Just two weeks ago, Michael Moore wasn’t promoting a movie.
He wasn’t editing a movie.
He hadn’t even shot a movie.
But in the past 11 days, the documentary provocateur had done what takes most people –including him — years to do. He staged a one-man-show about the election at a theater in the true-red town of Wilmington, Ohio. Then he and his team cut the piece into a film, titled “Trumpland,” and prepared to release it ahead of the national day at the polls Nov. 8.
”This election is going be decided by whether people will stay home,” Moore said. “I hope I can light a fire and get it out in the next weeks to millions of people.”
The director was speaking — and speaking, and speaking — after the surprise world premiere of “TrumpLand” Tuesday night at New York’s IFC Center. That’s where his film will open Wednesday, as it will at the Laemmle 5 in Encino and on several digital platforms.
Moore had undertaken the project to rally what he termed the “depressed Hillary voter.” Whether due to a lack of enthusiasm for their candidate or the sense the election was a done deal, too many Democratic voters were going to stay home in November, he believed.
And because Trump supporters are more fervent and the research from “Brexit states”– places like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, with their high number of disaffected working-class whites — couldn’t be trusted, the election was still a toss-up, he argued.
“I am here to fight the idea [that Trump is doomed.],” Moore said at the premiere. “Stop looking at these polls. Anything a Michigander is telling a pollster is bull…”
Moore had often stayed quiet during this election season. Some had presumed it was due to his ambivalence over the Clintons. But he said Tuesday he had actually been writing the theater piece for much of this time — it had taken him nearly a year.
Neither it nor the film satirizes Trump (“no one writes that movie better than him,” Moore said), though it does contain an eye-popping bit of video of Trump praising Hillary Clinton (and Moore!) during an interview for the filmmaker’s “The Awful Truth” TV show in the 1990’s.
Instead, it looks at the psychology of the Donald Trump voter as well as the underrated virtues of Hillary Clinton as Moore sees them.
Essentially, “TrumpLand” is Moore’s Spalding Gray moment. Over its 73 minutes, the director eschews his usual field interviews to hold forth from a desk and podium on the Wilmington stage.
There is a standup-inflected riff about the larger ascendancy of women over men, which culminates in Moore’s main psycho-social argument about Trump’s popularity: that it is a function of last gasping by the white-male “dying dinosaur.” (Moore does sound effects too.)
He spends about half the film on the Trump side, addressing the large number of GOP voters in the Ohio room by saying that a protest vote would only make them feel good for “a week, maybe a month” and then they’d have to deal with the consequences.
In one of the only pieces of non-theater video, there is a fake interpolated news segment imagining a Trump Inauguration Day. The new POTUS opts not live in the White House and declares that he’s headed to Mar-a-Lago instead.
(Moore actually includes few bells and whistles in the film. One of the others is a conceptual bit in which he isolates Mexican members of the audience and proceeds to build a wall around them, then does the same to Muslim voters, sending a drone flying over their heads.)
The other half of the film is devoted to the glories of Clinton. Framed by pictures of the Democratic presidential candidate as a young woman, Moore extols her character, describing their warm meeting at a White House state dinner in the 1990’s, her fortitude during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, her 1994-era vision on health care (“a million people died because we refused to listen to Hillary,” he posits) and, in one of the film’s funniest riffs, a comically exaggerated reconstruction of how she must have personally killed Vince Foster.
The argument that she is unlikable, he believes, is moot. “You don’t want someone likable” as commander in chief, he said. Because unlikable, he said, “will make ISIS…,” using a profanity for scared.
Moore also dug up audio of an idealistic graduation speech Clinton gave at Wellesley and said at the theater that “that voice is still there,” adding, “What if she hasn’t forgotten. I’m going to bet she hasn’t forgotten.”
And at one point at the premiere he compared Clinton to another agent of social change who many were once skeptical of. “What if she’s Pope Francis?” he said.
These expressions of unqualified love may land oddly to those who follow Moore and know of his complicated relationship with the Clintons. Support for a Democratic presidential candidate is one thing. But what could possibly have caused Moore to become a hardcore Hillary evangelist?
He said he has come around because a) he feels Never Trump very strongly and b) he learned of Clinton’s passion for the healthcare issue while visiting a hospital in Estonia for his previous movie “Where To Invade Next.” There, a doctor he encountered described Clinton’s past efforts visiting the nation while motioning to a picture of her taken at the hospital.
“I have a lot of hope and a lot of weird optimism,” Moore said. “I’m not saying forget the bad. But there’s a lot of good.”
The rally-like feel was not limited to the director. The screening was free to the public, prompting many to line up early for a ticket to the approximately 400-seat venue, which IFC had allowed Moore to use for free. The progressive activist group Move On had been a partner and handed out tickets, one reason the audience may have been so overwhelmingly pro-Moore. A Trump fortune-telling machine stood on the sidewalk outside the theater and attracted a crowd before the screening.
As the film played, Moore watched from a seat in the back of the house. He said he wanted to take it in after having just finished postproduction at 7 that morning.
For many political junkies, Tuesday’s proceedings were on par with the release of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade”– an unexpected piece from a longtime favorite at the moment the faithful most wanted it. A Q&A stretched nearly an hour, as more than a dozen audience members asked earnest, thoughtful questions, all sympathetic to the film’s message. In perhaps the most politically oriented pronouncement ever committed to a Lite-Brite board, a woman held up a “Dump Trump” sign made of LED bulbs. At one point another person shouted, “Michael, you’re a hero.”
Of course, Moore alienates as much as he attracts, particularly in the vast swath of the country he himself called “between the Hudson River and Interstate 5.” And his track record for influencing elections is spotty at best.
Though a massive hit seen by tens of millions of people, his anti-Bush screed “Fahrenheit 9/11″ did not give the 2004 election to John Kerry, and the most that can be said of his socialist-minded primary-season release “Where To Invade Next” is that it was fortuitously timed with the Bernie Sanders phenomenon.
On Tuesday night, though, those facts remained beside the point to Moore. He exhorted those in the room to spread the word about the film and said that he wanted his message to help carry Clinton to victory.
“We shouldn’t even be here, you and I. We should be knocking on doors in Altoona,” he said to one of the Clinton-supporting questioners. “If I leave here tonight with people thinking this is a nice, funny show and we’re not in any kind of trouble and Trump has imploded, then I’d have failed. Look I want to be wrong. But I will not rest until the last poll closes.”
On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT