Michael Moore and the Practice of Documentary

My study of documentary in my factual film and television module introduced me to Michael Moore. I wrote an essay in response to the way he constructs his arguments via autobiographical frameworks.

A common critique of Moore is that his representation of self serves to show him as a working class ‘everyman’ which obviously he isn’t, having made a healthy dollar or two off his films. My essay explored his uses of documentary modes and addressed the argument that his representation of self is contradicted by his success.

I have noted, especially from watching his films in chronological order, that his sense of self charts his rise to success in order to combat the notions that he pretends not to be successful in order to sell his films to liberal supporters of the left.

Michael Moore and the Practice of Documentary 

Michael Moore is famously one of the “most cogent critics of neo-liberalism and the effects that it is having upon the lives of working-class Americans” (DOVEY, John, 2000). Moore’s documentary films to add to what James Curran calls the ‘collective conversation’ attempting to match the loud voices of the ‘accredited’ and ‘authoritative’ (cited in DOVEY, John, 2000) and expose an American society to whom egalitarianism is a strange concept. Moore employs a progressive auteur that allows his films to transcend the Griersonian ideologies of its predecessors, which previously limited the reach of factual programming. Doing so he earns a place in the cinemas and the adoration of the very working class he champions.

His distinct ability to communicate his social and political critiques to large audiences revealing the misconduct of the corporate elite purports to help maintain a ‘healthy public sphere’ (DOVEY, John, 2000). After all documentary is regarded as a ‘discourse of sobriety’ (NICHOLS, Bill, 1992) which Dovey elaborates on as a “fundamental avenue of knowledge that have instrumental power; they can and should change the world” (DOVEY, John, 2000). This is an ideology that Moore embodies however, he goes about it in an unconventional way; he addresses his audience in an ‘MTV aesthetic’ (SCOTT, K D, 2012). Although, critics often complain that this leaves his argument without sufficient objective information to support it. Using his hybrid performance based auteur when dealing with political issues, challenges the perennial purpose of documentary (to maintain a healthy public sphere) generating ethical issues concerning the commodification of his style. I propose to explore his aesthetic; his use of documentary modes to construct meaning and evaluate his performance and autobiographical persona and whether they serve to communicate his political message or ensure the success of his films in what has decidedly become a buyers market.

Moore’s texts function as ‘documentary as entertainment’ (DOVEY, John, 2000); they are commonly not classified as socio-political critiques but as ‘comedy’ (LUHR, William, 2005), however, a comedy with a vernacular comparable to campaign film. Moore’s ability to establish a sense of self within his films, by using self-reflexive modes of representation, effaces the ‘us and them’ phenomenon (KILBORN, Richard, 1994) found in earlier documentaries concerning people and social issues such as ‘Housing Problems’ (1935). He refuses to assume the archetypal privileged position of earlier forms of documentary in which their problematic style of address failed to inspire large audiences. Instead of the ‘always serious’ tone that is a facet of texts of Griesonian heritage; the self-reflexive style of documentary is, according to Nichols, more ‘realistic’ and ‘natural’ (NICHOLS, Bill, 2005).

The first and foremost evidence of this is Moore’s appearance, described by Luhr as “a big, potbellied slob from the American heartland in a baseball cap who looks like he buys his clothes in Kmart and sleeps in them” (LUHR, William, 2005). The way he looks has developed into something of a trademark but serves some very important purposes. He looks like one of ‘us’ instead of one of ‘them’; this is apparent when he and his crew (suitably equipped in similar attire) turn up to corporate lobbies requesting and inevitably unobtainable interview. He juxtaposes himself, using his appearance, against the professionally dressed people that meet him; this initially signifies him as comically out of place, however his interaction with the expensively dressed power elite (LUHR, William, 2005) who swiftly have him removed from the premises, allows him to achieve a substantial amount of spectator sympathy. For example, in ‘The Big One’ (1997) he arrives in Milwaukee at Johnson Controls’ lobby with an oversized cheque for the first hour of Mexican labour as that is where they are outsourcing, or as Moore puts it ‘downsizing’, to. He then poses loaded questions that reveal how successful the company is, raising the question: why does it need to downsize? This is obviously more about the irony than the answers and is supposed to leave the company without much choice than to have him removed by security.

Similarly, in ‘Roger & Me’ (1989) Michael visits a General Motors factory in Flint, his hometown, where workers are being ‘laid off’. He uses the reflexive techniques such as referring to his production process. We see the sound woman checking levels and we hear the clicks she directs to the microphone to check it is working. In addition, he explains in the voice over that they got in to the factory by pretending to be a TV crew from ‘Toledo’ and explains that he “didn’t know what a TV crew from Toledo, looks like”. This distracts from any signifying process that may have occurred during editing. The viewer is inclined to believe that they are witnessing a transparent record of events as Moore has explained his process and even highlighted (or at least claimed) that he is amateur implying that he has little knowledge of how to use creative treatments of actuality to enforce his argument.

The viewer is encouraged to interpret the events as actualities, realism is enhanced by direct cinema conventions such as the wobbly camera, which Nichols describes as “not a marker of expressiveness but actual historical revelation” (NICHOLS, Bill, 2005) and the crew in shot, which are markers of verisimilitude and create an uncontrolled aesthetic. In addition, his interactions in these ‘ambush interview’ sections echo the cinema verité style in which he precipitates the events and circumstances in order to obtain some ‘truth’ (SCOTT, K D, 2012).

The events are framed to the viewer as unfolding in the same way as it would if you or I walked in to the lobby demanding answers. This places the viewers’ understanding of the events closer to their own personal world. Therefore, they construct meanings with enriched realism through this vicarious link of the events on screen to their own experiences (KILBORN, Richard, 1994) whilst being distracted from the possible spectrums of manipulation inevitable at every stage of production.

Conversely, his inability to dress in a more professional way and conduct his inquiries in less of a ‘guerrilla’ style suggests that the events transpired in the way he desired. It seems he was never there for the interview instead for the ironic humiliation of the company he has decided to ambush; therefore, flouting the convention of objectivity found in more traditional documentary styles. Instead of allowing the corporate representatives to take part in the film in a presentational way where they maybe self-conscious in front of the camera and have some contribution to their representation. Moore limits their contribution to a representational role through events, which are staged and of course transpire under the filmmaker’s control (WAUGH, Thomas, 2011).

By juxtaposing himself against the corporate elite, he converts himself into a metaphor for the way the large companies treat their (soon to be ‘ex’) employees. Consequently, he galvanises spectator sympathy via this self-reflexivity. Moore is aware of the effect his representation of self will have on how the viewer may decode the events appearing on the screen and will encourage them to acknowledge him as a source of ‘truth’ (SCOTT, K D, 2012). Within these ambush interviews he represents himself as a ‘working class underdog’, allowing the audience to identify with him and helps in negotiating a common enemy in anticipation that his ideologies will be decoded passively. Similar to the way that Polan describes passivity being a facet of empiricism (POLAN, Dana B., 1974) in which the camera is regarded almost as a scientific instrument recording the events objectively.

Empiricism creates realism by prioritising the indexical bond between the image and historical accuracy; the imagery is encouraged to be viewed as a record and any coded statements are distracted away from (KILBORN, Richard, 1994). Moore employs this form of realism when communicating and connecting facts that would often require an expert witness to validate. Instead, in the hybrid-poetic mode sequence in ‘Bowling for Columbine’ (2002) ‘found-footage’ is encouraged to be viewed as an historical record using empiricist epistemology. The information is presented by captions denoting the date and historical event that imagery purports to be a record of, also juxtaposed with the song ‘What a wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong allowing the viewer to interpret the facts via an uncomfortable sensory experience. The emotive footage and chilling comparison with the music acts as a compelling ironic statement challenging our evaluation of the epistemology in western societies, inviting us to second guess our trust in the leaders of the American administration.

