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Michael Moore’s Broadway Debut Finds the Provocateur Where He’s Needed Least

Shambling and a little uncertain, Michael Moore frumps about the stage of the Belasco Theatre, drifting from a desk to a leather chair, reeling off greatest-hit stories from his life and attacking the politics of Right This Moment with all the vigor of an old dog gumming a chew toy. “Donald Trump outsmarted us all,” he notes early in The Terms of My Surrender, his new Broadway show, a mostly tepid entertainment best suited for people who enjoy nodding emphatically to the utterance of truths they knew walking in. Moore asks if the audience thinks the president is crazy and then cuts into its enthusiasm with this insight: “Yeah, he’s crazy all right — crazy like a fox.”

The show runs 110 minutes, without intermission. Moore and director Michael Mayer pad it out with crowd interactions; an if-I-were-the-president comedy stump speech held over from last year’s superior Michael Moore in TrumpLand film; a half-assed razzle-dazzle finale; and a sloppy game-show parody that might be more effective if Moore and his selected-at-random audience contestants exhibited greater command of the mechanics of the game’s rules and buzzers. And applause breaks: “Some of you still read real books, right?” he asks, inviting an ovation for our own proud discernment. The best line I heard all night came from the crowd (or a plant) when Moore asked us, for no clear reason, “How do I look?” Amid the predictable answers — “Casual!” “Dad-bod!” — came the priceless “Lost at Kohl’s!”

That moment of cheering for the idea of books themselves comes as part of Moore’s transition into the story of the time HarperCollins, right after September 11, vowed to pulp and not reprint his just-released Stupid White Men unless Moore softened its broadsides against George W. Bush. Turns out, though, that a librarian got wind of this and organized anti-censorship protests that spooked the publisher. Soon, despite the threats, Moore had a bestseller on his hands. The tale illustrates one of the recurring themes of The Terms of My Surrender: that one courageous person can create change. (It also nudges the audience into clapping for the great man’s book sales.)

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Moore confines the Trump material to the show’s first fifteen minutes. He points out, rightly, that 60 percent of Americans have less than $500 in savings, so of course they’re susceptible to Trump’s bring-the-factories-back promises. “He knew what they wanted to hear, and he just said it,” Moore tells us. And he’s persuasive in his countervailing insistence that Democrats and liberals greatly outnumber conservatives, Republicans, and the Trump-curious, and that all it would take for the progressive majority to reclaim power in America is individual action. Call your reps, run for office, hold rallies to get Michael Moore books into stores.

That one-person-can-change-things argument serves as justification for the show’s most assured and engaging passages: his recounting of highlights from his career as rabble-rouser. Always more a prankster than a polemicist, Moore can spin a tale, especially when the topic is his own escapades. He dishes two beauties, one about entering an Elks Club speech contest at age seventeen and then using the forum to denounce the Elks’ whites-only membership policies. That leads to his running for the school board of Davison, Michigan, at eighteen, and becoming the youngest elected official in the country. Another caper of note finds Moore and a pal sojourning from Detroit to Bitburg, Germany, in 1985, to mount a furious protest of Ronald Reagan’s decision to lay a wreath commemorating the U.S. and West Germany’s friendship at a cemetery filled with German soldiers, including 49 members of the SS. These stories both climax with well-timed projections of vintage photos, one funny and one beautifully defiant, but I regret to report that the quick context I just dashed off about why Reagan was at “a Nazi cemetery” is more than Moore bothers with.

In “The Terms of My Surrender,” Michael Moore leans on truths his audience already knew walking in.

Moore closes with a jeremiad against Michigan governor Rick Snyder and the pitiless dollars-and-cents decision-making that led directly to the water crisis in Flint and the poisoning of thousands of residents. He declares that Snyder and his government are, in his view, criminals for their initial actions and murderers for their later ones, for allowing the crisis to persist and working to cover up the facts. (“Fuck him!” a woman in my row shouted, about Snyder.) Moore calls Snyder’s Michigan the forerunner of Trump’s America and concludes, “Now we all live in Flint, or some version of Flint.”

Do we? Is the enthusiastic throng in a Broadway house — most of whom probably have $500 in savings — truly living in the same America as the people of Flint? Moore’s work has always edged toward advocacy of action, inspiring change through his muckraking but also through the example of his everyday Midwestern moral reasonableness, so it takes some effort not to demand more from him than we might from other entertainers. (Michael Moore in TrumpLand, that quickie 2016 film, was explicitly crafted to help convince suburban and rural America to vote Clinton.) This question is unfair, but it tugged at my brain throughout the show: If Michael Moore’s life has proved that one person can make a great difference, why is he here, now, balming the spirits of the converted, rather than back in Flint — the city Moore chronicled in Roger & Me — making the film that might actually save lives?

