the message behind them is nice
With TrumpLand, Moore has an obvious objective, but the humor he’s using to achieve it is often cringeworthy. He takes aim at both Democrats and Republicans, seeking to elicit laughs by pointing out their differences — but the caricatures he comes up with are tired and one-note.
He paints conservatives as knowing what they want and sticking to their convictions, and Democrats as being prone to dilly-dallying. Conservatives begin their days confident in their beliefs, ready to go from outset.
“You’re up at 5 in the morning,” he tells the few Trump voters in his audience. “The only time [Democrats] see 5 am is if we’re up partying from the night before.”
“Who here doesn’t like gay marriage?” he asks. When one man raises his hand, Moore exclaims, “Then don’t get gay married! You won’t like it.”
The benefit of these jokes is that while they may be dusty, they aptly illustrate what Moore has come to realize: that at this point, truly undecided voters are as common as rainbow-flecked unicorns, and there’s probably no net positive in yelling at your opposition or preaching to your choir.
He’s commendably preaching empathy over anger. It’s just too bad he’s not very funny.
Bad (but not totally in Moore’s control): The timing of TrumpLand’s release both makes and breaks the entire thing
TrumpLand’s strangest feature is that it’s attached to the most volatile and turbulent presidential election America has ever seen.
The film was shot on October 7, during Moore’s performance of the one-man show in Ohio. That’s the same day that audio of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women was leaked. But it means that at the time, no one knew that Trump would assert that his brags were just “locker room talk,” that multiple women would come forward to accuse Trump of sexual assault, or that Michelle Obama would give a powerful speech about the importance of this election.
In the time that passed between TrumpLand’s filming and its release, Clinton’s numbers rose and Trump’s took a dive. But at the time of filming, the race between the two candidates was, as far as polling can tell us, much closer than it is now.
The film, not even two weeks old, is already showing its age.
Moore’s urgency in talking about Hillary Clinton’s legacy and trumpeting her career as a public servant was/is a manifestation of his fear. It seems he felt like the media and the race were overlooking those facets of her life, and perhaps they were.
Moore also talks about the generation of women that Clinton grew up with and entered the workforce with, and the adversity they faced in wanting to work. He emphasizes his belief that Clinton, whether you like her or not, will fight for this country.
As a result, TrumpLand becomes an earnest plea to vote for Clinton, from a man who seems genuinely concerned that people don’t see what she is capable of. He’s obviously worried that her campaign hasn’t done enough to prove her worth to skeptical Americans, to the point that he wanted to make this movie to give her some kind of boost.
That’s where the timing problem comes in. You understand what Moore is afraid of and why he made this film, but you’re living in a present where there’s talk of a Clinton landslide. In just the past few days, the entire election has come to be defined by the importance of women voters and a national conversation about women’s rights and misogyny.
Though that isn’t a bad thing. Each day until the election is a slog. Last week feels like months ago. November 8 feels like a year away. Perhaps that’s why the less timely aspects of Moore’s act stood out to me as more effective than the same old commentary about Trump that we’ve been hearing for weeks. And why this film works better as a call for a Hillary Clinton biopic, or a conversation about millennials, than a call to action.
Michael Moore in TrumpLand is currently screening in New York and Los Angeles; it’s also available on iTunes.