‘Michael Moore in TrumpLand’ Review: An October Surprise Disappointment
Less than 48 hours after its existence was revealed to the world and less than 2 weeks after Michael Moore began shooting it — not finished shooting it, began shooting it — Michael Moore in TrumpLand arrives in theaters. Not surprisingly given that incredibly abbreviated schedule, the film is a bit of a mess; a heartfelt, scattershot, mostly unfunny, intermittently moving polemic about our country and its people.
Moore shot TrumpLand, a recording of his one-man show about the 2016 election, earlier this month at the Murphy Theatre in Wilmington, Ohio. Located 40 miles from Kentucky, Wilmington is the county seat of Clinton County, Ohio — Clinton County, Moore quips in the film, but not Clinton Country. The area is about as Republican as any in the United States. Before Moore’s stage show begins, a montage introduces the citizens of Wilmington. One predicts a Donald Trump landslide; another offers to show the camera crew his gun. These are not exactly hardcore Fahrenheit 9/11 fans.
Moore chose this potentially hostile setting because he didn’t want to just preach to the choir. Both at the Murphy and in movie theaters that screen TrumpLand, his stated objective is a last-ditch Hail Mary to sell undecideds and right-leaning voters on Hillary Clinton. After an opening where he stands at a podium and tells politically-inflected observational jokes about Democrats and Republicans, he settles in to the core of the performance: Pleading with the audience to give the former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State a chance.
Moore’s smartest decision in this entire process was resisting the obvious route of simply attacking Donald Trump for 90 minutes over his lies and poor behavior. No joke could live up to the reality of Trump, or at least none of Moore’s can. His comedic material lacks the sophistication and bite of cable TV’s news satires and late-night talk shows. One extended gag compares how liberals and conservatives choose a restaurant for dinner. (Conservatives, FYI, go to Outback.) This stuff is barely better than the kinds of “white guys talk like this, black guys talk like this” jokes The Simpsons mocked for being stale and hacky 23 years ago. There’s one big laugh in the entire film; an edgy riff on why Moore is glad Hillary killed Vince Foster (at least according to one enduring conspiracy theory).
TrumpLand works best when Moore drops the schtick and simple vents his barely contained rage — at Trump occasionally, but more often at Wall Street, corporations, the media, old bigoted white men, and at the American populace, who, he warns, could still very easily elect Trump on November 8. In the film’s strongest sustained section, Moore sits down at a desk on the side of the Murphy Theatre stage and reads an essay about why Trump appeals to voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan — the “Brexit states” as he describes them. Slowly and calmly, he lays out the case for why this “human Molotov cocktail,” will win the election. His argument makes a lot of sense. His vision of the Midwest as a post-industrial wasteland seems like one Trump would actually agree with. This is a different sort of Michael Moore. For a few minutes, the apocalyptic doomsayer is a good look for him.
Just as he begins to hook viewers, though, Moore makes his prophecies all-too literal, following TrumpLand’s best moment with its worst: An unconvincing fake news broadcast from President Trump’s imagined inauguration day. In general, that’s the way the film unfolds; sporadic insights with a lot of filler. Highlights include an eyebrow-raising clip of Donald Trump extolling the virtues of Hillary Clinton (and Michael Moore!) on Moore’s old Bravo TV series in 1998, and audio of a 22-year-old Clinton giving a passionate college commencement speech. But these excerpts would be just as powerful as YouTube clips without Moore’s rambling lecture. (You can listen to some of Clinton’s graduation speech there right now.)
If Moore had had more time to refine this project, and perhaps to sculpt into a more typical documentary, the end result would have been a lot stronger. But by that point, the election would be over, and it would serve very little purpose. Despite frequent cutaways to the Wilmington audience, some of whom have tears in their eyes as Moore discusses the million Americans who’ve died over the last 20 years because of their lack of health insurance, it’s unclear whether Moore convinced anyone in the room to change their vote. Despite noble intentions, TrumpLand will probably yield the same result.