This past weekend Michael Moore’s new movie Fahrenheit 11/9, about how the world as we know it in the Trump age came to be, didn’t set the box office on fire in the manner of his previous incendiary screed against the Bush administration, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). And speaking as someone who doesn’t watch box-office predictions like a hungry hawk, I didn’t really expect it to. A report I heard on NPR Monday morning said that it ranked #8 with US ticket-buyers with $3.3 million, which was, as they spun it, “one of the highest debuts for a political documentary ever,” though far short of the $23.9 million raked in by Fahrenheit 9/11 on its opening weekend. In assessing the underwhelming weekend for Moore’s newest film, the Hollywood Reporter pointed out that “While it’s true Fahrenheit 11/9 posted one of the biggest bows ever for a political doc, it is only the fourth political doc to launch nationwide, making comparisons tough.” (One of those “doc”s, Dinesh D’Souza’s logically impaired, dishwater-dull position paper Death of a Nation, met a similar financial fate.)
Obviously, the performance of Fahrenheit 11/9 is a disappointment in terms of expectations for the weekend box office, and particularly in comparison to the way Moore was able to capture much more of the public’s attention with some of his previous films. But should the paying public’s apparent indifference to Fahrenheit 11/9 be interpreted as a surprise or, worse, as a shrug directed toward the ongoing shitstorm of governmental corruption, greed, and institutional failure, all of which predated and laid the groundwork for the Trump administration?
I think the answer to both questions is “no.” It may just be that the perception of Moore as a jokey op-ed muckraker means that he now, in a way that he didn’t in 2004, must coexist with a legion of late-night TV hosts and cable news operatives who are more than willing to take up the middle finger toward Trump and other atrocities of democracy, and who may all have contributed to Moore’s MO becoming overly familiar. Many folks in my liberal circle have made no bones about having had it up to here with Moore’s brand of self-aggrandizing propaganda, no matter how neatly his conclusions mesh with their own. So it may just be that, apart from any distaste for Moore himself, even those most likely to be aligned with Moore’s perspective, intuitively sensing that the new movie was not positioned as an astonishing tell-all dutifully bullet-pointing the outrages that anyone who has been half-awake for the past four years is already keenly aware, may have decided that gorging on more depressing news, however artfully packaged, was not the way to spend a Saturday night.
It was however, the way I spent my Saturday night, and I found the movie to be terrifying, of course, but also far more compelling, moving, stirring, and dare I say hopeful, than my reservations about Moore’s previous films, particularly Bowling for Columbine, ever allowed me to suspect it would be as I went in.
More important than the movie’s status as a hit or a bomb, in my humble opinion, is the fact that the movie is out there in the mix at all. Of course, Moore is a blowhard, but as critic David Edelstein put it, he’s blowing hard in the right direction. And Sam Adams, in his perceptive review of the movie for Slate, suggests that the movie is a rousing piece of propaganda built precisely for these fearful times:
“(Moore’s) movies aren’t pretty, and they don’t play by the rules; they’re full of exaggerations and half-truths, slippery logic and jury-rigged timelines. But there are moments when half a truth feels like a generous helping, and Moore’s overarching points hit home with such force that sweating the details would be like picking fleas off a charging grizzly. We’re in such a moment now, and Moore knows it.”
As Adams suggests, there’s an urgency to Moore’s purpose here, and to his work as a filmmaker, which may mean the audience who will be most affected by the arguments and the exegeses he’s managed to coalesce in this new polemic will find their way to it, even if they don’t charge right out to lay down $17 for the privilege. Fahrenheit 11/9 isn’t designed to change anyone’s mind. And Moore understands that the $3.3 million shelled out this weekend to see his movie (it’s not, in any traditional sense, a documentary) came largely from the wallets of the choir to whom he’s preaching. Which is fine because the movie isn’t even primarily an anti-Trump screed. It’s not simply a movie about how Trump got elected, about Trump sound bites and tweets and rallies, about complacent Democrats and an arrogant media who couldn’t conceive of Trump getting elected, about porn actresses and pee tapes and the candidate’s hard-on for despots around the world whom he seeks to emulate. Some of that, plus the devastating reminder of what it was like to experience Election Night 2016 if you didn’t own a MAGA hat, is all in the first ten minutes.
Instead, the movie is a well-argued, devastating polemic, not without its asides, distractions and arguable truths, all of which are manipulated brilliantly by Moore’s admirable, artful skill as an editor and filmmaker, which suggests the roots of what brought Trump to power can be laid at least partially at the feet of an ineffectual Democratic Party establishment who misrepresented primary election results themselves and refused to respond to the arrogant, out-in-the-open malfeasance in which the Trump campaign indulged. (Moore doesn’t hide his support for Bernie Sanders, but neither does he wield it like a self-righteous club.) Blame even belongs as Moore tells it, at the feet of Barack Obama himself, whose curiously glib response to the escalating water crisis in Flint, Michigan, alienated African-American voters in the state and inspired millions of other voters to throw up their hands in the defeated belief that their vote no longer mattered. All of which, of course, laid the groundwork for Trump’s narrow margin of victory in Michigan and many of the other states he ended up carrying. (Moore reserves an eloquently-expressed well of outrage for the notion that a candidate could win the popular vote and yet, due to an antiquated and irrelevant chestnut like the Electoral College, could not win the election itself, and we in the audience on Saturday night responded audibly in kind.)
