(USA, 120 min.)
Dir. Michael Moore
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere – Opening Night)
On November 8, 2016 I made a poorly received joke to a colleague that watching the TV news anchors declare victory for Donald Trump would be an event comparable only to the phrase, “Where were you when 9/11 happened?” Michael Moore echoes this sentiment with his new documentary Fahrenheit 11/9, a spiritual sequel to his 2004 anti-Bush mega hit Fahrenheit 9/11. The symmetry of the titles implies that the election of Donald Trump was the worst thing to happen to America since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The film isn’t the fist-shaking Trump takedown audiences might have been expecting—it’s an indictment of the broken system that enabled Trump’s victory.
Moore evokes the fateful day of September 11 fleetingly in his new film, if only to emphasize a need to learn from the past to survive this situation. Back then, the argument was to sacrifice certain freedoms for security, but Moore argues that the greater threat is on home turf. It always has been. Moore offers a much-needed rallying cry for his fellow Americans to save their country not from Trump but from the indifference that widens cultural divides.
Fahrenheit 11/9 is classic Michael Moore. The film, which received a rapturous reception following its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 6, brings back the scrappy piss and vinegar incisiveness that some doc fans found to be lacking in Moore’s previous hit Where to Invade Next. I personally preferred Moore’s 2015 doc because it reminded Americans that there was a world outside their borders, and it had a bit more finesse as a piece of filmmaking, but Moore’s latest film strikes a fine balance between passion and rage that restores his signature bite. Moore is America’s most patriotic filmmaker and this return to home turf inspires a thorough review of the state of the USA
Moore humorously begins by arguing that rock star Gwen Stefani is point zero for the whole mess. It’s not Stefani’s fault, but Moore proposes that Trump’s road to the White House began when he discovered that NBC was paying her more to judge The Voice than he was getting to host The Apprentice. The Donald, as Moore shows with some humorous news footage, gave people 50 bucks each to attend a press conference at Trump Tower in which he announced his Presidential bid to inspire NBC to give him a raise. The plan backfired, since NBC sacked him due to his outlandishly racist comments about Mexicans, Muslims, and everyone in between. The plan backfired on everyone, Moore shows, since Trump’s long documented history of misogynistic egotism encouraged him to go through with the plan just so he could prove himself the winner.
Moore goes through the same “What happened?” scenarios that immediately followed Trump’s doomsday election. There’s the usual Hillary blaming and Bernie bro-ing before Moore shifts his focus to the states that nobody was watching. Moore, famous for his provocative essay that predicted the Trump presidency, incisively examines the unrest among the USA’s forgotten people who were hooked to the words of this verbose crackpot. The film introduces the news media’s complicity in Trump’s rise to power by giving him more airtime as his idiocy made for good ratings. There’s nothing especially new or revealing in this aspect of Fahrenheit 11/9, but Moore captures the many dynamics that contributed to Trump’s election with a bit more rigour that most docs on the subject have failed to achieve.
More surprising is Moore’s evisceration of the Democrats. Fahrenheit 11/9 argues that, like the news media, the Democrats’ complacency to challenge the status quo rigged the game in Hillary Clinton’s favour to put forward a centrist contender over a social democrat like Bernie Sanders. Moore puts the pieces into place by talking to Sanders supporters who felt disenfranchised by the Democratic Party when some delegates pledged states for Clinton even though they represented states that overwhelmingly supported Sanders. The problem with America, Moore argues, isn’t the 60-odd million people who voted for Trump, but the climate that left over 100 million people so indifferent to their country’s future that they failed to get out and vote at all.
Moore, as always, returns to his hometown of Flint, Michigan for an extended case study of a community that was abandoned by the Democrats when they most needed them. This lengthy digression of the film at first seems needlessly tangential as Moore unpacks the corrupt politics that precipitated a water crisis in Flint. He speaks with families who have lost loved ones or see their children suffer with lead poisoning when Governor Rick Snyder diverts the city’s water supply to draw from the polluted river. Frustrated citizens liken the quality of living to their experience while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. In one of the film’s stronger feats of journalistic rigour, Moore interviews a whistleblower who reveals how the state instructed her to fudge numbers when children tested overwhelmingly positive for lead poisoning. Moore even offers his most Michael Moore-ish moment of the film when he fills a tanker truck with Flint water and hoses down Snyder’s lawn.
This lengthy chapter of Fahrenheit 11/9 might seem meanderingly off-topic given how much it predates Trump’s presidency, and there’s no need for it to be as long as it is, but it has a purpose. Cut to then-President Barack Obama’s arrival in Flint, which many residents expected to be the moment in which their prayers were heard. Instead of pledging support, Obama dryly asks for a class of water during his speech and wets his lips as the citizens watch, stunned speechless, as their President effectively tells them they didn’t matter. It is a heartbreakingly disappointing moment.
Moore follows Obama’s fall from grace with a look at the new generation of progressives who aren’t afraid to shake the system. Rousing sequences with the students of Stoneman Douglas High School of Parkland, Florida show fresh voices eager to confront the generation that failed them. Teachers in West Virginia offer an inspired rallying cry for the power of organized labour. Scenes on the campaign trail with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib highlight some of the upstart politicians breaking through the inept establishment of the Democratic Party. All this footage is outstandingly optimistic as Moore finds few beacons of hope in America. It’s just too bad that Moore doesn’t save this act for last, since Fahrenheit 11/9 might have been stronger with this call to action as its rousing finale. When he cuts back to Parkland survivor and March for Our Lives activist Emma Gonzalez at the very end, Moore’s wonky structuring of the material hints at the powerfully inspired ending the doc might have achieved.
Moore finally returns to Trump in the film’s climactic sequence once he’s annihilated every aspect of Americana that is part of the problem. If Americans don’t rouse themselves from their complacency, Moore argues that the nation will find itself in situation akin to Nazi Germany. Yes, Moore “goes there” as he likens Trump to Hitler and parallels the factors that contribute to Trump’s success with the elements that gave Hitler absolute power. The shift from democracy to despotism is alarming and Moore convincingly ends the film by suggesting the worst is yet to come—unless every American gets of his or her lazy ass to do something about it.
Fahrenheit 11/9 opens theatrically on Sept. 21.