By Michael Corcoran
October 2, 2009

Love him or hate him, the filmmaker strikes a nerve with his work.

Few things in today’s political world generate as much enthusiasm, hysteria, and debate as the release of a Michael Moore documentary. And just days before the release of his latest polemic, Capitalism: A Love Story, a film which takes on the entire U.S. economic system, the fervor over one of today’s most controversial figures—his style, his politics, his personality—has reached critical mass.

Moore’s popularity and notoriety are far-reaching; he has been seen on virtually every prominent news show in the last couple of weeks to explain his movie and was recently described by The New York Times as “perhaps the most successful documentary filmmaker in history.” It’s not surprising then that across college campuses, where the exchange of political ideas is an everyday occurrence, Moore’s films are widely watched, distributed, and debated in classrooms and among student activists.

“The thing about Moore is that he always seems to hit the ‘hot button’ so to speak, and gets students to really think and consider issues,” says Dr. J. Gregory Payne, a political communications professor at Emerson College and former State Department consultant, who has used Michael Moore films in classes about political rhetoric.

Payne notes that Moore has a knack for being “ahead of his time” and discussing issues that are just about to explode in the national dialogue. “He did Roger and Me in 1989, many years ago, and now we see these issues—about the outsourcing of American jobs—becoming a major factor,” Payne says. “He was also ahead of the public on health care.”

Indeed, few would deny that Moore’s films—whether one agrees with their conclusions or not—have been topical of late. Sicko, released in 2007, was a condemnation of the U.S. health care system. Now, as health care costs have grown to make up nearly 17 percent of the entire domestic economy and President Obama is attempting reform, the issue may well have become the most debated domestic policy issue in the nation this year. Capitalism comes on the heels of a generational financial crisis that got so bad by late 2008 that elite papers like The Washington Post were asking, in all seriousness, “Is this the end of American capitalism?”

As officials discuss how to alter the regulatory infrastructure of the federal government in an effort to prevent future collapses, Moore’s loud condemnation questions the very nature of capitalism, calling it the “opposite of democracy.”

“I think his whole purpose is to stir the pot. And especially given the way the media kowtows to corporate needs, that is a very important function,” Payne says.

Roger House, a professor of history at Emerson College, is another teacher who uses Moore’s films in the classroom. House says he shows The Big One and Roger and Me “to illustrate issues of economic injustice and urban industrial disinvestment.” House says one advantage to Moore’s films over other documentaries is that Moore’s style tends to keep young people interested by “creating stark choices.”

“While his creation of corporate demons has been one-sided and even inaccurate at times, he knew how to hold a young audience (unlike many of the producers of the fine documentary pieces on PBS),” House writes in an e-mail to Campus Progress.

House says students have long been interested in Moore’s confrontational style—his films often show Moore aggressively questioning flacks for large multi-national corporations—but have become increasingly critical of Moore in recent years as the filmmaker has grown in popularity. Despite this, House says that Moore has generated increased awareness on many issues.

“I don’t think his goal was to spark campus activism as such—I’m not sure any documentary can do that,” House says. “However, his work has successfully generated critical awareness of an issue. Hopefully interested students will continue to explore the issue. That’s the real contribution of the documentary filmmaker to civil society. Critical awareness can create the possibility for activism.”

Austin Crumpton, a senior majoring in political communications at Emerson, is one of those students who use Moore’s films to help spark a debate. As president of the school’s chapter of the Communications, Law and Politics Association (CPLA), he is organizing a viewing of Capitalism: A Love Story, followed by a discussion that will include economics, politics, film, and sociology professors, as well as a public affairs worker from the Federal Reserve in Boston. “The hope is to bring in multiple perspectives, so we can learn as much as possible about the ideas presented in the film,” Crumpton says.

Crumpton believes that Moore’s influence goes well beyond the political science classes. Many young film majors, he notes, view Moore as a major influence. “I started out as a film student and in those classes, the students really understood that documentaries were meant to persuade and aren’t the whole truth,” he says. “Students in communications had much more mixed views … some really don’t like Michael Moore.”

Among those who do not like Michael Moore is David Horowitz, founder of the Horowitz Freedom Center, which aims to expose what Horowitz believes is left wing domination of academia. Horowitz, a former lefty who turned conservative in the mid-1970s, says in an interview with Campus Progress that Moore is a true “Leninist … with the stupidest Marxist view of things.”

Horowitz criticizes Moore for romanticizing Cuba in Sicko and for using deceptive film making techniques in other films, such as 2002’s Bowling for Columbine. “The use of Michael Moore at universities is a sign of their intellectual corruption and it is quite widespread,” Horowitz adds. “I have heard a student in Columbia complain that Fahrenheit 9-11 was shown in a civil engineering class. At Penn State, a student told me a French teacher showed parts of Sicko in French class … I don’t mind the showing of the films, it is the way they take his word as gospel that really bothers me.”

But it turns out the showing Moore’s films in classrooms does bother Horowitz. Later in the interview, he changed his mind. “I think it is lazy. Teachers are already under-worked and overpaid. I think they should get a pay cut each time they show a movie,” he said.

But not all criticism of Moore comes from conservatives. Robert Jensen is a left-wing activist who teaches journalism at the University of Texas. Horowitz lists Jensen as one of the most “dangerous” professors in the country. But on Moore, Jensen and Horowitz aren’t completely at odds. In 2004, Jensen wrote a critical review of Fahrenheit 9-11 for ZNet called “Stupid White Movie,” saying the film’s major points were “either dangerously incomplete or virtually incoherent.”

“I have never gotten more e-mails for anything I have ever written,” he says. “I was responding to them for three days. It was crazy.”

Jensen says that he appreciates Moore’s ability to reach wide audiences, but has for the most part been unimpressed with the analysis in his films. “What he does well is engage mainstream audiences in a way that is both funny but serious—that is a skill,” Jensen says. “But we have to distinguish between what appeals to us personally and what is effective, what is popular and politically effective.”

Jensen says the way to gauge success for an effective political film or piece of writing is not simply how wide the audience is but how many people it drives to action. “Moore is so famous now that he can make any kind of film he wants,” he says. “I hope his newest one [Capitalism] is very good—and generates action—even if I don’t like his style.”

Michael Corcoran is a correspondent for The Boston Globe’s metro desk and graduated from Emerson College in 2007.

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