Early in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 11/9, a sequel of sorts to his Palm d'Or-winning documentary-polemic Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), he includes footage of his unlikely appearance on Roseanne Barr's short-lived talk show alongside Donald Trump in 1998. Trump was going to walk when he learned that Moore was going to be there, too, and to keep him around Moore essentially had to play nice, a compromise he admits quite candidly (and regretfully). During the discussion, Trump at one point tells Moore that he admires his 1989 film Roger & Me, and then jokes, "I hope you never make a film about me."
Well, as it turns out, with Fahrenheit 11/9, Moore has made a film about Donald Trump-except that it isn't. Trump appears frequently in the film, and the first 15 minutes is essentially a recap of the 2016 Presidential election (the title is a reference to November 9, the day after the ballots were cast and Trump was officially declared President-Elect). As we all know, Hillary Clinton lost what seemed a sure bet to the insurgent New York businessman, who Moore asserts began his campaign as nothing more than a bid to get NBC to pay him more for The Apprentice (a ploy that backfired) and then got hooked on the adulation of his growing fanbase. He never wanted nor expected to be elected; he just wanted the attention.
But Fahrenheit 11/9 isn't about Trump; rather, it is about the deeply embedded corruption and brokenness of the American system of democracy, of which Trump just happens to be the most obvious and troubling symptom right now. But, there are many, many other symptoms from the past few years that Moore catalogues throughout the film-the rigged Democratic primaries that installed Clinton as the candidate over Bernie Sanders, the Flint water crisis, the West Virginia teachers' strike, and the Parkland school shooting-all of which demonstrate how those who are in power are interested only in maintaining that power to their own benefit and how the only real answer is to oust them, a charge that is being led primarily by the young and the marginalized-people of color, women, religious minorities, teenagers who can't even legally vote. These are Moore's heroes.
Which means, of course, that there are also villains-plenty of them. Trump, of course. But also the Electoral College. And Nancy Pelosi. And high-capacity AR-15s. But Moore really sets his sights on Michigan governor Rick Snyder, who, like Trump, was a wealthy businessman with no political or government experience when he was elected. According to Moore, Snyder and his cronies engineered a massive fraud in building an unnecessary pipeline that would benefit banks and construction companies. This construction necessitated the water source for Moore's hometown of Flint being changed from Lake Huron to the polluted Flint River, resulting in lead poisoning of the entire, mostly African-American population (when the Ford assembly plant complained that the water was corroding their parts, Snyder had the plant-and only the plant-switched back to Lake Huron water). The worst part was the cover-up, which Moore contends lasted a year and a half and involved paperwork being forged to cover up how children were testing with elevated lead levels.
Snyder is a Trumpesque Republican, but not all the film's villains hail from the GOP. In fact, Moore saves plenty of invective for President Obama, who came to Flint and basically towed the line, even going so far as to pretend to drink some of Flint's tap water to demonstrate its supposed safety, an unforgivable act of misdirection that longtime Obama advisor John Podesta is unable to defend on-camera. Moore also sets his sights on the Democratic establishment for their role in manipulating the primaries to ensure that Hillary was the Democratic nominee, which Moore points out is a counterproductive undercutting of the process that ultimately depresses voter turnout. If they know their votes won't make a difference, why will they show up? And, as Moore shows, the biggest political party in the country consists of the millions of people who didn't vote in the 2016 election.
At times his anger and frustration provoke him into acts of absurdity, such as when he shows up at Rick Snyder's mansion and, finding the governor not at home (or at least unwilling to answer his call box, probably after seeing what happened to Charlton Heston when he answered in Bowling for Columbine), proceeds to hose down his front yard with poisoned Flint water-a largely symbolic act of righteous indignation that nevertheless registers primarily as an impotent gesture, similar to a stunt in which he marches up to the state capitol with handcuffs in hand to make a citizen's arrest. It's the kind of silly stunt that his admirers love, but induces eyerolling in most everyone else. Moore also allows himself to get sucked into the Trump-Hitler comparison, which has been done so much at this point that, even if it didn't immediately set people off and garner charges of exaggeration, would still feel redundant. More meaningful is the way Moore makes clear the way the mainstream media is often complicit in allowing political nightmares to unfold; for all of his blathering about "fake news," Trump's candidacy was largely enabled by media outlets who saw their numbers surge with each of his controversial comments and inane displays of inappropriate behavior. This is nothing new, of course, and Moore touches on the how newspapers in the 1930s, both American and European, downplayed the rise of Hitler and what might come of it.
As with his previous films, Fahrenheit 11/9 is a bit shaggy at times, although it is certainly Moore's best work in years, at least since Fahrenheit 9/11 rewrote the rules on how a documentary could perform at the box office. 11/9 is unlikely to have the same impact, partially because it is being framed and sold primarily as an anti-Trump polemic, which makes it seem simplistic and banally partisan, the leftwing equivalent of Dinesh D'Souza's cinematic hack jobs. Moore is much smarter than that; even though he is often accused of being ideologically one-note, the reason he has remained relevant for so long is because he is willing to infuriate every side of the aisle. Conservative, of course, probably won't even bother to see the film, while liberals will likely be put off by the way he undercuts sacred cows like Obama and Hillary. His valorization of the Parkland teens, who took tragedy and turned it into an unlikely political movement against unfettered gun violence, as well as up-and-coming grassroots progressive politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may at times seem overly eager, but it is not misplaced in his larger argument about the failures of the Left to enact real social and political change. As Moore puts it at the end of the film, the America he wants to save is not something of the past, but rather something that doesn't yet exist.
Copyright 2018 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright State Run Films
Overall Rating: (3)
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