Documentary or Just “Moore” Propaganda in the Cinema?

         According to the Webster’s Dictionary, the word “documentary” is defined as the “designation of a motion picture or television program that dramatically shows or analyzes news events, a social condition, etc. with no fictionalization or editorial comment.”

         Some critics have argued that the cinematic works of Michael Moore do not fall under the category of documentary but are instead, according to Barbara J. Stock in her article "Michael Moore: Master of Propaganda," “systematic, widespread dissemination or promotion of particular ideas or doctrines to further one’s own cause or to damage an opposing one; often used disparagingly to connote deception or distortion.” This however, is the definition of propaganda.

         Writer, director, actor, and political activist Michael Moore made his first film, Roger & Me (1989), a satirical documentary feature that chronicled his attempts to interview the CEO of General Motors, Roger Smith. Moore wrote, directed and starred in the film, which became the highest-grossing American documentary of all time. The Washington Post described Roger & Me as a "hilariously cranky bit of propaganda" and critics such as Roger Ebert gave it rave reviews; but others, including Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, attacked Moore for re-arranging the narrative events of the movie (51). Despite the controversy of some critics, the film was voted Best Documentary by the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics, the Los Angeles Film Critics, and the National Society of Film Critics, as well as Best Film at the Toronto, Vancouver, and Chicago Film Festivals. It was included on several critics' "best of the decade" lists, but it failed to be nominated for an Academy Award.

         In the fall of 2002, Moore released Bowling for Columbine, an examination of America's obsession with guns and violence. It was the first documentary to be shown in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in forty-six years, and was honored with the festival's Jury Award. The film then struck Oscar Gold at the Academy Awards; and, true to form, Moore used his acceptance speech as an opportunity to launch a broadside against President George W. Bush and his participation in the war against Iraq, which had been announced only a few days prior to the ceremony. Moore's statement drew strong reaction on both sides of the political fence, though Moore himself appeared to take the controversy in stride.

         A little over a year after taking home his Academy Award, Moore accomplished the seemingly impossible task of topping Bowling for Columbine with his film Fahrenheit 9/11. The film was a scathing indictment of the Bush Administration that sought to expose financial ties between the Bush family and the relatives of terrorist Osama bin Laden. Despite various honors bestowed upon the movie at film festivals, it was nearly kept out of theaters. In June 2004, amid intense controversy, Fahrenheit 9/11 was released in just shy of 900 theaters and made nearly $22 million in its first weekend, breaking the total box-office record for a documentary previously held by Bowling for Columbine in just three days and becoming the first documentary ever to be crowned the top money-maker of the weekend.

         Critics have complained that Michael Moore’s controversial films should not be called documentaries because the American public is being misled to believe skewed figures and facts. Those who support Moore and his films claim that Moore is not spreading propaganda but is instead presenting facts and challenging ideology which encourages viewers to seek out the truth. Despite the continued debate of propaganda versus documentary, Moore’s films have continued to succeed at the box office.

Works Cited

Kael, Pauline. "Roger & Me." New Yorker 8 Jan. 1990: 51-52.

Stock, Barbara J. “Michael Moore: Master of Propaganda.” Renew America 6 July 1964. 27 Mar. 2007 (http://www.renewamerica.us/columns/stock/040706).

Tara Wagner

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