Monday, October 24, 2016

Thumbs Up for Michael Moore In Trumpland

After a week of client work travel, last Friday night in Manhattan I decided to check out a new film released last Tuesday.

The title: "Michael Moore In Trumpland." 

Image via Dog Eat Dog Films
The venue: IFC Center in Greenwich Village. 

I first learned about Moore's latest work through the Oscar-winning filmmaker's Facebook page, a favorable criticism in The New York Times and a rave review in New Yorker magazine. 

Informed by these appraisals, expectations were high but in check. 

Moore is one of my all-time favorites -- it's tough to beat the documentary power of the Pets or Meat scenes in "Roger & Me" or the emotional wallop of the Flint, Mich., kindergarten shooting in "Bowling For Columbine." 

One of the last films my mother and I watched together before her ALZ diagnosis was "Fahrenheit 9/11" and during a shared trip to Washington in early 2007 we both screamed/jeered in the direction of The White House, inspired by and much like the film's distraught military mother, Lila Lipscomb, who lost her son in the Iraq War. 

Moore's autobiography (specifically his narration of the audiobook version) is a highlight from several road trips to and from Oklahoma. I'd be delighted if Moore would turn his documentary lens in the direction of the Olympic movement like other great (and sports-minded) documentarians Leni Riefenstahl and Bud Greenspan. 

So, when the couple beside me at IFC Center mentioned they "heard Michael might actually be here" it was exciting. Would he show up?

There was barely time to build anticipation for only a minute later ... there he was! From my seventh row and center seat, I had a clear view of Moore's introduction by the theatre's manager. 

Moore spoke to the audience for about 10 minutes, pausing only to make sure his mobile phone live stream to a theatre in his home state of Michigan was still on the line. The IFC manager held Moore's phone aloft while Moore described the short journey taken to complete his "Trumpland" project.

My eight minute audio recording of his remarks includes a few gems:

"By the end of Thursday, over 100 theatres in 100 cities called us wanting this film in their theatres, so we're gonna make it happen," said Moore. Here's hoping this film will be available in wide release by this coming Friday.

This enthusiastic response was the result of "a zero-inch ad" in The New York Times, indicative that only publicity and buzz is taking this film for a rocket ship ride.  

"To paraphrase Barack Obama, I think one of the things that will save the cinema is if we all have more fierce sense of urgency about it," said Moore. "I really learned a lot in these two weeks about what you can do. No, you are not going to see a lot of car chases or a lot of production value, but this great art form ... especially with documentary, there is nothing wrong with being entertained and to laugh while we are learning."

Moore then explained the timing of the project.

"I did something I had not done before, which is to film myself in a one-man show I wrote. I spent time writing it much of this year."

Moore went on to explain his team secured funding then a performance venue in an Ohio town only to learn the right-minded political machine voted them out of the community. By dumb luck or divine intervention, the team eventually found a new venue in nearby Clinton County and got things moving again, eventually booking "about 750 people" for the live audience. 

"Probably about a hundred, 150 of them are leaning toward Trump," said Moore. "Another couple hundred were people who were thinking of not voting or voting third party."

Additional insights are included in the brief video I captured during Moore's unscripted remarks:

But what of the film itself? Would it live up to the hype spreading online? 

"Let us know what you think of the movie," wrote one of my cousins, in response to my elated Facebook posts from Moore's appearance. 

Image via Dog Eat Dog Films
For this viewer and writer, "Michael Moore In Trumpland" may not be Moore's best work, or his most popular (though opening week stats indicate it's rising like a bullet in cinema stats for documentaries). But I do think it is Moore's most timely, and though its rushed assembly leaves a few rough edges, this film is a crowd pleaser bound to earn a lot of thoughtful discussion and accolades. 

As noted in the aforementioned New York Times review, "Trumpland" is not so much about the real estate tycoon turned presidential candidate. Rather, the name is derived from the Ohio farmland awash in pro-Trump signage as Moore's crew arrived in The Buckeye State. 

What's missing from the new film are the fun soundtrack elements, stock footage and quirky visual setups that typically bring chuckles across Moore's work. There's no cartoon describing "A Brief History of the United States."

But that's OK! Instead of these elements, Moore cleverly establishes a rapport with the Ohio audience, quickly admitting that -- in spite of several floor-to-ceiling photos of a youthful Hillary Clinton as the main stage decorations -- he is not a Hillary fan, but rather a die-hard supporter of Bernie Sanders who had to come to terms with a different candidate earning his party's nomination (like most of, say, the audience members, regardless of their party).

