At the dawn of a very different American presidency than the one we are enduring today, Michael Moore produced the documentary Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), which amongst its outrage at the economic collapse from the year before still found a hopeful and even gleeful optimism about the election of Barack Obama. Drawing favorable comparisons between that president and Franklin Roosevelt, Moore had a rosy outlook on the future. You don’t have to see Fahrenheit 11/9 to know why that disposition has soured, but Moore is sure to amuse (and horrify) those down in the political dumps as their nation slowly loses its soul.
Debuting on TIFF’s opening night, Fahrenheit 11/9 is many things, including ostensibly a sequel to Moore’s zeitgeist-busting deconstruction of the George W. Bush era in Fahrenheit 9/11. It most certainly is Moore’s indictment of President Donald Trump and the waking nightmare of an American leader who declares war on the press while fawning over Vladimir Putin, and it is also a hapless comedy of manners that details the mutual folly of the DNC and news media on Trump’s slow march toward the White House. But at its best, it acts as a pseudo-sequel to Moore’s earlier, better docs: Roger & Me (1989) and Bowling for Columbine (2002). For it is when Moore replaces his pessimism hat with one adorned in the colors of advocacy and hometown fury that he paints a new—yet tragically familiar—picture.
To be sure, 11/9 has much to say on Trump. The opening itself is a contrast of nigh Dickensian proportions, juxtaposing the good cheer of the Democrats on the eve of the 2016 election (underscored by Rachel Platten’s tween anthem “This is Our Fight Song”) and the unrelenting grimness of Republicans who’ve been chanting for months “lock her up” (Moore cues their arrival with Jerry Goldsmith’s demonic Omen theme). However, the majority of the film’s opening salvo against Trump is a collection of the 45th president’s worst moments: the blatant racism of saying Mexican immigrants are rapists in his first campaign speech; the uncomfortably handsy relationship the Don has with the apple of his eye, daughter Ivanka; and how the first year of his presidency has been a windfall for billionaires.
Yet while this is all presented with Moore’s reliably chipper and sardonic narration, its entertainment value does not diffuse the sense of having seen this all before—and every night on the news. The real film Moore is interested in making (and that comprises most of the running time) is focused on the Flint, Michigan water crisis that’s been pushed off the front pages yet continues. And will do so for many children’s lifetimes. The filmmaker returns to his native state and draws pointed parallels between Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Trump, including how the latter visited Snyder in 2013, as then only the leader of the knuckle-dragging birther bigotry, to marvel at the privatization of public services that were confiscated under the guise of “emergency management.”
Moore even interviews a woman who was ordered by the state to lie about the lead levels recorded in children’s blood she tested during the first year of the cover-up. She resisted and was fired, and her revelation to Moore is all the more horrifying now. With a reservoir this tainted, it’s easy to see why Moore uses it to fuel his anger for the rest of the movie, which can be at times cluttered, messy, and sporadic, however always gripping.
Every one of Moore’s films makes major leaps through history and politics but few are as free-wheeling as 11/9, a movie that jumps from Snyder to finding solace in the Parkland students taking the initiative to combat the NRA after the adults Moore failed to shame into decency with Columbine continue to be complicit; he then pivots to justifiable despair over Obama not sending in the National Guard to Flint; and even finds time to less justifiably coddle Bernie Sanders supporters who chose to stay home on election night. Hindsight causes this to ring increasingly off-key considering Moore introduces Trump in his film to a Latin chant of “Hail Satan!”
In the midst of all these elements, the filmmaker continues to get good mileage out of his typical grandstanding stunts, which in this case includes attempting to make a citizen’s arrest of the Michigan governor and then trying to get his spokesman to drink a glass of water from Flint after claiming the lead levels are fine. But for all his showboating, he gains more from the chilling insights of a man like Ben Ferencz, the 99-year-old international law leader who at the age of 27 prosecuted Nazis in Nuremberg. For the record, Ferencz is the subject of a much more pensive and illuminating doc also playing at TIFF, Barry Avrich’s terrific Prosecuting Evil.
Still, at the nadir of a societal valley that Moore has been recording our descent into for decades (from Roger to Trump), it is not hard to share his disbelief that things keep getting worse, as well as his chilling contrast between establishment deference to Trump being complemented by the “paper of record” suggesting in 1933 that Adolf Hitler would never actually persecute Germany’s Jewish population. Undoubtedly the Hitler comparisons will ruffle the feathers… of those oblivious or willfully ignorant of the last two years of headlines. Moore has crafted a clarion call. It’s loud, attention-grabbing, and will galvanize the converted. It is also unlikely to break into the mainstream zeitgeist the way the first Fahrenheit did, if for no other reason than so much of what it documents is already on social media.
Yet presciently placed at the crest of what the left hopes is a blue wave, 11/9 will likely have its intended effect on its target audience, and is sure to inspire more rushes to the polls than so many of the mealy-mouthed DNC talking points that Moore delights in skewering.