You could argue that Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 has too many irons in the fire, being variously an acid evocation of the rise of Donald Trump, a peroration against establishment Democrats (among them both Clintons and Barack Obama), an earnest exhortation to grass-roots activism, and an alarmist examination of the current moment’s parallels to Weimar Germany. But I’d say Moore has about the right number of irons, and that he strikes the living hell out of every one. This isn’t his smoothest film, but it’s his fullest and most original. It’s also his most urgent, which is really saying something. It’s one of the most urgent films ever made.
The thrust is that the United States of America is toast, or at least pretty close. Closer than it has been in 250 years — not that Moore thinks the country has ever lived up to its branding as a place of liberty and justice for all. (His own brand wouldn’t exist if he did.) But the Constitution, imperfect as it is, is only as strong as the democracy that protects it, and the democracy that protects it is only as strong as … Thereby hangs his tale.
It must be said that Fahrenheit 11/9 is something of a bait-and-switch. It opens funny, if you can forget for a second the broader narrative. 11/9, of course, is the day (it was early a.m.) that Donald Trump became president-elect, and Moore’s prologue and first section is a greatest hits collection of low points: from the media’s certainty he’d never win a primary/the nomination/the presidency to the certainty of Hillary Clinton and her followers that no halfway intelligent country would elect a vulgar, boastful, racist, misogynistic grifter. But after making the case that Trump’s presidency can be blamed on Gwen Stefani (hint: it was her salary on The Voice), Moore offers a hilariously annotated list of since-dethroned male harassers harassing Clinton about her emails and/or competency to occupy the Oval office, and then demonstrates how “the malignant narcissist played the media for suckers.” He includes himself.
He once had a bit of fun with Trump on Roseanne Barr’s short-lived yak show, grinning when Trump said he loved Roger & Me and hoped Moore would never make a film about him. Moore follows with a somewhat amusing but generally icky montage depicting Trump’s lechery toward his daughter.
Moore is barreling along when he segues to a spiritual cousin of Trump, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a very rich man who joined the government in order to privatize it. And then comes Flint, the laughs stop abruptly, and Fahrenheit 11/9 becomes a story of criminal Republican malfeasance, establishment Democratic uninterest and/or impotence, and the rise of local activism that rattles the pooh-bahs of both parties.
We get Flint because it illustrates one kind of malignant governance. Snyder decided to build a second pipeline from Lake Huron (the existing one worked fine), drew water in the meantime from the ghastly Flint River, and ignored evidence that elevated levels of lead were sickening children — and permanently damaging their brains. Here’s the sort of rhetoric Moore does best: He portrays Snyder as criminally indifferent to the poisoning of poor and black children (Moore calls this “a slow-motion ethnic cleansing”) while incensed when General Motors complains that Flint water is corroding the steel in the cars still being made there. When the world premiere screening audience heard that Snyder restored the Lake Huron water to GM but not residents of Flint, there were gasps.
Moore gets a few cheap laughs when he goes to the state capitol to make a citizen’s arrest, then deluges the governor’s lawn with a truckload of Flint water. But it was the efforts of Flint mother LeeAnne Walters; Dr. Mona Hanna-Atisha; and the previously little-known whistleblower April Cook-Hawkins, who refused to follow orders and reduce the levels of lead on a report of children’s blood tests, that Moore is here to celebrate. They’re “ordinary” people who stepped up in the absence of politicians — among them President Obama, who visited the community but declined to declare a national disaster, offering only words of encouragement, and, in an uncharacteristically tone-deaf move, pretending to drink Flint water while only wetting his lips. Later, Moore notes that disgust with the Democrats kept many Flint voters from the polls in that vital Midwest state. It went narrowly for Trump.
That’s a yuuge point in Fahrenheit 11/9. Moore doesn’t reiterate his support for Bernie Sanders here. He’s more concerned with accusing newspapers like the New York Times of misrepresenting Sanders’s youthful constituency with a front-page story headlined, “Sanders’s Messages Resonates with One Age Group: His Own.” More damagingly, he accuses state parties of outright lying at the Democratic Convention about unanimous county majorities for Hillary Clinton. In a close election, the weeping — and, more important, rage — of Sanders’s voters made a difference. And don’t get him started on the Electoral College, a holdover from an era of American aristocracy.
After Flint, Trump is on to West Virginia and a teacher’s strike over wages that put them below the poverty line. While union leaders behaved wimpily and politicians did little, the strike spread to all 55 counties — and inspired teachers in other states to challenge legislatures. The next stop is Parkland, Florida. First, Moore meets for a strategy session with former Stoneman Douglas High School student David Hogg and his posse, and then he accompanies them to the state capitol in Tallahassee, where he captures the most cringeworthy evasions of NRA-funded Republican legislators.
Finally, Moore arrives at the most provocative chapter of Fahrenheit 11/9: He disputes the idea that comparisons to Nazi Germany are spurious, demonstrating the identical kind of rhetoric in the early 1930s on behalf of despotism — and sampling the editorial of a leading German Jewish newspaper that assured its readers that Hitler would be forced to moderate his proposals to conform to the German Constitution. That was before a trumped-up “national emergency,” the dissolution of much of said constitution, the Reichstag fire, and the appointment of Nazi-affiliated legislators and judges. Non-party journalists became enemies of the people.
Where are the Russians in Fahrenheit 11/9? Vladimir Putin shows up two or three times in passing. For Moore’s thesis, they’re only relevant in demonstrating Trump’s affection for despots, and, more important, for the ways in which his asides about postponing the 2020 election and becoming president for life might creep into mainstream of public discourse. What Robert Mueller will or won’t do is of no concern to him, either. Moore ridicules hope. After the movie’s premiere screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, Moore bridled when a questioner dared to use the “h” word. Fuck hope, he said. The new word is “action.”
After the world premiere screening, April Cook-Hawkins came onstage to a standing ovation. So did David Hogg and several of his peers, to an even longer one. But this is Canada, you say, the northernmost coordinate of this administration’s new Axis of Evil. (The other two are that old standby Iran and maybe Germany, Iraq being an unmentionable and Kim Jung-un a great guy whose people love him.)
A Michael Moore movie will always have cheap shots, and many liberals and progressives will wince when they’re aimed at the likes of Obama, who only by a miracle managed to pass the watered-down national health care bill that is currently being eviscerated. But can anyone committed to social justice not gag watching crypto-Republican Holy Joe Lieberman complain on Fox News about shrill progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? (Bring a barf bag.) “I have a question for you guys,” said Moore on the Toronto stage. “Who’s ready to save America?” Yes, he’s a bit of a blowhard, but the air is blowing hard in the right direction. You need to see this film.