If the news that documentarian Michael Moore was releasing a surprise film called “Michael Moore in TrumpLand” had you expecting a rollicking, full-force attack on Donald Trump, prepare to be disappointed. Moore, one of filmmaking’s best-known provocateurs, seems to be decidedly uninterested in provoking anyone with this new offering, which had its hastily arranged premiere Tuesday night at the IFC Center in Manhattan. The film is not an attack on Trump but instead an homage to his opponent in the presidential contest, Hillary Clinton.
Filmed over two nights early this month in Wilmington, Ohio, the movie captures a live stage performance by Moore in a town that leans heavily Trump (although that was not necessarily true of the audience he performed for). Moore has a knack for going into the lion’s den and poking the lion, but not here. He begins with some self-deprecating jokes about liberals (he was a Bernie Sanders supporter in the Democratic primaries), then throws in some mild jabs at Trump, but nothing that would cause anyone to bolt from the room or shout him down.
The stand-up comedy routine — tame and sometimes lame stuff; Moore is no George Carlin — gives way to a stretch that sounds like a commencement address before Moore gets to his real purpose, which is to support Clinton.
He compares her — this will irk her detractors — to Pope Francis, though not on religious grounds. The pope, Moore says, has been surprisingly activist since assuming the office; he postulates that Francis was biding his time for decades, patiently and unobtrusively waiting for his chance, which he seized once he ascended to the papacy. Clinton, too, he says, has waited for years. He fantasizes that if elected she will release the pent-up idealism she’s been clinging to since college, resulting in a flurry of landmark legislation reminiscent of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous first 100 days.
Sure, maybe. Or maybe not. Moore has basically made an earnest but not very entertaining pro-Clinton campaign film, occasionally funny, momentarily heartfelt when he takes up the subject of universal health care and the lives lost for lack of it. Against the rest of his work (“Bowling for Columbine,” “Roger & Me”) it’s fairly tepid stuff. (As of Tuesday night, it was booked for a run at the IFC Center and a theater in Los Angeles.)
But if the film doesn’t shock or enrage, it is accidentally revelatory. The performance in Wilmington was filmed just as the 2005 tape that captured Trump talking about groping women was hitting the news; Moore’s stage material contains no mention of that controversy, which has since consumed the presidential campaign. So at this juncture his film is, if nothing else, a stark contrast to all that has transpired in the past couple of weeks. It’s surprising to hear someone extolling a candidate’s virtues rather than just harping on what’s wrong with the opponent — it’s surprising to hear, in other words, why we should elect someone rather than why we shouldn’t.