The montage begins just after a PR representative from Lockheed Martin, a large weapons manufacturer in Colorado, who is conveniently standing in front of a large missile, successfully avoids Michaels leading questions and states that America doesn’t engage in acts of violence “just [sic] ‘cos we’re mad at [sic] ‘em”. Juxtaposing the corporate PR person with a montage of facts serves to ironise the excuses of the corporate elite who are clearly profiting from this bloodthirsty country. However, Luhr would argue Michael discounts his proposed argument with a later montage which includes a ‘voice-of-authority’ explanation, which seems to explain that the US is no more violent than any other western country; instead this raises the question: what is so different about America? Rather than a self-validating voice of authority found in films such as ‘The War Game (1965), Michael’s tone of address is ironic and the viewer identifies with his, verging on lamenting, illustration of the state of the American society. He concludes this sequence with a tally of statistics about gun related deaths placing America, in a dramatic fashion, at the top. This sequence does not discount Michael’s argument instead serves to progress his discourse through a narrative that follows an aesthetic comprehendible by an audience.

Another theme that Luhr finds problematic is Michael’s “brandishing instead of burning of his NRA card” (LUHR, William, 2005). Lurh suggests that Moore is again undermining his argument by revealing his personal affinity with guns; after all, this film follows his crusade to prove the adverse effects of gun laws in the USA. I incline to disagree; Michael here is again using himself as a metaphor. Representing himself as a product of America’s inherent violent nature and disregard to the working classes, this of course is a continuation of his everyman persona, which is an essential tool in Moore’s films.

In his films individual subjectivity takes the foreground, it has always been used as a form of evidence in documentary but Moore utilises the apparent appetite for subjective performance documentary in the climate of factual programming to recruit viewers to his films ideologies. He represents himself as someone facing the same struggles of working class Americans; this serves to enforce his claim on the subject matter. In the opening sequence of ‘Roger & Me’ (1989) home videos are intercut with newsreel and promotional video, which evokes a “baby boomer childhood in the comforting bosom of blue collar America” (DOVEY, John, 2000). It becomes apparent that this sequence is ironic; the self-mocking voiceover uses the performative mode here, as Nichols explains, “to move its audience into subjective alignment or affinity with its specific perspective on the world” (NICHOLS, Bill, 2002). This witty performance encourages identification with Michael’s narrative persona. We are encouraged to take his side not by proclamations of authority but by his accounts of failure and ambivalence, a Klutz (DOVEY, John, 2000). If Moore is successful in getting his audience to ‘side’ with him, they willingly submit to and relate to codes in a certain way (POLAN, Dana B., 1974).

Moore’s use of performance and self-reflexivity seems to increase through the three texts that I have chosen to look at. Thomas Waugh points out that when ‘playing ones self’, self-consciousness will grow and the social actor will be able to comprehend that “their roles are composites of their own social roles and the dramatic requirements of the film” (WAUGH, Thomas, 2011). This means that over time Michael, as a director, will understand how his use of his natural wit and his readiness to self-mock will increase the potential audience that will sit and listen to his political argument. Allowing the viewer to be enlightened and educated of how America is exploited by large companies to the detriment of its working class citizens.

Undoubtedly, a more cynical viewpoint perhaps, is that his auteur has garnered him success and financial gain, which is still rare for a documentary filmmaker focusing on political and social issues. ‘Bowling for Columbine’ (2002), along with two more of his films, is among the ten top grossing documentary films of all time; it also secured him an academy award (MOORE, Michael, 2013). Reportedly, he lives in a home worth $1.9 million (LUHR, William, 2005), so much for the working class every man with a failed journalism career that he purports to be in ‘Roger & Me’ (1989). Alan Rosenthal points out in his discussion of the new economic organisation of documentary, a filmmaker’s ‘track record’ is very important when trying to fund their films. Put more crudely, people find out what sells and make a film about it (ROSENTHAL, Alan, 1988). Which would be true here in Michaels films, his auteur and political argument clearly sells therefore; he produced more films, wrote books and charged people to hear him speak.