The show’s most suggestive line is a throwaway in its weakest segment. After recounting the death threats he got throughout the 2000s from Americans who have pickled in the brine of right-wing hate radio, Moore laughs about having once been invited to compete on Dancing With the Stars. He mentions that he could have used the money, that at the time he was depressed and hadn’t made a film or written a book in quite a while. But rather than let us in at all, or elaborate on why this pop-political documentarian mostly sat out the Obama years, Moore quickly moves on to the next bit. It’s not as if America wasn’t troubled before the 2016 election. Yet here he is now, returning just when the left is hungry for resistance entertainment, showing up like he’s Gandalf at Helm’s Deep, the hero here to save us all. He’s prepping a new film (Fahrenheit 11/9) and a TNT TV show. Will they be urgent exposés and briefs for change, or just more playdates with your old pal Mike?

The Terms of My Surrender
Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th Street
212-239-6200

michaelmooreonbroadway.com
Through October 22

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GMO OMG: Who Controls the World’s Food Supply?

As battles over the world’s food supply intensify, some tough questions become ever more pressing: Who controls it? Are shortages being created and manipulated, and to what end? Exactly what is in what we are eating? Writer-director Jeremy Seifert addresses those concerns and more in GMO OMG, a documentary that is by turns exasperating, illuminating, and intentionally infuriating. Sparked by his precocious six-year-old son’s obsession with seeds, Seifert dives into research on the state of the world’s seed supply, which springboards into larger questions about global food sources and who wields power over them. That line of query of course leads straight to the machinations of Monsanto. Seifert (whose approach owes more than a little to Michael Moore) travels the world, talking to activists in Haiti who burned seeds Monsanto donated following 2010’s devastating earthquake, scientists in France whose studies suggest horrifying future side-effects from Monsanto products, and finally circling back to the American heartland, where he uncovers sobering data on the state of the American farm industry. Even those who have been paying close attention to these issues are likely to glean some new insight into the various branches of the matter. Unfortunately, Seifert’s structure of his film can be groan-inducing, as he introduces many segments with contrived conversations between his (admittedly adorable) children, who often look bored out of their minds as he doles out data and statistics; the effect is to infantilize his audience. When he gets past those setups, the film is fantastic.

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American Made Movie Argues For Home-Grown Manufacturing Might

In their documentary American Made Movie, Nathaniel Thomas McGill and Vincent Vittorio make a compelling argument that America can and must bring back its manufacturing strength; they illustrate all too well the devastating reach of a factory closing. While this is no Michael Moore screamer—it’s neither that annoying nor that entertaining—the filmmakers choose their stories for maximum effect. You learn that major league baseball caps are made in Asia and that the Smithsonian gift shop replaced handmade American-flag kitsch from Connecticut with Chinese knockoffs. Their stated aim is to inspire a movement like the groundswell for local food, but McGill and Vittorio’s case for the consumer as the driver of manufacturing proves convoluted. Their specialists note that expectations for low, low prices are a culprit, and that paying more to buy American would help rescue our economy. But why should that difference come only from consumer pockets and not company profits? An activist Georgia town entices business with tax breaks, but we don’t know the return on investment for the people who live there. When the filmmakers highlight foreign auto companies with American factories, no one acknowledges that those are non-union shops. And never do they mention what is perhaps the most shameful aspect of the global manufacture of the things we buy: that too many people abroad are paid woefully little to work in wretched conditions. The film’s experts and entrepreneurs have a lot to say worth listening to, but little that illuminates any clear path.

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When Not Muddled in Superfluous Details, the Lights Shine Bright on a Serious Epidemic in The United States of Football

The United States of Football is essentially the opposite of Friday Night Lights. A feel-bad documentary about the concussion epidemic in the NFL—somehow only recently become an issue—more than one of its interviewees died between the time they were filmed and the project’s completion. Director Sean Pamphilon, best known as the man who leaked audio of the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal last year, veers between the informative (a hard look at a culture that promotes dangerous playing styles from a very early age) and the superfluous (an inordinate amount of attention paid to offensive-tackle-turned-activist Kyle Turley’s band) throughout, and doesn’t always strike a workable balance. Probably the most interesting thing he does is spotlight the players’ wives who have been pivotal in bringing attention to the issue and forcing the NFL’s into finally taking some semblance of action over the last few years. Pamphilon seems to fancy himself the sporting world’s answer to Michael Moore, spending a good portion of the movie trying to track down NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in the same vein as Moore did in Roger & Me, but has little of the polarizing documentarian’s flair as a filmmaker. He won’t wow you with his skill behind the camera, but you’ll likely still find yourself nodding your head in frustrated agreement.

