REVIEW: “The Terms of My Surrender” – Story Time with Michael Moore
Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore’s mostly-one man show “Michael Moore: The Terms of My Surrender” opened on August 10th to middling, mildly-hostile reviews. Since Mr. Moore’s show was announced, I had wondered to myself: “what is this?” Last Tuesday, I found out.
Working with director Michael Mayer, Mr. Moore has created a bloated, sprawling evening of storytelling and commentary that vacillates between political rally, jeremiad, open mic night, and comedy skit. At the top, Mr. Moore announces he is offering us a 12-step program for coping with our new political reality; at the performance I attended—which clocked in at 2 hours and 13 minutes, plus a talkback—he got to step three, and no further.
After an opening monologue in which Mr. Moore laments how we got to this moment, Trump’s mug looming large via projection behind him, the show shifts and becomes, predictably so, about Michael Moore. It has never been accurate to call Mr. Moore a documentary filmmaker, because that implies some element of observer-status detachment from a subject. Anyone who’s seen a Michael Moore film knows that he is always a leading character in the narrative; that’s not a criticism, but an observation, and it explains why the structure of this show shouldn’t have been a surprise to me after all.
Told alternatingly from behind a desk or in a large leather chair, most of the evening consists of Mr. Moore sharing his best war stories, with a few intermittent skits like “Beat the Canadian”, a quiz show that asks an American and a Canadian audience member trivia questions about their own countries (I suspect the Canadian wins every night), and a “Michael Moore for President” stump speech. Famously hailing from Flint, Michigan—he still resides part-time a few hours away in Traverse City—Mr. Moore first got interested in politics after winning a speech contest about Abraham Lincoln hosted by the Elks in which he criticized his patrons for having a “Caucasians only” membership policy. The negative publicity engendered by his speech led the Elks to change that policy, and taught the young Moore a powerful lesson: one person can make a difference.
After being flogged by his assistant principal for a minor uniform infraction, Mr. Moore decided to run for School Board President, and became the youngest elected official in the country in 1972 at the age of 18. His platform? Fire the principal and assistant principal. And he did just that. Other highlights of “story time with Mike” include protesting President Reagan’s infamous visit to a Nazi cemetery in Bitburg, Germany; the tale of how a handful of librarians saved his book “Stupid White Men” from being pulled from the shelves following 9/11; and episodes of violence and threats made against him from the likes of Glenn Beck during his early and vocal opposition to the War in Iraq.
These stories are interesting and entertaining, and an audience of sycophants eats them up, but I can’t help but wonder if this show is really just a big vanity project for a public figure of yore fighting for relevancy in the year 2017. During the Bush Administration, Mr. Moore was the right’s public enemy No. 1; during the Trump Administration? Not so much. Instead of boogeyman, he is now Cassandra, having spent most of 2016 shouting to anyone who would listen that Trump would win the presidential election. “I tried to tell you,” he says, head shaking, voice strained and melancholy. He now gets to gloat that he was right eight times a week. His next prediction is that we’ll be at war again before Trump’s first term (you read that right) is over. I fear he’ll be correct about that one, too.
After promising the audience practical instructions for making a difference and fighting back, Mr. Moore’s advice amounts to little more than throwaway truisms: get involved, vote, run for office. While important, these directives aren’t terribly revelatory, especially when preaching to the converted and highly informed. Few minds are bound to be changed at the Belasco, but that doesn’t really matter. Despite Mr. Moore’s Midwestern, blue collar, working class bona fides, his audience of mostly white, affluent, urban, left-wing theatregoers hasn’t come for inspiration or instructions; instead, we mostly want to revel in an evening of Trump-trashing and celebrate an oft-targeted hero of the left, surrounded by like-minded folks. It’s like being encased in a real-life Facebook feed for two hours.
While there is a definite format and somewhat of a script, one gets the sense that Mr. Moore uses them more as a guide, extemporaneously tailoring each performance to the news of the day. Monitors affixed to the mezzanine, where a musical’s conductor are usually projected, display the name of the current “skit” he is performing, with a “next up” skit listed at the bottom of the screen. I noticed that our guest interview skit, while listed as “next up”, never came. Mr. Moore seemed, at times, uncomfortable on stage. Wandering around when not sitting, and looking off into the wings repeatedly, as if searching for a stage manager’s cue.
Don’t get me wrong, I have a soft-spot for Mr. Moore, who during my teenage years was a voice of truth and sanity in the face of the outrages of the Bush Administration. He’s affable and convincing in his presentations, which explains why conservatives have long-hated him. True to form, he pulls no punches in this show, excoriating the New York Times, MSNBC, and even Al Franken, while getting in a few jabs on Hillary Clinton [Full Disclosure: I've worked for Secretary Clinton since 2005]. Moore supported Clinton after the Democratic primary, but it is clear that he’s a “Bernie-bro” at heart.
During a talkback after the performance I attended, Mr. Moore managed in the same breath to chide Clinton for not being more “authentic” on the campaign trail and then chide her again for criticizing Bernie Sanders in her forthcoming book. That’s one hell of a fine line of permissible authenticity to walk (and quite sexist). Mr. Moore rightly points out that Democrats have now won the popular vote in 6 of the last 7 presidential elections, joking that we’ve “created a new type of winning called losing,” and unlike many other prominent voices on the left, he believes in supporting Democrats and the Democratic Party. But it is disappointing to see him use this platform to criticize Clinton, who won that 6th popular vote; also disappointing was his omission of any mention of the forces of sexism and misogyny in the 2016 race, along with some bafflingly off-color jokes about lesbians.
The best part of the show is a section about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Here, Mr. Moore takes the focus off himself and Donald Trump, and shines a light on an American tragedy borne of greed and racism. Despite the depressing subject matter, it was a high point in the evening and a sobering reminder of the importance of civic involvement, truth, and accountability for elected officials. In short, Moore doing what he does best. I hope he keeps speaking out and making movies for years to come, though an HBO special, rather than a Broadway show, would be a better format for any future stage foray.
Bottom line: if you are a die-hard fan of Michael Moore, and can score a cheap ticket, go; otherwise, skip this show and watch his next film, “Fahrenheit 11/9”, instead.
Bonus observation (unrelated to the show): the Belasco Theatre is stunning. Long overlooked, and famously haunted by the ghost of impresario David Belasco, this 1907 theatre was meticulously restored in 2010, and has since become a high demand house, with two shows already lined up following Michael Moore’s limited engagement. I had never sat in the Belasco’s orchestra before, but it gave me new appreciation for the remarkable and unique neo-Georgian design of the auditorium. Next time you visit, make sure you look up to appreciate the murals and gorgeous ceiling with Tiffany light displays. The view from the mid to rear mezzanine is fantastic, and usually more affordable. Just avoid the balcony, where harsh sightlines can omit extreme downstage.
“Michael Moore: The Terms of My Surrender”
111 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 2 hours, 13 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: August 10, 2017
Final Performance: October 22, 2017
Discount Tickets: check out TKTS and TodayTix (download the app)