Michael Moore, the new diplomat

Special to The Times

When Michael Moore won best documentary for "Bowling for Columbine" at last week's Academy Awards, his antiwar comments -- "Shame on you, Mr. Bush!" -- were met with cheers and jeers. The orchestra cut him off. Steve Martin made a joke.

The mood was quite different at the Cesars, the French Oscars, a few weeks beforehand, as Moore lumbered up to accept the best foreign film award. He made the routine apology for his high-school French. Then he delivered a well-rehearsed, improvisational-style speech in English, pausing expertly for the translator. At a leisurely pace, he thanked our French allies for the cinema, for French fries and French kisses. For helping us in the War of Independence and saying no to the war we had not yet officially begun.

"One of the best definitions of an ally, of a friend," he said, "is that your friend is the one who can tell you when you're wrong. So thank you for showing us the way, for standing up for something very important."

Moore insisted that he represented "tens of millions" of Americans who praised the firm French antiwar stance, not a lone voice in a self-styled wilderness. In crooked bow tie and schlumpy tux, the filmmaker and bestselling author was the ultimate antihero, earnestly dragging his wife and producer Kathleen Glynn up on stage, laughing his "yuk, yuk, yuk" laugh -- and getting the night's most rousing and spontaneous standing ovation.

Europeans have always had an appetite for subversive American voices, and Moore's provocative, outspoken, sarcastic, muckraking style, which some also label glib and narcissistic -- is closely watched here. It would be overstating the case to say that he is more appreciated here than at home, but Europeans have come to rely on him as a singular voice for the American underdog since he made an international name for himself with his 1989 breakthrough documentary "Roger and Me." In this era of troubled U.S. diplomacy, you might even say that Moore has become perhaps America's chief cultural ambassador in this part of the world.

"Bowling for Columbine" was the first documentary in half a century to be admitted to the main competition at last May's Cannes Film Festival, where it won the special jury prize. Moore's bestselling book "Stupid White Men ... and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation" is No. 1 and No. 2 on Amazon.de (in German and English, respectively) and is a bestseller in France, where its title is "Mike Contre-attaque!" or "Mike Counterattack!" It won Book of the Year from the British Book Awards this winter. Last fall in London, Moore's one-man show "Michael Moore -- Live!" was full for its five-week run at the Roundhouse theater.

A bookseller at the Waterstone's in the London neighborhood of Notting Hill, where "Stupid White Men" is No. 1, said, "It's still flying off the shelves -- too bad it hasn't been able to change anything politically." Moore's name comes up in conversation at Parisian dinner parties, and in French political debates, he's used as shorthand proof that the American left is alive and well, despite the image projected by Washington.

"Moore has amassed a sizable following on both sides of the Atlantic, not only as a satirical writer, but also as a comedian and mickey-taking documentary maker," said London's Independent on Sunday, in a review of "Stupid White Men," adding that "Michael Moore, the people's champion, has just turned into a brand." The paper headlined another review: "THE BESTSELLER THAT BUSH'S AMERICA TRIED TO BAN."

The startling success of "Stupid White Men," the article said, suggests "that the 'popularity' of George Bush is not nearly as universal as the manufactured consensus would suggest." It went on to praise American book-buyers "who are reinforcing that proudest of all American traditions: the right to freedom of speech, information and opinion."

Heard in many arenas

Nobody embodies the cliche of an American more prosaically than Moore, of the XXL frame, the baseball cap and sneakers; the sloppy, loud, in-your-face delivery. But if he is quintessentially American, Moore has often found support for his ideas outside the United States.

The BBC offered to produce his first television series, "TV Nation," a TV newsmagazine spoof that focused on big business' exploitation of the little people, after it was rejected by NBC (which later picked it up), as well as his 1998 documentary "The Big One," about his cross-country book tour for 1996's "Downsize This!" The U.K.'s Channel Four produced the first season of his follow-up to "TV Nation," "The Awful Truth," and its Canadian producing partner Salter Street Films funded "Bowling for Columbine."

Moore is not without his critics on both sides of the Atlantic. But like those Americans who sympathize with his work, Europeans tend to begrudgingly forgive his shortcomings for the simple reason that he is one of the few loud, clear voices of the American left. The French daily Liberation called him "the hero of the leftist fight in the United States," and "Bowling for Columbine" "an anti-American diatribe." The Independent on Sunday wrote in a review of the film: "Moore's Achilles heel is this awful self-aggrandizing streak, his flaunting of plain-guy compassion.... 'Bowling for Columbine' is a big confused hectoring righteous mess, but it'll make you laugh a lot and chill your marrow even more."