This leads us to the contradictions of his arguments; Dovey writes that “[a films] economics and the form are finally related” (DOVEY, John, 2000). This leads one to consider if Moore and his self-reflexive modes and politically humorous auteur have been comoditised. Dovey also points out that the rise of the popular factual programme is commonly seen as a direct result of the “relentless comodification of every sphere of cultural production and consumption that characterises noe-liberalism” (DOVEY, John, 2000), the very neo-liberalism that is the target of Moore’s films. This may suggest that he is exploiting the army of supporters that his films have recruited because they are unhappy with the state of America’s political organisation and they buy his films, books and tickets to his public addresses.

During ‘The Big One’ (1997) there are several events that flag Moore’s success, for example; after we see a section of one of his speeches that resembles more of a stand up comedy routine, he receives a phone call and finds out his book has made the New York Times’ Best Seller List. It is presented in a verité style with crew scattered everywhere. The clever mise-en-scène frames the event as being almost caught on camera by chance and of course, Michael is careful about his performance. Instead of him acting in a way that radiates ego he seems genuinely surprised and grateful. Directly afterwards there is a jump cut to what appears to be a few minutes further in time. Michael is sitting in the car holding a drink straw like a cigar seemingly impersonating the corporate elite he ambushes in their limousines (fig. 1).

Fig.1 Michael Moore, The Big One 1997

fig. 1 The Big One (1997)

His cameraman asks the question to which we all anticipating the answer: “How do you feel about your book being sold by a big corporation?” To which Michael responds, now that he has made the New York Times’ Best Seller List he “doesn’t think big corporations are such a bad idea”. The audio of the cameraman asking the question is not actually included, instead; Moore asks himself the question as if he was repeating it to begin his answer. Suggesting that the question was either rephrased by Michael or not even asked by the cameraman at all, it is likely that this was staged. It is obviously meant as a comedic moment making it plausible for the event to have been re-done for better effect. Nevertheless, it brings to my attention a theme that Michael’s persona seems to be distancing from the original working class person from Flint. In fact, the whole of ‘The Big One’ (1997), if evaluated as a bigger picture, charts Michael’s rise to success and the status of saviour of the working class American.

We are presented with several sequences where people approach Michael or the camera crew and thank him for what he is doing or show their support to his ‘fight’. For example one of his ‘media escorts’ who is someone assigned by his publishers to make sure he keeps all of his appointments speaks to the camera while Michael’s voice over explains that he is eating dinner with his wife, who has flown to see him especially for their anniversary. She explains that Michael “gives us courage” and is a “good fore sample of what we all can be”. The voice over alerts us that he was not there when she made this confessional admission, implying that it was made completely autonomously; this distracts from the significance of Moore’s decision to include it in the film. She appears in the same capacity as an interviewee whose voice as Bill Nichols describes is “uncritically accepted” (NICHOLS, Bill, 2005) this serves to support the transitional persona that Moore is establishing within this film. One that is rightly successful because of his worthwhile ‘mission’. This interaction and the interaction of the workers from the factory in Centralia who recount their dismissal via videotape become, as Joris Ivens suggests, “a gauge of the ethical and political accountability of the filmmaker’s relationship with the subject” (as cited in WAUGH, Thomas, 2011). Thus we can deduce, that Moore is positively accountable for the working class subjects, however; using the same theory we can see that there is conscious disregard to any ethical obligations to the objective representation of the antagonists of this narrative, the corporate elite.

However this is not a negative assessment of his practice, as Jay Ruby points out “documentary filmmakers are obliged to be objective” (RUBY, Jay, 2005) as they are interpreters of the world. It would be unethical of Micheal to purport that his argument is not highly subjective, it is commendable that he has not attempted to distract from his ‘voice’ or opinions. Instead of interpreting the facts as self validating actualities we interpret them in the knowledge that this is Michael’s argument which was inspired by the the devastation of his hometown. Therefore we interpret his argument with the idea that we are hearing from someone directly affected who shows us other people who are affected.

