Even Michael Moore’s staunchest admirers would admit that modesty is not one of his virtues. In his memoir Here Comes Trouble Moore describes a last-minute wobble about the title of Roger & Me, his 1989 debut film about General Motors sacking tens of thousands of workers in his hometown. He wanted to change it to Bad Day at Buick City until a film festival organiser dissuaded him: “The name of this film is the one you gave it – Roger & Me – and that’s the perfect name.”
So it was. From Roger & Me to 2009’s Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore has placed himself front of camera, holding politicians and corporations to account with stunts and set-piece confrontations. He likes to portray himself as a shambling, bemused, blue-collar Joe Normal. However, other attributes come across in his films: political commitment, mischief – and a robust ego.
On screen, Moore’s egotism is dwarfed by the huge topics he tackles. He casts himself as a plucky David taking on the Goliath of vested interests, attacking the pro-gun lobby in Bowling for Columbine, post-9/11 neocons in Fahrenheit 9/11 and Wall Street in Capitalism: A Love Story. The result is incendiary but richly entertaining. Feted by the left, despised by the right, Moore holds the record for the highest-grossing documentary ever with Fahrenheit 9/11, which took $220m worldwide.
His immodesty doesn’t always reap rewards, however. The quality that makes him such a punchy director has also conspired to make him an overbearing and unsympathetic memoirist. From its dedication onwards, in which Moore thanks his mother for teaching him “to read and write when I was four”, Here Comes Trouble is relentlessly self-aggrandising. It’s also not very funny: those expecting another satiric jeremiad like his bestselling book Stupid White Men will be disappointed.
Brought up in the “democratic, egalitarian dirt streets” of working-class Flint, Michigan, Moore depicts himself as part of the great march of modern American life. An early indication of the Moore effect comes with a speech he gives as a high school junior in 1971 exposing the racial segregation practised by a nationwide chain of golf clubs, which is shamed into changing its membership criteria. “The ripple effect of this was that now racial discrimination everywhere in America, be it private or public, was now prohibited,” he writes, visions of Martin Luther King Jr dancing before his eyes.
Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, Moore has an uncanny knack of turning up in the background of history. When he gets lost on a boyhood visit to the Capitol in Washington, Robert Kennedy is on hand to rescue him. A trip to the Middle East in 1985 ends with Moore landing at Vienna airport just as the terrorist Abu Nidal launches an attack (“I became part of that select group of people from the late 20th century who were present at an act of terrorism”). Most aggrandisingly of all, Fahrenheit 9/11 is portrayed as almost costing George W. Bush the 2004 election; the Republicans win – in Moore’s telling – only after mounting a vicious campaign against the director. “Of course, it also didn’t help that Kerry was a lousy candidate.”
Moore’s politics are presented in stark moral terms, “a responsibility to help those worse off than you”, and it’s hard not to marvel at the gumption with which he enacts them, such as getting himself voted on to his school’s governing board as an 18-year-old in order to get rid of a sadistic teacher. He talks about developing “an early allergy to politicians”, yet his memoir shares the same selective tone as most political autobiographies. Events from his life are presented as homilies, just as US politicians have done since young George Washington’s edifying visit to the apple orchard. Apparently Moore’s high school friends “humorously tolerated” his “I’m-so-sorry-to-be-smart attitude”. His readers may not be so patient.
Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life, by Michael Moore, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 448 pages