On press night of "Michael Moore -- Live!" last November in slightly out-of-the-way Camden, the sympathetic audience -- which included actor Alan Rickman snorting it up a few rows back -- laughed, cheered and generally went along for the ride as Moore did his shtick: a whole skit about the things you can't bring on a post-Sept. 11 plane; real-time calls to fast-food joints in the Middle East to gather intelligence on Osama bin Laden. A call to the FBI switchboard, in which an operator had never heard of the Office of Homeland Security. He ate Doritos while sitting in a scruffy easy chair, with blown-up photos of a young W, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Tony Blair hanging behind him.

In a rather blatant exercise in what London's Observer called "national self-deprecation," he held an intelligence quiz in which he drafted two hapless audience members to the stage -- an American and a Brit -- and led them through a rigged series of faux-game show questions. At the end, he answered questions -- showing off his comic timing and gift for politically incorrect political correctness.

The Observer found his "tirades against the bombing of Afghanistan or the deaths of half a million Iraqi children from US bombs ... viscerally inspiring." But the review was critical of Moore's disparagement of the passengers of Sept. 11's hijacked planes for their white, middle-class complacency, and the parents of the Columbine students for not breaking through the police tape. His analysis "looks like a thoughtless over-simplification from the armchair of hindsight," the review said.

The Times of London went one step further: "The average American is not stupid; Michael Moore is."

Stupid or not, he definitely entertained the sellout crowds. "Michael Moore -- Live!" was a surprise success, says David Johnson, the show's British producer and the man responsible for bringing "Puppetry of the Penis" to the U.S. He hopes to use the box-office numbers to persuade reluctant New York theater owners to stage a version of the show, updated to address current events, on Broadway sometime this year.

A self-deprecating critic

Part of Moore's popularity abroad, cynics might point out, is that he flatters the wisdom and civility of other nations while confirming their worst suspicions about America. At the Cannes press conference for "Bowling for Columbine," a Canadian journalist respectfully objected to Moore's contention that all Canadians didn't lock their doors (in one scene in the film, he'd tested his theory by barging into several strangers' homes unannounced). But Moore deflected the comment, insisting that something in the Canadian "cultural DNA" made it a less fearful and violent country than its neighbor.

During the festival, Moore made foreign friends all around with his effusive thanks, his self-deprecating humor -- the press conference also felt like stand-up, with a forcefully charismatic Moore hardly in need of the microphone to amplify his booming voice.

After "Bowling for Columbine's" world premiere at Cannes, a reviewer for London's Guardian newspaper wrote that "both performances I've been to have ended with fervent applause and a great deal of earnest Europeans streaming back out into the foyer, their determination re-doubled and re-tripled never to agree with the American practice of spraying the nearest McDonald's with bullets before turning the gun on oneself."

Moore struck the Guardian's writer as "a lone figure in the American media mainstream, challenging gun culture -- a heresy in which the rest of Hollywood's pampered progressives have no interest. For most of them, there are no votes, and no ticket sales, in saying that guns aren't sexy. It's a pleasure to a hear a dissenting voice."

Part of Moore's appeal abroad may lie in the fact that he seems, unlike America's political leaders, to listen to foreign nations, to take them seriously. On his Web site, MichaelMoore.com, he has taken the highly unpopular step of defending the French.

In "A Letter from Michael Moore to George W. Bush on the Eve of War," dated March 17, 2003, he writes: "We love France. Yes, they have pulled some royal screw-ups.... But have you forgotten we wouldn't even have this country known as America if it weren't for the French? That it was their help in the Revolutionary War that won it for us?" Quit complaining about the French, he urges, "and thank them for getting it right for once."

Moore also satisfies a voracious and profound European curiosity about the inner workings of the world's "hyperpower," and part of Europe's fascination with Moore undoubtedly stems from his ability to exploit the tantalizing notion that what's bad for America will one day be just as bad for the rest of the world.

For example: "There is nothing sadder than seeing leaders of other countries trying to mimic the leaders of our country," he writes in the foreword to the U.K. edition of "Stupid White Men." "America decides to bomb some country -- and your head of state joins right in

Don't trade cheaper running shoes for school shootings and fewer civil liberties, he warns our friends around the globe. "Maybe there is still hope for you," he continues. "It may be too late for us, I dunno."

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