Michael Moore's 'Trumpland' is our land

Story highlights

  • Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Michael Moore's new movie is part therapy session, part political theater
  • Moore is at his most effective when he addresses gender and racial anxieties raised by prospect of a female president, she says

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Her latest book is "Italian Fascism's Empire Cinema." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Calling all white male supporters of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump: Filmmaker Michael Moore feels your pain. He understands the logic and feelings that underwrite your choice

But he wants you to vote for Trump's Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, anyway, even if you have to hold your noses and force your hands to check that box. For the good of the country, "sometimes we have to take some medicine," Moore says in his documentary "Michael Moore in Trumpland," after clarifying that he has never before voted for a Clinton. "You will know what to do."
    Ruth Ben-Ghiat
    Part therapy session, part political theater (including a stand-up comedy routine by Moore), "Trumpland" is the ultra-liberal Michael Moore's attempt to "come out and meet you halfway," to understand America's current mood -- both for Trump and against Clinton.
    To do this, he's traveled to Wilmington, Ohio, famous for inventing the banana split but ordinary in its gun festivals, small-town economic problems, and Republican loyalty. He rented a theater and invited the population to an interactive performance, which he filmed for the movie.
    This citizen audience becomes the supporting cast of a film that has two stars: Moore, who's on stage and present, and Clinton, who's on stage as her younger self, the subject of the large-scale black and white photos that form the stage backdrop. Trump makes a cameo, when he's interviewed in the early 1990s saying that Clinton is a good woman and should stay married to her adulterous husband, but "Trumpland" is mostly free of Trump, who Moore seems to see as a vessel for the anger and worry white Americans feel about their future.
    The "segregated" areas in the theater for "Mexican and Mexican-looking" and "Muslim" residents -- the former with a wall built around them, the latter watched by a drone -- provide comic touches, but seriously rebuke the "take back America for Americans" ethos that's driven Republicans in this election.
    Moore's at his most effective when he addresses the gender and racial anxieties raised by the prospect of a female president after eight years of an African-American one. He plays therapy group leader, voicing painful thoughts about the decline of white male power.
    "It's over for us," he confesses. We're no longer needed: not for procreation (in-vitro fertilization takes care of that), not for cohabitation (women living alone trends upward) and not even to reach things on the top shelf. While he riffs into his customary parody -- "there will be internment camps for men," -- Moore hits a chord when he characterizes the loudness and chaos of Trump rallies as "the sound of the dying dinosaur ... Donald save us!"
    During this part of his monologue, some men listened with their arms crossed, unsmiling. Others looked uncomfortable. And others cheered, along with the women. Dismissing these frequent reaction shots as corny, as some critics have done, misses a main point of Moore's film: to create an atmosphere of understanding and trust, in order to bridge the divide.
    To this end, Moore asked the audience to call out their objections to Clinton, and also things they did like. After so many scripted debates and town halls, it is refreshing to see some spontaneity.
    To be sure, the movie suffers from being thrown together in just 11 days. The dramatic tension built up by this dialogue with the audience disappears when Moore segues to a hokey segment of what he'd do if he were president. And few will buy the comparison between Pope Francis and Clinton (both of them, according to Moore, reformers who have had to bide their time until gaining power).
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    Yet his narrative of a Clinton massacred by the male political establishment for her attempts in the 1990s to bring universal health care to America, and his tally of 1 million dead Americans as the consequences of the path we did take -- health care only for some, and bad health care for many -- is very powerful. And the cautionary tale he tells about Brexit, where voters treated the ballot as an "anger management tool," seemed to resonate.
    Through it all, the images of Clinton as an idealistic young woman look back at us. She's in her cap and gown, at her commencement; she has the sun on her face and the wind in her hair. She is humanized in a way she has not been as the "candidate."
    And perhaps this is the spirit Moore wishes to rouse from the dead: our ability to look inside ourselves, and then look back at our fellow Americans, Clinton included, with new eyes, as we consider our choices on November 8.