Are Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11" and “Bowling for Columbine” propaganda films? A proper assessment of this claim.
Upon completing my viewings of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine, and pondering the statement stemming from the director’s critics that label him as a propagandist filmmaker, I have to say I had never connected Michael Moore’s films to propaganda previous to reading these claims. Although I can admit I had never seen a film by Michael Moore in full length, or start to finish, before viewing these two documentaries, I had seen dozens of clips and scenes from Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine in various stages throughout my schooling in Junior High and High School, as well as in reference on shows such as the Daily Show, or while browsing YouTube independently. While learning more about propaganda in film, having watched Triumph of the Will and The Nazis Strike, in Why We Fight back to back in contrast to one another earlier on in this semester, I was introduced to two different “propagandic” angles that were focused on the same conflict and event. I had mentioned in my writing (article “The Complexity of the Term “Propaganda”) in regards to The Nazis Strike, in Why we Fight that I reacted with impactful emotion and even tears while watching this film, which I summarized afterwards as proof that this documentary was clearly affective and would have convinced me of the call to action for the cause at the time of its release, as the film was intended to do to its viewers. I also mentioned that while watching Triumph of the Will, I reacted with disgust, mental fatigue and frustration while sitting through the full length of the documentary.
Understanding these emotions for both of these screenings reaffirmed my already previously established beliefs surrounding World War II. The way that I have begun to understand the meaning of propaganda, especially in the form of cinema, is that any bold stance or ideological opinion or belief will always be labelled as some form of propaganda. After watching these two films, I began to realize that perhaps I had allowed negative connotations to influence the way I initially reacted to the words “propaganda film” in the past, while forgetting to see that of course, any opposition could use this term to try to discredit their own counterpart. Case in point, a film made to unite the allies against the Nazi regime was ultimately labelled as a propaganda film, which created a realization in me that almost any message, even one meant to fight against an oppressive and violent authoritative power could still be lumped into such category. Knowing this, going into watching the two Michael Moore films that I had already had some admiration and respect for, in part because of the messages that I had understanding of from the few clips I had already seen, which I knew focused on advocating for gun law reform, the dismantling of corrupt systems and social justice, made me a much more aware viewer.
It is clear to anyone that has heard of Michael Moore that he takes an undeniable position and perspective within his films, however, knowing that even films that helped lead to the fall of the Nazis were considered propaganda films, reminding myself that some consider Michael Moore’s work to be propaganda helped me contextualize why this might be. To put it simply, for every ideology and opinion, there is going to be resistance and an argument. Instead of getting too hung up on the term “propaganda”, despite my admitted pre-approval of Moore’s work, I watched the film through a lens of knowing that this is his opinion, much like the work of practically every other filmmaker that has ever produced a documentary. Documentaries will always be from a certain perspective, and to expect complete neutrality from the directors when trying to convey a message of some kind, is a little unrealistic to expect.
Like Flores (2012) mentions “Ultimately, every documentarian makes decisions that range from subtle to overt that influence the presentation and reception of their material […]”, meaning that one could quite simply revert into a constant accusation wheel of calling anything that ever shows any slight hint at being subjective as propaganda. From my perspective, that would be a tireless pursuit, as even filmmakers who adhere to some form of a moderate centrist opinion on the political spectrum might not be immune from the polarization in society today. I feel as though this could seriously hinder the meaning of the word “propaganda” and its effectiveness when it comes to labelling hateful or extremist propaganda accordingly. What also makes me question the accusations of Michael Moore being a propagandist, would be how that is, considering he has also criticized Bill Clinton, a Democrat, in his film The Big One, as well as the green energy movement in Planet of the Humans, and not just George W. Bush and right-leaning politicians who happened to be the main focus point of criticism in Fahrenheit 9/11 and to an extent in Bowling for Columbine.