 

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Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare

Skyrocketing domestic health care costs are tackled with sobriety in Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, but the film offers only, alas, a partial-solution analysis. Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke’s documentary gets its title from a wildfire anecdote that speaks to the need to embrace risky tactics to survive—a clunky metaphor that isn’t indicative of its overall tack, which, aside from a few overly cartoony graphics, speaks to its hot-button topic with a clarity and urgency that never strays into fear-mongering. With spending on treatment and pharmaceuticals exceeding sustainable levels, the film proposes as an answer preventive measures that, it argues, would radically reduce disease—and costs. Making this contention, the film fingers Americans’ unhealthy behavior (overeating, lack of exercise, excessive smoking and drinking) as the root cause of the immense financial burden now placed on health care, though such claims would have further benefited from a wider variety of talking heads and less reliance on tragic Michael Moore–style personal-interest stories. More frustrating, however, is that by failing to equally address the other remedy for our current health care predicament—namely, the necessity of forcing drug companies and providers to charge less—Escape Fire winds up feeling like only one half of a larger argument.

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Kumaré

Prepare to have your assumptions pitched out the window by this tense, surprisingly probing satirical documentary—not just about religious longing and “spirituality,” its ostensible subjects, either, but also about how deep the genre that gave us Borat and Morgan Spurlock’s spotty oeuvre can go. Kumaré is essentially the chronicle of a joke turned serious: Director-star Vikram Gandhi, a middle-class Indian-American from New Jersey, transforms a faltering doc project debunking bogus gurus (a couple of whom make it into the final cut, to their everlasting detriment) into an immersive lark when he assumes the movie’s titular persona. A shaggy baba complete with gob-smacked gaze, impenetrable accent, and questionable underwear, Kumaré attracts a following among the New Age–curious in southern Arizona despite an arsenal of idiotic fake-yoga moves and half-gibberish koans, as well as frequent and open admissions of his fraudulence. Incredibly, Gandhi forms a genuine, mutually enriching bond with these apostles, which serves his thesis—that no single person or belief system has a lock on the cosmic and that we’re all seekers in our own way—rather than exposes it as Michael Moore–style overstatement or smug posturing à la Bill Maher’s hateful Religulous. It helps that Kumaré’s “teachings” are bolstered by Gandhi’s strict Hindu upbringing, obvious real-yoga expertise, and the memory of his devout grandmother. His refusal to make the yogi’s diverse adepts (including a stressed-out death row attorney and a lonely single mom) look foolish or pathetic shows uncommon, admirable restraint, too. Whether Kumaré‘s happy alignment of cinematic inspiration and philosophical awakening is simply a feat of editing remains open, and the element of racial pandering in its teacher/student dynamic goes entirely unaddressed, but the white-knuckle climax, in which the newly shorn filmmaker reveals his inner Garden Stater to team Kumaré, is incredibly moving all the same.

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Plastic Planet and the Steep Price of Your Water Bottle Addiction

The information presented in Werner Boote’s Plastic Planet is so important that the documentary is a must-see for anyone even remotely interested in the staggering health costs of plastic to humans and the planet itself, or in the backroom machinations that have squelched studies outlining the product’s deleterious side effects. That’s the upside. The downside is that Boote, a discount Michael Moore, showboats so gratingly for the camera and tries so hard to set up “gotcha” moments for his slick corporate villains that he comes off worse than they do. (It doesn’t help that his line of questioning is frequently grade-school simplistic when he tries to hold subjects’ feet to the fire.) Still, when Boote gets out of the way, the film is illuminating and infuriating. We learn the history and evolution of plastic (including Boote’s family connection) before plunging into a grim rollout of data, case studies, interviews, and globe-spanning locales that have been devastated by our crippling dependence on it. There’s much that’s unsettling in the film, but one especially ominous point is that the havoc wreaked on the sexual organs of fish is being mimicked in humans, with plastic as the very likely culprit.

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Feel the Rage All Over Again With Financial Disaster Doc Inside Job

Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s follow-up to his Iraq War gut-twister No End in Sight, is a documentary that inspires less shock and awe than sickening ire. The movie, which had its first local showing last week at the New York Film Festival, opens with the cautionary tale of little Iceland, an idyllic nation so stable that, as put by one local, it enjoyed “almost ‘end-of-history’ status.” But the beat goes on: Evil entered the garden with the deregulation, privatization, and multinational exploitation of the nation’s local banks. Sound familiar?

Ferguson is a less rabble-rousing filmmaker than Michael Moore, but 20 minutes into his lucid yet stupefying account of the 2008 global economic meltdown—around the time a stroll down memory lane recounts Ronald Reagan’s role in facilitating the Savings and Loan debacle of the mid ’80s—my vision was clouded by the steam wafting from my ears. Next up, the quotidian Clinton-era crimes of corporate money-laundering, book-cooking, and pol-bribing. This may have been business as usual, but the 1999 repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act re-stoked the coals of my indignation as savings banks were set free to merge with investment houses, and the wholesale merchandising of speculative derivatives opened the way for the full-scale casino-ization of the American economy.

