Michael Moore in TrumpLand is not about Donald Trump, nor the world of his supporters.
This might not come across in the first few minutes of the film, a recording of a one-man show performed in Wilmington, Ohio by political humorist Moore. Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling For Columbine director Moore has described TrumpLand as his "October surprise," releasing it weeks before the election. But contrary to his usual style, the film is neither an investigation nor a polemic — it's a plea for the election of Hillary Clinton, delivered with a combination of rousing earnestness and shaky optimism.
The opening of TrumpLand suggests a stereotypical exploration of the dark heart of Red America, introducing us to Wilmington's rural charms along with Trump voters saying mildly risible things. One woman proclaims that dead people will be voting for Hillary on Election Day. Another says that while Trump acts like a clown now, that will end once he's in office. Moore opens the show by announcing that for the comfort of Trump supporters, anyone Mexican (or "Mexican-looking") has been segregated on one side of a balcony behind a large cardboard wall, and all Muslims have been placed on the other side, under a hovering drone.
It’s a funny running gag, but mocking Trump supporters is dangerously easy to criticize as condescending liberal elitism, especially when Trump is underperforming badly in polls. It inadvertently comes off as kicking them while he’s down. And perhaps for that reason, Moore quickly veers away from that tack. It takes longer for us, and perhaps Moore, to figure out where he’s trying to end up.
TrumpLand sometimes seems caught in an obsolete culture-war template that doesn’t countenance the surreal horror of the Trump-Clinton campaign. Moore softens his jabs about gay marriage and abortion by flattering Republicans as the well-disciplined foil to schlubby liberals like himself, but he doesn’t make the jump to how poorly that stereotype sits alongside Trump’s libertine, id-driven candidacy. He draws out a joke contrasting embattled, increasingly obsolete white men with ascendent, peaceful women, but the gag sits strangely during a presidential race where the major female candidate has been stereotyped as an out-of-touch warmonger by both liberals and conservatives. The problem isn’t that the jokes are factually "wrong," it’s that even when well-delivered, they feel generic, at a time when politics have never been weirder.
But there’s no shortage of existing political humor around Donald Trump’s unique and ever-increasing brand of weirdness, and Moore seems to sense that he doesn’t need to add to it. (The funniest moment in a couple of pre-filmed mock-TV segments isn’t anything Moore comes up with, it’s an unaltered clip from January, where Trump claimed he could "stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody" without losing voters.)
Instead, Moore wraps up his attack with a stern letter to disillusioned voters looking for a "human molotov cocktail," comparing them to now-regretful UK residents who "used the ballot as an anger-management tool" during the Brexit decision. Like most political entertainment, the speech probably isn’t going to convert many voters. But it neatly articulates the most bipartisan argument against Trump: that he’s an incompetent hypocrite with no plan to help the people whose support he’s counting on, and that anarchy is more fun to fantasize about than to experience.
The rest of TrumpLand is an impassioned argument for Hillary Clinton, from a man who admittedly endorsed her opponent Bernie Sanders during the nomination process. In some places, Moore points out the emptiness of vague epithets like "unlikeable" or "dishonest." ("Did she say she’d water your plants and not do it?" he quips.) In others, he covers well-trodden but still fertile ground like the conspiracy theories about Clinton’s supervillain-esque body count, something that works better in person than when comedian Jen Kirkman tried a similar joke with less context on Twitter. Moore also goes deep into his personal interactions with the candidate, giving a blow-by-blow account of Bill and Hillary praising him effusively during a White House dinner. It’s self-aggrandizing, but knowingly so.
But the strongest parts are simply those where Moore presents the usual insult leveled at Clinton — that she’s a "career politician" — as a sign of her empathy and drive. In the most striking moment of the show, he recalls visiting a hospital in Estonia while filming his documentary Where to Invade Next, only to encounter a photograph of Clinton. She had visited, it turns out, to research the health care reform package she helped craft (but failed to pass) as First Lady. Moore lays out the abuse Clinton endured for not receding into Bill Clinton’s shadow during his political career, justifying the protective shell she’s built as a result, to the point of hiding an illness on the campaign trail to prevent being even momentarily vulnerable. While Moore may not be the first to come up with this narrative, few people have delivered it this convincingly.
What’s less convincing, though, is Moore’s dream that Clinton is a seemingly status-quo politician who will show a secret radical side once she’s in office. When he gleefully imagines her signing one progressive executive order after another as soon as she’s in office, he feels a little like the Trump voter at the beginning of the film, projecting expectations onto a candidate who hasn’t shown any indication of meeting them.
TrumpLand hints that Moore knows this. He wraps up by jokingly announcing his own candidacy in 2020, complete with free marijuana and banana splits. (The latter is a Wilmington specialty.) But maybe going along with this fiction of a radical Hillary is the best way to elect the competent human being instead of the human molotov cocktail, and to establish a loyal progressive opposition in the process — just like the only way to get people into a film about Hillary Clinton is to name it after Donald Trump.