In place of the grin-worthy video clips, Moore sets up two big laughs by introducing the audience members sent to the segregated balcony attendees. On one half of the upper floors, Hispanics are walled in by cardboard bricks, while to their right are several Americans of Middle Eastern descent who have their own "security drone" hovering in the rafters as an eye-in-the-sky protector of all other audience members. 

I don't want to spoil one of the most poignant moments of the film, so let's just say a very surprising Hillary supporter makes a cameo appearance that left my New York theatre audience, and the Ohio attendees in the film, audibly gasping (perhaps worth the entire price of admission). From here Moore goes to work building a case, much like that faux-brick wall upstairs, reasoning why more voters should give Mrs. Clinton serious consideration before Nov. 8. Moore makes this case very succinctly and without put downs nor yelling about her opponents. And his crescendo that calls out many of Hillary's worst "crimes" again and again is hysterical. 

Image via Dog Eat Dog Films
Like many of Moore's other documentaries, "Trumpland" is a thinking persons' film; it's not for everyone, but like "Bowling For Columbine" or "Sicko" and "Where To Invade Next" it is perhaps intended for everyone and should be entertaining and informative for anyone with the same open mind they profess to possess.

I found myself disagreeing with Moore more often during this film than some of his previous work, but "Trumpland" earned my respect for its ability to inform without insulting its opposition. Perhaps Moore does not write as sharply as Aaron Sorkin in "The American President" or "The West Wing" but Michael does play in the same ballpark as, say, Sorkin's monologue for "Newsroom." 

Should folks see "Michael Moore In Trumpland" soon, before the election? Absolutely! And I hope they savor and enjoy it, but more importantly, talk about it with friends, co-workers or anyone planning to vote. 

After the film I asked the theatre manager to share Moore's publicist details, and submitted a phone interview request. No response so far, but I'm ready with a few questions should that welcome call arrive. 

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver unless otherwise captioned for Dog Eat Dog Films.

That One Time at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

As  noted in my previous post, recent travels included time in D.C. for an impromptu red carpet event featuring hundreds of Team USA athletes.

The same trek to our nation's capital yielded other fun surprises, including a last-minute return visit to The White House!

My first entry to the Executive Mansion was 20 years ago, on Halloween morning 1996. After driving to Washington on Oct. 30 (following a month of house-sitting in Manhattan), I woke up at a nearby D.C. youth hostel and hiked over to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. 

In those days the public could still line up for free tours of the residence, and I was on site early as there were afternoon plans to also visit Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. I vividly recall entering the East Wing, spotting a Roy Lichtenstein sculpture one of the first rooms, and learning President Clinton was not home that day as he was out campaigning for reelection (the goal of my drive back to Georgia was to be home in time to vote the following Tuesday). 

Though I had visited the north side of The White House (along the wrought iron fence) many times on D.C. travels since that 1996 tour, there had not been another opportunity to enter the mansion in a post-9/11 world. But the invitation to report from the Team USA Awards at Georgetown also included a credential request for the athletes' White House visit, and with nothing to lose I applied for both events. 

As of 10 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 28, I still had no clearance to visit The White House as an Olympic blogger.

Around midnight, however, official word arrived by email that due to rain, the event was moved indoors and space was limited -- my name did not make the cut (Bummer!). 

Again with nothing to lose, I sent an overnight email asking to please be kept on the list in case other reporters did not show up.

You can imagine my surprise and delight to wake up Thursday morning to find another White House missive with "you're in" and instructions on how and when to check-in ... in about 30 minutes!

A quick shower and an Uber ride later, I approached the northwest corner of the mansion site and got buzzed in at the same security station as Charles Grodin in "Dave."

From this point, there was a bit of hurry-up-and-wait, and a few starts and stops, in advance of the welcome ceremony for Team USA. Just because reporters and photographers were "in" did not guarantee there was room for everyone in the East Room, which was already filling up with more than 500 Olympians and Paralympians, Secret Service personnel and other White House staff. Our waiting area turned out to be the Press Briefing Room in the West Wing.

For any public relations professional with a sense of history, a visit to the James Brady Press Briefing Room -- named for Ronald Reagan's press secretary to took a bullet during an assassination attempt and later lobbied for gun control standards -- is a trek to hallowed ground. I was in awe by the actual smaller-than-anticipated size of the room, which features fewer than 50 seats between the podium and a bank of network TV cameras and control panels. We patiently waited for updates on access to the main event.