Inside Job makes a familiar tale cogent. Bankers pumped up the housing market by offering subprime mortgages like free tastes of heroin, then bundling these dubious loans as investments to create an international Ponzi scheme—the debt sold to eager and/or naïve customers while they themselves were insured against loss with credit default swaps. Encouraging even more gambling, the federal SEC lifted leverage restrictions on the banks so that they could play with ever-more borrowed money; rating agencies colluded in the frenzy by certifying dubious investment bonds and thus creating the conditions for a massive sell-off. You may remember that the party ended with a bang two years ago last month, when the reality police appeared at the frat-house door. Venerable investment houses collapsed, intolerable pressure fell on the fissuring pillar that was insurance giant AIG, the temple tottered, and the capitalist system went into cardiac arrest.

Were individuals to blame or was it simply the unfettered system being itself? (As Marx wrote of credit, debt furtively crept in as “the humble assistant of accumulation” to become “a new and terrible weapon” in the redistribution of wealth.) Midway through Inside Job, Ferguson begins a search for accountability, polite but firm as he mixes it up, off-screen but on-mic, with unrepentant Big Board hustlers, confounded government regulators, and obfuscating academic pundits. Small solace to watch the rogues squirm: No one, Ferguson points out, has yet been prosecuted for fraud. Indeed, resuscitated at the public trough, the surviving banks are even more powerful. Their lobbyists clog the Capitol, and campaign contributions are bigger than ever.

The bingo hall may have closed, but the fix is in. Although Inside Job attempts to exit on a positive note, the movie is most despairingly proof of the existence of a permanent government. Bill Clinton’s slack-jawed grin as he poses beside thuggish Larry Summers is nearly as appalling as George W. Bush’s thin-lipped smirk in introducing delusional Hank Paulson. (The closest thing to a political hero is Eliot Spitzer, mirror image of a self-entitled Wall Street master of the universe.) Although Inside Job is rife with bullshit artists, the most contemptible are the tenured Ivy League professors such as Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard and Frederic Mishkin or Harvard’s John Campbell, who, eager for crumbs at the table, are little more than paid flacks for the corporate buccaneers.

There’s not much sense that the system can be voted out—not least because Barack Obama, shown campaigning on the crisis and elected in part to change the game, recruited his economic advisers from those who enabled the disaster. Despite the populist tendency to blame the gummint (although, curiously, not its lax regulation), the upcoming election is less likely to throw the rascals out than, abetted by the same band of billionaires, elect a new passel in.

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BRUBECK’S BACK

The gig is one week shy of his 90th birthday, but Dave Brubeck will be bringing you “Take Five,” so perhaps you should have a card ready. The jazz piano legend, a cheeky experimentalist with time signatures and tonalities (6/4 beat is no amateur’s bag, as “Pick Up Sticks” attests), has shown his remarkable skill from the onset—his career began, quite dramatically, in the ’40s when he formed an ensemble to entertain his fellow GIs in Patton’s army—and still enjoys his reign as the leader of the revered Dave Brubeck Quartet, a sophisticated and wily bunch of orchestrally inclined jazz greats (Robert Militello, Michael Moore, Randy Jones). Miss this one, and you’ve missed history.

Nov. 27-29, 8 & 10:30 p.m., 2009

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Defamation Eyes the Modern Face of Anti-Semitism

Jewish Israeli director Yoav Shamir’s cheerfully incendiary documentary about the modern face of anti-Semitism begins with Shamir (Checkpoint) blundering, Michael Moore–style, through the New York offices of the Anti-Defamation League, where Abe Foxman and his minions dutifully rout out a “spike” in anti-Semitic incidents that include office workers denied vacation for the High Holy Days and a policeman’s racial slur overheard at a funeral. From there, it’s off to Israel, where teens about to depart on a tour of the Polish concentration camps are briefed for their journey: “You will see that they do not like us.” At first, it seems as if Shamir, too, may be indoctrinating us. But as he continues his world tour, his case—and the film—becomes more carefully nuanced, with evidence of overt hate crimes (a stabbing spree in a Moscow synagogue) juxtaposed against Foxman’s Chicken Little hysteria, on the one hand, and Holocaust Industry author Norman Finkelstein’s virulent anti-Zionism on the other. Does anti-Semitism exist or is it a construct of America’s powerful, pro-Israel lobby? Are Jewish fears of a second Holocaust justified or merely a product of the same fearmongering that gives rise to all forms of extremism? Is Venezuela really the second-most anti-Semitic country in the world, after Iran? Like most good documentaries, Defamation poses more questions than it purports to answer, before arriving at the mildly reductive postulation that what’s past is past.