The intermittently powerful Fahrenheit 11/9 cements Michael Moore’s irrelevance whilst simultaneously being his most vital film in years.
Note: a version of this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
By this point, there’s not a whole lot separating convicted fraudster Dinesh D’Souza, director of such pieces of cinematic excrement as 2016: Obama’s America, America: Imagine the World Without Her, and Death of a Nation: Can We Save America a Second Time?, from Michael Moore, Oscar-winning director of Bowling for Columbine, Palme d’Or-winning director of Fahrenheit 9/11, and Roger & Me. He would probably never admit it, but D’Souza is absolutely indebted to the “documentary” “stylings” of Moore and I use quotation marks around those words because neither filmmaker really makes documentaries any more so much as they do propaganda pieces for their respective sides of the political divide. They are both gleefully partisan, they both feature bombastic egotistical hosts that insert themselves into their narratives any chance they get, they both feature inflammatory stunts and imagery that don’t progress their arguments but are instead there to play to the bleachers, both aren’t above throwing out unsupported suppositions as statements of fact to push their messages, both engage in hyperbole that can make even ardent supporters go “wait, what?!” and both are utterly goddamn insufferable.
What makes it worse for me is that I ostensibly agree with the vast majority of points put forward by Moore in not just his latest feature, Fahrenheit 11/9, but all of his filmography. America needs tighter gun control laws (it actually needs to get rid of guns altogether but I’m trying to be realistic here). The health care system of 2007’s Sicko was unconscionable. The Iraq war was an absolute tragedy that should never have occurred in the first place. Capitalism is a leech on society that enables and normalises the worst and most predatory of human behaviour. I agree with all of these theses, I agree with the riotous anger that often fuels his work, and I agree with much of what Moore puts forward in Fahrenheit 11/9. That, yeah, Donald Trump is a blithering imbecile and a creep and an asshole and a narcissist and a racist but that he’s not an anomaly, instead being the logical end result of a political system that rewards self-centrism & dog-whistling and an allegedly-liberal Democratic Party which is refusing to offer strong opposition, keeps shifting ever further to the Right in a misguided attempt to siphon Republican voters at the expense of their own base, and keeps denouncing non-establishment figures as radical fringe elements in a way which disillusions young voters to such a degree that non-voters were actually the biggest party of the 2016 election.
I agree with all of this and even I was on the verge of yelling at Moore to shut the hell up during the first third of Fahrenheit 11/9. Moore is an extremely talented filmmaker – it’s one of the two things that separates him from D’Souza, the other being that he is ostensibly playing for Our Side, in these tiresome culture wars we’re all unfortunately trapped in – but he can often be an extremely sanctimonious told-you-so-er, and the opening stretch of 11/9 gives Moore plenty of time to indulge in his smug solemnity, his voiceover dragging out every last pause like he’s announcing the latest evictee from Big Brother. Even when he spends a few minutes lamenting the prior chances he’s had to confront Trump to his face but said nothing or gotten chummy with stooges like Kellyanne Conway, plus other times his work has been invested by or enjoyed by members of Trump’s inner circle (Jared Kushner was a major investor on Fahrenheit 9/11), they feel less like Moore admitting complicity and more like him trying to cut off accusations of hypocrisy from his critics at the pass, since they serve Moore rather than his arguments against Trump and a broken Democratic Party.
Much more of a problem are the segments where Moore turns that sanctimony in the direction of the sorts of tangents, comparisons and straight-up unsupported conjecture much more befitting a satirical late-night talk show, many of which already exhausted this material far better years ago, than a professional documentary, a genre that I don’t feel it is asking too much of to have groundwork in presented facts. There’s a long sequence dedicated to montaging all of the times Trump has been sexually inappropriate with his daughter Ivanka, presented in such a way where Moore technically can’t be sued for libel or slander but the insinuation is totally “Trump wants to/is fucking his daughter” – I get the concept of “no smoke without fire,” but this is an embarrassing thing to put forward in a serious theatrically-released documentary. He sets footage of Hitler rallies to audio of Trump speeches. At one point, he makes the proclamation that “America is a liberal country” before throwing out random figures from disparate polls over the last half-decade that prove his point so long as you don’t spend more than a few seconds seriously thinking about the holes in predicating your argument around different polls surveying different topics at different times with (likely) entirely different demographics surveyed.
And then there are the stunts, thankfully less prevalent than in prior Moore documentaries but still adding nothing to 11/9 besides headline-grabbing trailer material. Think back to the segment in Bowling for Columbine where Moore documented the process of getting a free gun just for opening a bank account, which demonstrated the chilling normalcy with which gun culture is handled in the US – a process as easy, American, and rite-of-passage as opening up your first bank account. Then compare it to the scene in Fahrenheit 11/9 where Moore strides into Michigan State Governor Rick Snyder’s office in an attempt to make a citizen’s arrest, a scene which doesn’t add anything besides ego-inflation. Moore pins the seed of Trump’s decision to announce a Presidential candidacy on NBC paying Gwen Stefani more than him for their respective TV shows, a hypothesis that displays no factual evidence (Moore doesn’t even dig up both stars’ respective salaries) and is promptly discarded as soon as he supposes audiences are hooked; clickbait in movie form. Most incredulously, the Bernie Sanders supporter digs up firm evidence of corruption in one wing of the Democratic Primary battle between Sanders and Hillary Clinton – of one specific district rejecting Bernie winning the public vote and instead declaring for Clinton – and proceeds to follow it with a montage of other states declaring for Clinton with a “Sanders won the district” footnote underneath each footage despite not displaying any evidence of those specific districts also going against official tallies.
