The world needs more Michael Moore. He’s a shit disturber. Here Comes Trouble opens with the almost murderous reaction to his denunciation of the Iraq war while accepting an Oscar at the 2003 Academy Awards. This act took place in a climate of supine acquiescence by most of the US political establishment to a war launched four days earlier under blatantly false pretences. For a brief time, Moore was effectively leader of the opposition. He spent a much longer period under armed protection.
Moore shot to fame in 1989 with his first documentary film, Roger and Me. The Roger in question was Roger Smith, the General Motors chairman and CEO whose plant closure decisions devastated the former industrial bastion of Flint, Michigan, near where Moore grew up. The short opening paragraph in Smith’s Wikipedia profile says he was “widely known as the main subject” of Moore’s film. This gives some idea of its impact.
Here Comes Trouble, subtitled Stories from My Life, focuses mostly on the period from Moore’s birth in 1954 to the release of Roger and Me. Except for the opening chapter, there is little mention of the subsequent decades. This is a pity, because plenty has happened. During that time, Moore has produced several films and books of note. His film output has included Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko and, most recently, Capitalism: A Love Story. The latest of these films, released in 2009, portrays the triumphs that lifted millions of North American industrial workers into the middle class only for them to be battered a generation later by the forces of low-wage competition and political obscurantism.
Moore was the product of one such middle-class household. The union struggle to establish wages and benefits at his father’s job on the assembly line of a GM subsidiary in Flint ensured the family enjoyed a comfortable standard of living, something out of reach now for most Flint residents. In Here Comes Trouble, Moore portrays the post-war decades as an idyllic period despite the obvious backwardness in areas such as race relations. He doesn’t hide from this. An early instance of his shit disturbing involved a state-wide high school speaking competition in which he denounced the competition’s sponsor, the Elks fraternal order, for the exclusion of nonwhites from the recreational facilities it ran.
Not someone who suffers from ego deficiency (with his lumbering physique, he can barely keep out of camera range in most of his films), he offers us a book presenting not so much a coherent autobiography as a collection of stories from his early life. He details the pervasive Catholicism of his childhood and adolescence. One chapter recounts the year he spent at a seminary school midway through high school. At the end of that year, he was asked not to return. Why? Because he asked too many questions and didn’t accept enough on faith. In any case, by then he had decided that the priesthood wasn’t for him.
One of the more amusing chapters relates a brief journey to Canada he and two teenaged friends undertook to explore the chances of political amnesty should their numbers come up in the Vietnam war draft. Of course, it seemed less amusing at the time.
In several chapters, he portrays himself as something of a latter-day Chauncey Gardiner, innocently finding himself at the centre of key historical events. Being in the right place at the right time is a useful skill in journalism (Moore published an alternative weekly called The Flint Voice for several years), and he notes several such instances. One was finding himself aboard an aircraft that landed at Vienna airport just as a deadly terrorist incident was unfolding there. Another involved a retired priest, a part-time helper at the Voice, who sought repentance for having blessed an aircraft, the Enola Gay, as it set off on its infamous missions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One instance that Moore actually engineered was to infiltrate the press corps, without official credentials, at Ronald Reagan’s 1985 visit honouring Nazi war dead at the Bitburg cemetery in Germany and to help unfurl a banner carried by a Jewish friend whose family had been mostly wiped out.
If you’re a Michael Moore fan, you’ll probably enjoy most of these stories. His writing style is brisk and familiar, with the occasional flash of wit. If you’re not a Michael Moore fan, well, you’re not very likely to pick up this book in the first place.
Eric Hamovitch is a Montreal writer and translator who has worked as a journalist in Canada and Latin America.