Michael Moore has not shied away from criticizing anyone on either side of the political spectrum in his films, which is incomparable to Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will, which was a clear call to arms to wage war, commit genocide and establish hierarchal white supremacy in Nazi Germany and around the world. Such a claim would produce an almost endless list of other Leni Riefenstahl comparisons and would also be very misleading considering Leni Riefenstahl did not produce Triumph of the Will because of her personal ideology or opinions, but in fact because she had no other choice or opportunity as a filmmaker living under an authoritative government. The same logic would mean that every documentary filmmaker who has ever taken a particular opinion, stance or an ideological leaning, even while living and working freely under a democratic system, would then be a propagandist, which to me is a complete fallacy. From my understanding, propaganda films in the most true sense would be sponsored or at least financially backed by a state government and not independently produced or funded, which in the case of Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine, they were both produced by Michael Moore’s own production company and not through government affiliation.
To call Michael Moore’s work propaganda, and or completely discredit it in that sense would be an act of trying to censor and limit free speech, in my opinion. Due to the nature of Michael Moore’s honest and up-front attitude to the topics he explores and the perspective he takes, it is only natural that there will be resistance from those who share a different perspective. However, Michael Moore reflects the ability of not trying to hold onto an everlasting ideological standpoint, or painting an entire people, political spectrum or opposing ideology as wrong or immoral. Instead, Michael Moore is focusing on specific individuals and their actions, rather than an entire party or political viewpoint. This is different from other propaganda that might try to paint an entire category of individuals, culture, political party or organized group as wrongdoers and the reason for pain and struggle in society. As Jones (2004) says “Fahrenheit 9/11 is not a film for the ages. It is a film for right here and right now, and it counts in a way that few films have ever counted. It won’t change the minds of the Safires or Limbaughs of this world, for whom facts are indeed stupid things. But if anything can cut through the thick haze of Reaganesque good cheer that’s been pumped into the country for the last quarter-century, it’s this movie.”
Another way that Michael Moore ultimately escapes any true sense of propagandist technique could also likely be by consistently speaking subjectively, and also including himself in his films frequently, on screen and in narration. He doesn’t try to speak as though his opinions are objective truths, and he is not afraid to admit his biases or include his own personal experiences and story within the narrative of the documentary itself. The other important part of Moore’s criticism, is that it wasn’t just from his opposition, but also from people who identify as left-leaning, despite Moore openly admitting he is as leftist documentary filmmaker. Richard (2004) explains this phenomenon with his statement, “Some of Moore’s critics, including some liberals, have chastised him for supposedly emphasizing American misconduct at the expense of any mention of Saddam Hussein’s crimes. But, even if many of us disagreed with, say, Paul Berman’s provisional support of the war, there is nothing in Fahrenheit 9/11 that is not congruent with his “challenge” in the June 28, 2004 issue of The New Republic: “to rage at Saddam and other enemies, and at the same time, to rage in a somewhat different register at Bush, and to keep those two responses in proportion to one another.” Moore again shows his fearlessness to criticize everyone involved in the War in Iraq, rather than just George Bush or the Republicans, further exemplifying why Michael Moore did not paint himself into a corner as a propagandist in his creation of the film.
One of the strongest elements of Michael Moore’s films, which allows for debate and criticism is the mood he created in the two films Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine. These moods are explained by Benson and Snee (2015) as “modes of feeling where the sense of subjectivity becomes diffuse and sensation merges into something close to atmosphere, something that seems to pervade an entire scene or situation” (p. 137). This distinct mood within his two films as mentioned, continues to permeate in every scene that is established, which the viewer sees and feels through the lens of Michael Moore, and some critics might be mistaking good filmmaking that is artfully constructed in tone and mood for propaganda in this situation. Although there are moments in scenes where little dialogue or action occurs, there is still an overarching mood that continues scene to scene that you notice and feel without understanding why and without knowing what to expect next, which might be because Michael Moore is effective enough in his filmmaking style that some who disagree with his viewpoints might actually be quite drawn into the emotion for some time and could possibly be experiencing some level of cognitive dissonance.