Again, I agree with so much of what Moore’s proposing with 11/9. That the media willed Trump into office by playing his narcissistic game to a tee. That neo-liberalism as put forward by the Democratic Party from Bill Clinton onwards has been a blight on attempts at progressivism. That Hillary ran a piss-poor campaign and has nobody but herself to blame for this. But Moore as a person is almost a parody of himself in 2018. His stunts are lame, his Trump material is outdated, his tone the definition of “smug liberal.” The Moore that shows up in these parts of Fahrenheit, the one who burst onto the scene all those years ago, has been better delivered and improved upon over the years by works like The Daily Show and its off-shoots, Late Night with Seth Meyers, even the Stephen Colbert Late Show. All of which are timelier, all of which are angrier, all of which exhausted this material in far better ways, and all of which are less pious in their deliveries. I get the point of having a compendium of the past few years prior to those all-important mid-terms (please vote), but this half of Fahrenheit 11/9 mostly argues for Moore’s irrelevancy.
And yet… Fahrenheit 11/9 does have a power to it. Several of the montages of Trump’s greatest hits do have an inflammatory power to them, but the film really hits hardest once it zeroes in on the case of Flint, Michigan. Moore positions his hometown and the indefensible corruption that plagues his state’s governmental offices and which directly led to the Flint Water Crisis (which is arguably STILL ONGOING) as a case study for capitalism as a whole. How big businesses and politicians inextricably intertwine. How people like Governor Rick Snyder run for office because it’s a career that furthers their lust for power and not because of any noble calling. How the poor, the disabled, the non-White population of America get systematically erased by the Whites attempting to cement their supremacy – Moore equates the lose-lose result of Snyder’s callousness, the bottled water required to live often costing more than the monthly wages of many residents, to “slow-motion ethnic cleansing” in one of the few dramatic statements that’s honestly not that hyperbolic.
He returns to Flint repeatedly, including for an utterly damning indictment of Obama’s insensitive stunt visit in late 2016 and the reveal of the town being used as the staging ground for a bunch of warzone military exercises in late 2017 (which were done without residents being notified beforehand), and these segments have a focus, anger, sincerity, and factualness to them that other parts of the film lack. (Although they also contain the film’s ineffectual stunts.) Even better are the parts where Moore covers the next generation of progressive activists, the ones inspired by Bernie’s miracle rise in the 2016 primaries, a growing awareness of the world’s ills via connectivity online, and a desire to do what’s right since apparently no-one else will. People like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Richard Ojeda, the West Virginian Teachers Union that refused to allow their government to take away healthcare for themselves or their fellow bus drivers and lunch staff (or their spineless leaders to accept a compromise dicking over the latter two), or the Never Again student committee of teenagers that organised the March for Our Lives in the aftermath of the Parkland school massacre.
These segments surge with hope and optimism, channelling the anger that the rest of the film builds up against the failure of the great American experiment into something useful, something that produces tangible results when action is taken. Moore’s cameras miraculously pick up the exact moment that the Never Again team discover the news that Leslie Gibson, a Republican Senator previously running unopposed in his district and who called Emma González (one of their own) a “skinhead lesbian,” dropped out of his re-election campaign the day after an opponent (Eryn Gilchrist) filed the paperwork to run against him. In fact, they hit with genuine power because Moore wisely cedes the floor to this new generation. Sure, he pops in every now and again to venerate this new wave of young progressive activists (who are largely female and non-White) like it’s the second coming, but such comments feel more like the glaze on top when he just lets them speak. They talk about their spirit, how they had to do this because they couldn’t take the injustice anymore. They speak with clarity and confidence, rattling off statistics and policies designed to help everyone with knowledge and passion. They have fire and hope, refusing to give in, resolute in there being a better way, and it is indeed infectious.
Which is why Fahrenheit 11/9 is ultimately Moore’s most vital film in over a decade, since it looks into the pit of nihilistic despair that American society and American politics have become and comes out the other side with renewed vigour and virulent enthusiasm for a better way of doing things. The irony, of course, is that these segments plus the best parts of the despairing Flint check-ins come from Moore handing the microphone over to his interview subjects rather than Moore himself. He’s still a brilliant arranger – ending the film on González’s speech at the March for Our Lives, where she lists the names of every student killed in the Parkland shooting before observing several minutes of silence, is a gutting masterstroke – but his on-camera and narration-based personality has not only grown outdated, it is now also actively detrimental to his works.
Fortunately, the good eventually outweighs the bad, since the movie is front-loaded with Moore’s worst impulses, and Fahrenheit 11/9 gestures towards the best evolutionary step Moore can take as a filmmaker entering his fourth decade. Until then, though, Michael Moore will continue to be the worst part of a Michael Moore film and that’s the last thing a filmmaker impassioned about making his audience passionate enough to get out and act should want.
Callie Petch will say the right things when electioneering.