In other words,Fahrenheit 11/9 isn’t simply an exercise in holding the feet of familiar demons to the fire. Among the roasted are Democrats and the Democratic Party, Republicans, rabid MAGA deplorables, mealy-mouthed, excuse-making senators, citizens who have abdicated their right to participate in the electoral process, newly empowered racists– even Moore himself, who doesn’t exactly come off looking great during footage of himself and Trump on a long-forgotten Roseanne Barr talk show in which the filmmaker acquiesces to The Donald’s demands that the radical socialist loudmouth not go after the unrepentant capitalist con man on TV. (Moore makes nice and lives to regret it.) Nor does the movie reflect well on Moore within this context when it’s revealed that Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon once both invested money to produce and distribute previous Michael Moore films. In Moore’s view, we all need to wake up, and Fahrenheit 11/9 is the alarm bell.
But it’s that examination of the Flint water crisis, and the tactics employed by Michigan governor Rick Snyder to reroute the city’s water supply via a newly constructed and entirely superfluous pipeline from Lake Huron, its previous resource, to the foul and brackish Flint River, that turns out to be the filmmaker’s ace in the hole. What seems at first like just another typically Moore-ish swerve away from the main issue, a self-aggrandizing attempt to solidify the director’s status as Our Main Man Flint—at one point he loads up a tanker full of Flint drinking water and douses the lawn of the governor’s mansion with it– turns out instead to be a meticulously argued, painfully trenchant piece of reportage, in which the horrendously callous actions of Snyder and his administration are exposed to be a literally poisonous act of aggression toward an entire populace. It’s this angry, painstaking examination which illuminates the degree to which Snyder, a miniature Trump-in-waiting, emulates the deceptive and manipulative methodology of the current president, a microcosm of greed and corruption made routine and, judging by the indifference of governmental politics, acceptable.
Later, Moore connects Trump with another despot, with less immediately satisfying results, opting to put Trump’s words literally into the mouth of Hitler in a poorly conceived “Bad Lipreading”-style segment which, against the expectation set by the audio stunt, leads into one of the film’s strongest sections. The joke smacks of unwarranted desperation, because the argument Moore builds, through the editorial testimony of newspapers, the eyewitness account of a 99-year-old lawyer who was at Nuremberg, and Hitler’s own recounted words and deeds, clarifies (almost) without hyperbole the importance of recognizing the terrifying parallels between Germany and the rise of Nazism and Trump’s ascendance to American power and is strong enough that the Trump-voiced Hitler bit registers only as a pointless distraction. (I say “almost” because the inference Moore draws between the Reichstag fire, set and used by Hitler to set up an emergency state that eventually consolidated Nazi power, and the attacks of September 11, 2001, is a familiar stretch that even the filmmaker is wise enough not to press too hard here.)
Of course, Moore’s work primarily addresses those who already accept his premise that the country is in a very, very bad place right now, and not just due to the slimy activities of the man who lost the popular vote yet was still elected president. His purpose it is not so much to confirm their (our) beliefs as to shake them (us) into action, because what’s at stake in Fahrenheit 11/9 is an understanding that Trump is not the end game, he’s merely a symptom. Yet what’s perhaps most understandable about the way Fahrenheit 11/9 was perceived by the public, the choir as well as the unbelievers, before they ever saw the film can be found in the apocalyptic tone of its advertising, especially the TV ads showing the image of a newly-elected Trump projected onto the side of the Empire State Building, with Moore’s voiceover intoning ominously, “Ladies and gentlemen, the last president of the United States.” Moore has publicly, and certainly within the framework of this film, largely rejected hope as a fallback position in favor of insistence on activism, but I think that ad line crosses over into pessimism, and the director apparently recognized as much, because it’s nowhere to be heard in the film itself, pessimism and refusal to rest easy in hope being two quite different stances.
Moore bolsters his own brand of hope by diminishing his own on-screen presence in the film and giving strong voice to progressive grassroots politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashia Tlaib and Michael Hepburn, as well as citizens like Flint mother LeeAnn Walters, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who heads up the medical effort to address dangerous levels of lead in Flint children as a result of the water crisis, and whistle-blower April Cook-Hawkins, who refused to fudge reports of hazardous lead levels to make them appear to be within an “acceptable” range.
If these people embody the incensed willingness to resist the nation’s tilting-toward-Fascism which Moore so effectively argues, then his giving over the film’s final section to the ignited activism of the survivors of the Parkland high school massacre, and their collective eloquence to power, marks the foundation of Moore’s true hope. Again, there is nothing included here regarding this awful chapter in modern American horror that will surprise anyone who has been engaged and attentive over the last few years. But it’s the spirit of these young people, who took up their own cause and beliefs, organized marches and rallies, and confronted the political weasels who refuse to put the safety of American kids over their own rapacious desire for NRA money, which Moore leaves us with.
The image of Emma Gonzalez, purposefully pausing during her famously impassioned and outraged speech immediately after the Parkland shootings, silent, waiting, looking directly into the camera, and the manner in which Moore cuts away, leaving the afterimage of her gaze, insistent, demanding answers, might just be the most powerful moment in a movie that itself is probably the best, most impassioned work this director has ever delivered. Fahrenheit 11/9 wants to rattle you, to move you, to bring you to tears, and it does. See it now, while it’s still in theaters, and get ready for the November midterm elections, or wait and see it at home– given its diminished box-office take, who knows if a home video release might not be coming before November as well. However you end up seeing it, the film’s urgency demands an audience.
For further reading, here are some reviews of Fahrenheit 11/9 from some critics who are far more eloquent than I am:
Sam Adams’ Fahrenheit 11/9 review
Sophia A. McClennen’s Fahrenheit 11/9 review
David Edelstein’s Fahrenheit 11/9 review
Stephen Whitty’s Fahrenheit 11/9 review
And an interview with Michael Moore at Vulture