Michael Moore’s documentaries can be illuminating, infuriating, and irritating, all at the same time, but they are never boring. He has a way of finding a person or a group who embodies the point he’s trying to make, and then simply films them. He is fond of stunts, like driving a speaker truck around the US Capitol building while reading the complete text of the PATRIOT Act, like he did in Fahrenheit 9/11, or going one-on-one with Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine. Still, he’s able to unearth stories that have been ignored by the wider press and tie them into a narrative in a compelling way. His newest feature, Fahrenheit 11/9, is no exception. It also takes no prisoners.
The title was too perfect to pass up. It was in the early hours of the morning of November 9th, 2016, that Donald Trump addressed the supporters who’d assembled at his victory venue (which was one of the smallest on record for a presidential candidate). The mood there in the early evening of the 8th, as the poles closed in the east, was somber, a stark contrast from the party at Hillary Clinton’s location only a few blocks away. The large glassed-in assembly hall made the perfect image of a glass ceiling, ready to be shattered that night. But then the states started going to Trump, and the mood in the two venues flipped.
Moore has a right to say, “I told you so,” because he did. He’d warned in appearances for weeks before the election that Trump could pull it out. Near the beginning he surveys his own interactions with the Trump family and campaign, and reveals some interesting tidbits, such as that Jared Kushner, in his role as owner of the New York Observer, hosted the premier party for Moore’s film Sicko eleven years ago. But other than a survey of Trump’s career, there’s very little Donald in the film – maybe twenty minutes of its 2-hour-plus running time.
What Moore’s more interested in is how we ended up here, and where we will now go. On the “ended up here” side of the equation, he focuses on how Bernie Saunders was treated by the Democratic National Committee, and also on the Flint Water Crisis. For Moore, who was raised in Flint, the poisoning of the city by Michigan governor Rick Snyder was the prototype of Trump’s presidency – a rich businessman/neophyte politician (Snyder made his money with Gateway Computers) wins the governorship by saying he’ll run the state like a business, but instead focuses on cementing his power. With the help of the GOP legislature, he declares emergencies in the majority black communities in the state and appoints crisis managers who superseded locally elected governments to rule in effect as kings in their fiefdoms. Snyder is the target for two stunts by Moore: first he tries to make a citizen’s arrest of Snyder for poisoning Flint, but when that doesn’t work, he finds another way to express his feelings about Snyder’s creation and handling of the crisis. But don’t think this is simply a dump on Republicans. The Democrats, particularly the party leadership, come under intense fire from Moore for their compromising. Obama is hit hard for his shameful response to Flint, which pretty much stuck a dagger in the hearts of the residents.
The best parts of the film, though, are three segments where Moore finds hope for the future: the insurgent campaigns of local activists who’ve been mobilized by the past two years, the students of Stoneman Douglas High who refused to simply let their school become another statistic for gun violence, and the teacher strike in West Virginia that has sent ripples across the nation. Moore interviews Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated one of the highest-ranking democrats in the House through grass roots campaigning. He’s in the room with the organizers of the Stoneman Douglas protests when they learn about a Maine Republican who had insulted Emma Gonzalez, one of their leaders. The students found a person to run against him, only to have him dropped out of the race. The West Virginia strike speaks to the rousing of a group to take on the politicians when they reach the point where they can’t take it anymore. (It’s also interesting to learn the actual origin of the term “redneck,” which is much different that most today would imagine.)
Towards the end Moore looks at how democracies can be lost to totalitarianism, using history as a mirror. But rather than a simple academic discussion, Moore throws in current events that echo the past all too clearly. Regardless of what you may think of Moore politically, he is an effective filmmaker, as Fahrenheit 11/9 proves once again.