With about 15 minutes to the posted start time, I decided to wait outside with a person who turned out to be a press contact for one of the national sports governing bodies. He had a text chain going with a Team USA press contact on the inside of the mansion, and we both learned the person sent to accompany him into the East Room was the woman with whom I'd corresponded overnight to beg for wait-list status.

Making good on my promise of a blog pin, his escort agreed to take me inside as well, and the three of us eventually got into the main building via the Ground Floor Corridor where I definitely saw the bust of Abraham Lincoln and possibly saw a portrait of a former first lady who may soon be the 45th president.

Up some marble stairs and a few more steps, we arrived at the East Room, packed wall-to-wall with star athletes as a massive portrait of Martha Washington smiled on the scene. I was assigned to a center, floor position in the back-of-room photo area and got acquainted with my neighbors each with cameras in hand.

The waiting game that ensued was great fun in that several dozen Olympians -- many donning their medals or new Olympic rings received the previous evening -- milled about and proved very willing to stop and chat with the reporters and photographers.

Many shared excitement from their few seconds with the president, first lady and vice president earlier that morning. Others seemed to enjoy the mini-reunion with fellow Olympians met on the Road To Rio or only the previous evening.

Everyone was smiling, and then without musical fanfare of "Hail to the Chief" or "Summon The Heroes" accompaniment, President Obama finally arrived about 20 minutes after his scheduled time.

A sea of mobile phones rose overhead as most of the Olympians snapped their own versions of the event. Trying to tune in to Obama's remarks, I also jockeyed for better photo stances until finally easing back to just take in the scene.

Obama spoke for almost 15 minutes, starting with some by-the-numbers details.

"The story of this year's Team USA is all about firsts," he said. "Our Olympians came in first so many times more than anybody else. Not to brag, but 46 golds ... made the U.S. the first country in 40 years to top the medal chart in every category. And it was a feat built one unprecedented accomplishment at a time."

The president proceeded to introduce several individual and team athletes by name, including Simone Biles, Claressa Shields, Kristen Armstrong, Simone Manuel, Kim Rhode, Allyson Felix, Katie Ledecky and Ibtihaj Muhammad.

"We had more women competing in these Games than any nation ever," said Obama. "Our women alone won more golds than most countries did. Our women's 61 medals -- most ever by any women's team -- breaking the record set by, of course, Team USA four years ago."

Obama also joked about Michael Phelps breaking a 2,000 year record set in ancient Olympia before taking a more serious tone to introduce Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

"Their powerful silent protest in the 1968 Games was controversial, but it woke folks up and created greater opportunity for those that followed," said the president, who also mentioned the family members of several black Olympians of 1936 who were also in attendance.

As soon as the Obamas and Joe Biden waved goodbye, the press corps attendees were ushered to the north portico steps to await Ledecky, Felix and a handful of other Olympians chosen to share notes on their experiences in The White House.

It was after the in-mansion experience that the most unexpected elements of the visit occurred. As it turned out, our media group was encouraged to stick around for the day's White House Press Briefing already in progress.

I made my way back to the James Brady Press Room and enjoyed use of one of the seats for the final 30 minutes of Q&A led by Press Secretary Josh Earnest. Fascinating!

For a peek at how one blogger handled himself during this briefing, scroll over to the 57:30 mark of this White House video (my seat was behind the woman asking the question).

One may only imagine how I might have handled things had my day on site included last week's visit by Bill Murray!

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Back In The (Blogging) Saddle Again

Whoa! The Rio Olympics sort of kicked my ass.

Following a troublesome mid-Games trek to the Deodoro venues in search of Olympic shooting, I was pretty much done, cooked, completely spent and downright cranky about the host city, a five-ringed first!

Years ago in Blogging 101, they taught us to avoid posting while angry or overly negative. So, I created the end-of-Games roundup of medalists and took a breather.

The good news, however, is that in spite of my frustrations the second week of the Games provided an array of exciting experiences, providing content for many future posts.

And with a month of rest and recovery under my belt (now about five weeks since the Closing Ceremony), a trio of Team USA-related events in Washington revived my enthusiasm for posting here.

It makes me happy to feel "Back In The Saddle Again" just like Gene Autry or Aerosmith.

