Watching Fahrenheit 11/9 is like walking into an intervention only to find out that the meeting is about you. It’s not unreasonable, with Michael Moore at the helm, to expect another liberal circlejerk that exposes our president for the racist, misogynist, criminal, traitor, etc. he is. The past three years have been chock full of “epic takedowns” of #45 in the form of op-eds, TV talking heads and documentary material, offering Americans and the rest of the sensible world a placebo to make them feel self-satisfied and moderately sane. Do we really need our self-smug thoughts about the terrifying direction in which the country is going pumped back into our heads like an ouroboros of ideology?
What Moore offers instead is a stern finger pointed at us, all of us. Our inactivity against and complicity in the slow-moving moral corrosion of our political system resulted in Donald Trump. Fahrenheit 11/9 is a painful but necessary sit-down with the American people to tell us that we all fucked up, that we need to get to work if there’s any hope to save this experiment called democracy. Moore’s film is surprisingly light on bashing He Who Should Not Be Named. What could he say that we don’t already know? All we get out of him is a brief moment where he calls the current POTUS a “malignant narcissist.” That’s more than enough. This is no conspiratorial doc demonstrating how Russia put him in power, either. What it is about is how we remain silent as the world dies around us—sometimes literally, as in the case of the Flint water crisis.
Moore opens his film with the fateful election night of 2016. Instead of focusing on the devastation felt on the Democratic side post-election, he spends most of this pre-credits sequence remembering how pretty much everyone was celebrating Hillary Clinton’s win even before the votes were counted. Surely his opponent, the pathetic dictator wannabe, would never become POTUS, no matter how far his farce had gone. Moore establishes his theme: Americans, Moore’s audience, have been too comfortable in the belief that our democracy cannot be rattled, let alone toppled, for far too long, leading into a passionate, boisterous, two-hour-long rallying call for action.
Two sequences stand out as a mirror to one another: The first, near the beginning of the film, lists all of the horrendously racist, sexist and—in the case of his creepy obsession with his daughter Ivanka—vomit-inducing happenings of Trump’s past. We all knew them before 2015, yet why wasn’t there more outcry when this person kept being the reality star of a major network while peddling the conspiracy theory that the then-current POTUS isn’t American solely because he’s black? How the media, while seemingly condemning his bigoted and despotic positions, gave him free reign for the sake of ratings? The second sequence, near the end, expands on our indifference: Why didn’t we speak up more as the rich got richer, act more as the poor got poorer, as our civil rights were stripped in the name of safety, as we saw even our most beloved political figures engage in corrupt donor class cronyism? We all know the house is burning now; Moore attempts to figure out where the sparks came from.
Instead of spending too much time on the problems in the higher branches of government, Moore sets his lens on the local issues that end up providing some answers to his many questions. Growing up in Flint, he of course spends a considerable chunk of Fahrenheit 11/9’s runtime on how the kleptocratic government in Michigan purposefully poisoned its own people for profit. Instead of going back to his emotionally manipulative bag of tricks, using a tearjerking score and his “breaking” voice-over on top of slow-motion tragic imagery, he presents an angry dissection on how this ethnic cleansing was perpetrated.
Since the film spends so much time in Flint, one might make the suggestion that’s what he should have made a doc about in the first place. Yet the way he connects Michigan governor Rick Snyder to Trump, and how Snyder undermined the democratic process in order to essentially become the infallible king of his domain, creates a haunting picture of things to come. Why should Snyder give a fuck if there’s no one to check him? Why would Trump, when the time comes for him to take the absolute power he so desires? Moore for the most part makes sure we get less of the pointless grandstanding and stunts that don’t achieve anything remotely tangible. Fahrenheit 11/9 does have one sequence like this, where Moore crashes into the Michigan State Capitol to put Snyder under “citizen’s arrest.” Thankfully it doesn’t last long.
As Moore’s manifesto reaches its crescendo, we get two different interpretations of the concept of “hope.” One is the far-too-relaxed hope that we feel as we bask in the belief that our system can cleanse itself. The second is the kind of hope that comes from action, the hope that Moore shows in the faces of the Parkland kids who stood up to the status quo that valued guns more than their lives. He could have easily ended his film on that famous meme that shows a dog saying “Everything’s fine” while the world is burning around him. The one he chose to end on is, yes, hopeful, but should also deliver a chilling yet refreshing thought: The fight isn’t over, it has just begun.
This is the most engaging and emotionally effective Moore doc since Bowling for Columbine. Partly this has to do with the clear immediacy he demonstrates in letting us know that the liberal promise of America is on life support, sparking an urgent fire in his wit and editing that’s missing from his more recent work, but mostly the success of the film is, instead of indicting the rich and powerful, he connects with his audience personally. Everyone can share some of the blame, and should carry some of the burden if there is any hope for course correction.
Director: Michael Moore
Writer: Michael Moore
Starring: Michael Moore, David Hogg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders
Release Date: September 21, 2018