Michael Moore On Stage and Screen

Michael Moore in East Hampton Morgan McGivern

The Hamptons Film Festival presented a double feature in Sag Harbor on Sunday afternoon. Michael Moore kept a packed Bay Street Theater audience laughing and applauding during a one-hour conversation with Marshall Fine, chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, then took the stage at the Sag Harbor Cinema to answer questions before a screening of his new film, “Where to Invade Next.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise, coming from a man who has for 26  years been a painful, if hilarious, thorn in the side of American society, was his optimism. When Mr. Fine observed that nothing much has changed with regard to the issues Mr. Moore has been probing for more than two decades, the filmmaker said, “I’ve been dealing with a lot of these things for a very long time, and I should be much more pessimistic and cynical.”

Mr. Moore noted that in 2004 nobody would have expected same-sex marriage to become legal in 11 years, and that “If I had told you in 2006 that America would elect a black man with the middle name Hussein, you would have said I was crazy. We really pull off some wonderful things in spite of ourselves. I realize the American public is kept ignorant to a large degree for various reasons . . . but eventually, when they learn the truth, people will do the right thing.”

Thankfully, his Panglossian demeanor didn’t stick around for too long. During his talk and the new film, his first in six years, he took on everything from student debt to school lunches to the liberal press’s support of the Iraq war to Fox News. But no matter the subject, he inevitably brings the wit and timing of a stand-up comedian to bear on the material, as when he characterized Donald Trump as "a great performance artist, and I hope his show doesn't end too soon. I'm enjoying it—except for the hurtful parts."

When asked before the screening if he’s just preaching to the choir, he pointed out that he is one of the few people on the left who reaches a large audience. Earlier he said that, after winning the Oscar for his film “Bowling for Columbine,” “I got to a point where when I got a death threat, I was relieved, because I learned from the security people that the threats are cathartic for the person making the threat. A person who is going to hurt you does not send you a note. So I’m a big fan of death threats.”

He has, however, been physically attacked on a number of occasions, most recently on Saturday night, when two men on Main Street in East Hampton—dressed "like insurance men"—accosted him. His producer intervened and defused the situation.

“Where to Invade Next” is a departure from his previous work in that it was filmed almost entirely abroad. “The original idea was to invade countries. I would do the invasions and steal things, all without firing a shot. The three rules were, don’t shoot anybody, don’t take any oil, and bring something home we can use.” If only the Joint Chief's of Staff, whom he pretended to address at the beginning of the film, would take his advice.