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Jeff Simon: Michael Moore is back and telling us we'd better listen

Jeff Simon

Michael Moore did, in public, the one totally unforgivable thing you could do in 2016: He was right when almost everyone else was wrong.

On a July 2016 episode of HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher," Moore said, "I think Trump is going to win."

To Maher's scoffing, gasping, mostly young, left-of-center audience, he said "we're in our bubble" being reassured of the near-certainty of a woman president for the first time in American history. Meanwhile, he said, Trump was applying the "Brexit Strategy" in Middle America to sway a horribly aggrieved Rust Belt in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania that he was their candidate.

In Moore's new film, "Fahrenheit 11/9," his most important and best film in many years, he tells us how weird it felt to be quoted almost immediately and approvingly by Fox News right after Maher's show.

Maher, to his credit at the time, said, "I'm glad you're saying that." To anyone left of Trump, complacency was the enemy and Maher knew it.

That's what makes the opening montage of election night predictions in Moore's new film so stunning -- all those talking heads from all over the dials practically chortling over the certain Clinton victory to come.

Then the results. Frowns, long faces. stricken faces. Followed by what Moore says is the unhappiest looking victory celebrants in American presidential history. We see real footage of a deeply morose family suddenly smacked in their collective faces by unfathomable responsibility.

"Fahrenheit 11/9" (i.e. the day after election day in 2016) brings back the news that anyone who has gotten fat and comfortable ignoring the portly and uncomfortable Moore does so at his or her peril.

Moore's first film in 1989 -- "Roger and Me" -- followed its Sundance premiere with a smash major debut for the press at the Toronto Film Festival. In the great film screening tradition of many decades, the film was shown in a grungy old theater perfectly appropriate for a story about a downtrodden and suffering city -- Flint, Mich. Before the showing, publicists went around the room handing people lint rollers made in Flint, a deeply sarcastic souvenir from one of the many "industries" that were supposedly going to replace the vanishing auto industry.

The "Roger" of the film's title was Roger Smith, CEO of General Motors, whom Moore persistently tried to contact and see to discuss the plight of the ailing home city he loved so much.

After the film was shown, I did something I'd never done at a movie screening before and never did again: I walked up to the front of the theater, introduced myself to Moore, told him where I was from, complimented him, thanked him and heartily shook his hand.

Suddenly, it seemed, the American Rust Belt had a cinematic  voice -- a brilliant, wickedly funny, deeply personal and furiously angry voice capable of inventing a brand new kind of cinematic essay. He must have remembered it because a few years later, when he briefly had a television show, I got a call from one of his people asking me if I wanted to comment on Rust Belt matters in an interview with him.

I respectfully and politely declined. By that time, I'd learned too much. I knew enough not to trust Michael Moore as far as I could throw him.

While I know far too much to trust Moore, I cannot tell you how grateful I am for his existence in this country. There are good reasons why "Fahrenheit 11/9" is getting some of the best reviews of his life.

Its outrage is real -- just as was the outrage of "Roger and Me" in 1989.

In the age of cable news baloney and social media jabber, we have become so inundated with phony outrage that we're in imminent danger of losing touch with what the real thing looks and sounds like. That's why it's a good thing for everyone when Moore comes along and reminds us by going too far.

He isn't going to make many smug political allies happy. Nor will he allow anyone to be comforted by living in a world dominated by the New York Times. No one who likes to sentimentalize their nostalgia for an Obama presidency is going to be happy with Moore in 2018.

Moore is a committed populist socialist.

Anything or anyone that even threatens to lie or do damage to his hometown of Flint is not his friend. He's pitilessly clear on that, just as he was in "Roger and Me."

It is sometimes called the poorest city in America. On top of that, it suffered a cataclysmic and unthinkable (to most of us) crisis in the lead levels of its drinking water. In the film, Moore calls its effect on Flint's black population "slow-motion ethnic cleansing."

When Barack Obama came to town to brush -- briefly -- his lips against the rim of a glass supposedly containing that water, Moore was clearly livid with anger.

The democratic socialists are Moore's people -- socialists and labor unions, on strike or not. Bernie Sanders, for one. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for another. The 2018 version of Moore has no intention of making Hillary Clinton's people happy.

His people are also the teens who, all by themselves, arranged immense national rallies against automatic weapons.

Sure, he does his usual joking around now. He'll treat you to the sight of his watering the lawn of Michigan's governor with a tanker of Flint water. He tells us, half-kiddingly, that Gwen Stefani caused a Trump presidency.

Why? Well, when she was hired by "The Voice" for more than Donald Trump was making for "The Apprentice," a furious Trump, says Moore, declared presidential intentions as a kind of pointed and savage joke.

But then his actual presidential rallies clearly hit a Rust Belt nerve.


So here we are in the Trump years with Moore in Paul Revere mode, making his midnight ride through America and warning that American complacency at current levels could lead us right into what happened in Germany in the 1930's.

9/11, he implies, was our 21st century version of Germany's Reichstage fire. The authoritarian trigger.

The finale of his movie may go way too far. But given Moore's recent track record of being so right against everyone else's hope-filled delusions, no one can be foolish enough anymore to dismiss him out of hand.

Obviously, it's difficult to find anything he says that isn't polemic in the extreme.

But he still says things we need to hear, however much we hate them or disagree.

The big, scruffy, egomaniac in the baseball cap is, at this moment, reminding us what we should have taken more seriously in 1989.

Not about the convenience of having Flint lint rollers around the house, but about how much we need to keep on listening to him.

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