With thanks to the U.S. Olympic Committee communications team for a media credential, on Wednesday evening I enjoyed collecting interviews and photos on the red carpet for the 2016 Team USA Awards presented by Dow.

Held in the historic McDonough Gymnasium at Georgetown University, the wear-your-best-suit or don-your-most-glamorous-dress event featured Akbar Gbaja-Biamila and Matt Iseman of "American Ninja Warrior" as co-hosts, with more than 500 Team USA Olympians and Paralympians as VIP guests.

Just like the red carpets for the Oscars, Emmy's or Grammy Awards, reporters and photographers had their hands and heads full trying to keep up with all the A-listers making their way to the arena.

With the help of the USOC's designated handlers, I enjoyed a few minutes of conversation, photo access or pool Q&A with the following Olympians:

A special highlight of the red carpet experience was spotting Paralympic shooting athlete Tricia Downing, with whom I was a U.S. Olympic Committee intern in the summer of 1995.

At events like this, it's not too shabby catching up with journalist friends like's Olympic beat writer Tom Burke or USA Today's Roxanna Scott while meeting other Games-minded journalists.

Each of us had Rio tales to tell, not to mention a bit of anticipation for the following morning and Team USA's visit to The White House (for which I was biting my nails over press credential approval until the very last minute -- more about that experience in a separate post).

Check out this gallery for a broader view at the scene outside the arena.

The red carpet media opps also included conversations with living Olympic legends or family related to other legendary athletes:

  • Carl Lewis, who recently donated nine of his 10 Olympic medals to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • Swimming superstar and LA2024 Olympic bid executive Janet Evans
  • Mexico City 1968 Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos (enshrined in the NMAAHC as a large medal stand statue)
  • Lonnie Ali, accepting an inaugural Team USA honor presented posthumously to her husband Muhammad Ali
  • Marlene Dortch, granddaughter of Jessie Owens and Georgetown alumnus.

I'll post videos, notes or additional images from these many conversations.

Once the busloads of athletes had all arrived to a hero's welcome that included Georgetown cheerleaders and hundreds of excited students, inside the arena the Olympians received their official Team USA rings before the live show began as cameras rolled.

Turns out the Team USA Award trophy is a three dimensional object, usually in the likeness of an Olympic torch. During the event I got a peek at Katie Ledecky's trophy as she carried it back to her seat (see photo), and post-event I found this link with brief details from the designers.

A list of the winners is available via the Team USA press release here, and fans can tune in watch the taped ceremony on NBC Sports Network on Oct. 4 at 10 p.m. ET. My favorite presenter: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

The Team USA Awards post-party was spectacular, and its organizers deserve gold stars or perhaps a gold pin like the ones given to athletes as their "ticket" and Olympian status for security purposes (yes, I did manage to trade a Rio blogger pin for one of the auric mementos).

With an excellent DJ setting the scene musically, I had never seen so many Olympians dressed to the nines and dancing/partying in one setting ... or ever.

Held in an elaborate meeting room overlooking the Potomac and high rise towers in Rosslyn, Va., the catering was superb and most athletes lingered until the final fleet of buses arrived to whisk them back to their hotel. And were it not for the rain drizzling on the party venue's overlook patio, the revelers may have spent more time enjoying the early autumn breezes outside.

It was fun to get acquainted with more Olympians during this laid-back event, including a follow-up conversation with 2012 silver medalist diver/medical student Abby Johnston, first met at the Team USA Media Summit earlier this year. We swapped stories of Rio pedestrian and security headaches, and also tracked down Uber options as the party was winding down.

Also enjoyed an extended conversation with Olympic diver Katrina Young, who I previously met in the rain behind the Carioca One arena just before the gold medal men's basketball game in Rio. On that day in August, we were both in search of tickets or special access, and during our post party D.C. chat she cheerfully shared how she scored court side seats while I explained the paths bloggers take to get last-minute access. Very fun to learn Young studied music at Florida State -- check out her YouTube Channel for some great performances away from the pool.

It was also a wonderful surprise to bump into Atlanta-based "Olympic Pride, American Prejudice" documentary filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper and her Coffee Bluff Pictures colleague Lacy Barnes to catch up on the film's journey to mainstream release, and the duo's role in a special presentation to surviving family members of the 1936 Berlin Olympiad. More on that soon.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver except Katrina Young's Instagram photo, and the topmost ticket image cropped from the site for the artists selected to create the Team USA Awards trophy.

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