The persuasion of his argument and the way he goes about voicing it has placed Michael in a media spotlight with clear supporters and adversaries. America is a very proud country and his ability to unearth the most grotesque parts of the American dream has evoked substantial discussion of the validity of his work. A wealth of blogs and TV personalities speak out against his films and his political imperatives, in response to this a section on Moore’s web site allows sceptics to read footnotes (http://www.michaelmoore.com/books-films/facts/). The footnotes are very limited for ‘Bowling for Columbine’ (2002) and only available from this film onwards, not including ‘Slacker Uprising’ (2008). He addresses the claims that events were staged such as when he acquires a gun as a free gift by simply opening a bank account. He explains (sarcastically of course) the events that occurred and relates it to the production process. Admitting yes, it was done for the cameras to prove a point but that it was an accurate account of what happened. In the same footnotes, he relates to the ironic nature of his rhetoric in ‘Bowling for Columbine’ (2002) explaining that attempting to blame the Columbine massacre on bowling was just as “silly” as trying to blame Marilyn Manson as the media is represented as doing in the film.

In conclusion, Moore’s auteur may have been commoditised and yes, he and his distributors may make a substantial capital on the sale of his texts. However, from my analysis of how his texts are constructed and the possible reasons for the use of the techniques that I have proposed, leave me to evaluate that Moore has exploited this to put into effect the social changes that his texts aim to achieve. He is able to reach and enlighten people who are exploited without knowing it. Therefore, his political messages are effectively communicated by his auteur, and the popularity and the commodification of his auteur allows the imperatives to be communicated successfully.


Bowling For Columbine. Documentary. Directed by Michael MOORE. Dog Eat Dog Films. 2002.

DOVEY, John. 2000. Freakshow: first person media and factual television. Michigan: Pluto Press.

 Housing Problems. Directed by Arthur ELTON. B.C.G.A. 1935.

KILBORN, Richard. 1994. How Real Can You Get?’: Recent Developments in `Reality’ Television. European Journal of Communication. 9(4).

LUHR, William. 2005. Bowling for Columbine: A Review. In: New Challenges for Documentary, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

MOORE, Michael. 2013. Mike’s Blog. [online]. [Accessed 3 January 2014]. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.michaelmoore.com/blogger/mmflint/>

NICHOLS, Bill. 1992. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Indianna University Press.

NICHOLS, Bill. 2002. What types of documentary are there? In: Introduction to Documentary, Bloomington: Indianna University Press.

NICHOLS, Bill. 2005. The Voice of Documentary. In: Alan ROSENTHAL and John CORNER, (eds). New Challenges for Documentary, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

POLAN, Dana B. 1974. Jump Cut: Brecht and the politics of self-reflexive cinema. [online]. [Accessed 28 December 2013]. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC17folder/BrechtPolan.html>

 Roger & Me. Documentary. Directed by Michael MOORE. Dog Eat Dog Films. 1989.

ROSENTHAL, Alan. 1988. Staying Alive. In: Alan ROSENTHAL and John CORNER, (eds). New Challenges for Documentary, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

RUBY, Jay. 2005. The Image Mirrored: Reflexivity and the Documentary Film. In: John CORNER and Alan ROSENTHAL, (eds). New Challenges for Documentary, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

SCOTT, K D. 2012. Trombone Shot A2 Film. [online]. [Accessed 28 December 2013]. Available from World Wide Web: <http://tromboneshot.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/bowling-for-columbine-postmodern-cinema.html>


The Big One. Documentary. Directed by Michael MOORE. Dog Eat Dog FIlms. 1997.


The War Game. Docudrama. Directed by Peter WATKINS. 1965.

WAUGH, Thomas. 2011. Acting To Play Oneself. In: The Right To Play Oneself: Looking Back On Documentary , Minneapolis: Minneapolis University Press.

WAUGH, Thomas. 2011. Sufficient Virtue, Necessary Artistry, The Shifting Challenges of Revolutionary Documentary History (2006-2008). In: The Right To Play Oneself: Looking Back On Documentary , Minneapolis: Minneapolis State University Press.


2 thoughts on “Michael Moore and the Practice of Documentary

  1. Pingback: Ja’mie: Private School Girl what is it that Chris Lilley is actually mocking? – An exploration of mock-documentary in a self-reflexive society. | Jamie Lowe

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