Another interesting element of Michael Moore is his dabbling into techniques associated with the cinema verité subgenre in Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine. Different from most propaganda too, is that in using these cinema verité techniques, he also captures interviews with a large variety of subjects who possess much different perspectives than he does, and within these interactions with these individuals there is plenty of information communicated and conveyed by these people that do back-up a lot of his own claims. When confronting Charlton Heston at the end of Bowling for Columbine, Heston, the subject, walks out of the interview and does not give further insight or opinion in response to valid counterpoints that are made by Michael Moore. This shows that perhaps there is truth to what Michael Moore is saying, when considering why such reactions come from these subjects and why they aren’t able to deliver a proper response to these arguments. A rule of thumb for documentary standards and ethics, as mentioned by Aufderheide, Jaszi and Chandra (2009), is that “Filmmakers also face pressure to inflate drama or character conflict and to create drama where no natural drama exists. They may be encouraged to alter the story to pump up the excitement, the conflict, or the danger”.
In these many confrontational scenes Michael Moore conducts with a variety of powerful figures, like politicians or lobbyists, the latter being Charlton Heston in my previous example, there is no dramatic inflation or an altering of the story or interaction between Moore and Heston. What is captured in actuality, on-camera, shows Charlton Heston unable to answer an opposing question from Michael Moore, and the subject personally chose to walk away from the interview when presented with a sound argument. One could argue Michael Moore’s guise of being an National Rifle Association Member (although he actually is an NRA member, however he does believe in gun law reform) in order to infiltrate himself into a sit-down with Charlton Heston in his private home may be considered by some to be a slightly unethical practice, however, there are many other ways that Charlton Heston may have ended the interview, rather than remain silent and walk away from a conversation on a wildly common political debate, and of which was neither personal or aggressive.
In fact, there is little that Michael Moore does or says in this scene that is any different from the average journalist in the United States at the time, when comparing his presence and the delivery of his questions to those who represent major news networks. The criticism Michael Moore faces from his harshest critics also resembles similarity to the ways in which many of these networks receive criticism of bias and opinion, however, Michael Moore as an independent filmmaker who is not paid by or hired by a major corporation with government leaning, has as much of a right to express his personal opinion and perspective as any other media outlet in the same society, within the time and place of these two film’s productions. As Stuckey explains (2007), “[…] some of Moore’s arguments lent themselves to easy partisan criticism, and there are things he could have done better to make his own case, but that, in the main, Moore’s arguments in Fahrenheit 9/11 were well presented, cogent, and, in the main, correct.” Ultimately, to call Moore’s work entirely propaganda, is not effectively arguing the points and perspectives he makes, especially in a country like the United States in which free speech is considered to be a guaranteed freedom of expression, regardless of whether one buy’s the commentary within Fahrenheit 9/11 or Bowling for Columbine.
Flores, L. (2012), Examining the Foundations of Documentary Film Through The Cove, http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/638/examining-the-foundations-of-documentary-film-through-the-cove
Jones, K. (2004), This Means War! Fahrenheit 9/11, https://www.filmcomment.com/article/this-means-war-fahreinheit-9-11/
Aufderheide, P., Jaszi, P., Chandra M. (2009), Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work, https://cmsimpact.org/resource/honest-truths-documentary-filmmakers-on-ethical-challenges-in-their-work/
Benson, T.W., Snee, B.J., (2015) Michael Moore and the Rhetoric of Documentary,
Stucky, M.E., (2007), The Journal of American History, https://www-jstor-org.libproxy.mtroyal.ca/stable/25094754?sid=primo&origin=crossref&seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents
Richard, P. (2004), Weapons of mass destruction Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (Critical Essay), http://shakespeare.gale.com.libproxy.mtroyal.ca/shax/infomark.do?action=interpret&source=null&prodId=SHAX&userGroupName=mtroyalc&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&docId=A122987440&type=retrieve&version=1.0&finalAuth=true