Review: Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life by Michael Moore
On 23 March 2003 Michael Moore went on the stage of the Kodak Theater in Hollywood to receive the “Best Documentary” Oscar for his film Bowling for Columbine. A few days earlier, the US had invaded Iraq. In his short acceptance speech he condemned the invasion and the fact that President George W. Bush had sent the US to war “for fictitious reasons” – a reference to the issue of whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction which posed a threat to America. “Shame on you, Mr Bush,” he declared. “Shame on you.”
Sticking his neck out
These days, after more than eight years of conflict and documented civilian deaths of over 103,000 (according to Iraq Body Count), it is not uncommon to question Bush’s momentous decision, but in 2003 Moore’s comments were received with outrage. All hell broke loose, he recalls. Across the country he was vilified and condemned, unsurprisingly because, as he admits, at the time over 70 per cent of the public backed the war.
Moore received not only abuse but also death threats, some of which were, under the cover of “news”, given publicity on TV. He and his family hid in their home and employed a team of professional bodyguards to watch over them day and night.
Moore’s description of this period takes up the first chapter of his latest book. It gives a rather frightening picture of what can happen to someone who speaks out publicly against something popular, particularly when perceptions of patriotism are involved.
Questioning the powerful
The rest of the book can be seen as giving the reader an insight into what makes someone act the way Moore did during that Oscar ceremony.
It is not a work of autobiography, rather as the sub-title indicates (Stories from my Life) a series of snapshots of periods and incidents stretching back to his childhood and youth.
Here is someone brought up a Catholic, by parents who were not politically active but nor were they dogmatic. He came to believe that ethics should be applied in the world and not just talked about. He studied for the priesthood for a while until he decided to leave the training college just when others decided he should be thrown out – he asked too many questions, he was told.
Like so many others, the civil rights movement and the anti-(Vietnam) war movement were decisive. It’s perhaps surprising from today’s perspective to look back and realise how bigoted American society could be just a few decades ago – against blacks, against Catholics, against Jews, against any “outsiders”.
Pressing for answers
Moore eventually established and edited for many years a radical/alternative newspaper in his home town of Flint, Michigan. It was a lone voice in what was really a company town – General Motors was dominant and had been for a long time, though some people remembered what became known as the Great Flint Sit-Down Strike against GM of 1936-37, one of the most inspiring events in US labour history.
What brought Moore national and even international fame was his first, 1989 documentary film Roger and Me, in which he is shown endlessly and relentlessly pursuing Roger Smith, CEO of General Motors.
Moore wanted to capture him on film answering questions about big business, big profits and layoffs, which were then causing havoc with the livelihoods of many in Flint.
America the violent
There is a thread which links many of the otherwise discreet chapters of Here Comes Trouble. That thread is the issue of violence. Bowling for Columbine was not simply a documentary about the tragic events of 20 April 1999, when two senior students at Columbine High School embarked on a massacre killing 12 students and one teacher.
The film more broadly addressed the issues of violence in American society, the widespread nature and easy availability of weapons, and attitudes to gun control – issues just as contentious and touching on themes of patriotism as the matter of going to war.
Not all in your face
In his films and books, Moore is never afraid of forcefully expressing his own opinion, which can put off a lot of people (particularly if you disagree with him), but he can also present matters more subtly, allowing other people to tell their own stories and allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.
A case in point is the tale in the book regretfully told by Father George Zabelka, a Catholic priest Moore used to know. Father Zabelka related how in August 1945 he had blessed the plane and crew, with its Catholic pilot, as they set off carrying the second atomic bomb to be dropped on Japan. The result was the almost complete annihilation of the city which was home to Japan’s largest Catholic community – Nagasaki.
Buy the book
Here Comes Trouble
By Michael Moore
Paperback, illustrated, 428 pages
Allen Lane, 2011