Michael Moore’s voice-over during the prologue to Fahrenheit 11/9 adopts the tone of an enthusiastic parent reading a nation its bedtime story. And why shouldn’t it? It’s Nov. 7, 2016, and history is soon to be made: The future first female president is about to begin Election Day, and by all accounts will cruise to a landslide victory.
Pollsters place her chances of winning at 85 percent; even the conservative establishment has resigned itself to the inevitability of another Clinton administration. Her opponent is implausibly unelectable, a clownish blowhard with a slate of toxic campaign promises and a history of sexual predation.
In Moore’s dark retelling of the next 48 hours or so, the fairy tale with the uplifting message — the princess slays the ogre — transforms into a nightmare: The beast wins. In the wee hours of election night, playing out against the flummoxed expressions of the elite media, we see the president-elect trudging to a podium, flanked by his family and the perpetually somber vice-president-elect.
“It looked like a perp walk,” Moore observes, adding that never before had a candidate looked so sad to have won the presidency. Then, he emits a satisfying four-letter word while posing the question that he’ll spend the next two hours attempting to answer: “How the f*** did this happen?”
A compelling, if shambling and flawed, essay film, Fahrenheit 11/9 is a survey of at least three years’ worth of outrages and analyses, of atrocities and their provenances. If anyone has the right to explain Donald Trump’s impossible election, it’s Moore. He was among the few commentators to treat the candidate as a formidable threat way back in the summer of 2016.
Not surprisingly, given Moore’s contrarianism, his conclusions about the rationale for Trump’s victory eschew mainstream media preoccupations and the objections of Hillary Clinton apologists. He mentions Russia and James Comey’s 11th-hour re-opening of Emailgate only in passing, in the first 10 minutes.
The unspoken subtext is that even Clinton should have won anyway, and of course, had more voters supported her in a few key states, she would be president — cheating, hacking and stealing be damned. Moore is interested, among many other topics, in why they didn’t.
He paints a withering portrait of her pitiful campaign strategy and the center-right policy positions that depressed liberal turnout. He unveils a brutally effective montage of Democratic Party leaders stressing the need to compromise with political opponents waiting around with shivs. He takes us back in time to her husband’s administration, laying the party’s rightward shift at the welfare-crushing, big-bank-enabling, gay marriage-denying feet of the triangular-in-chief. By contrast, Moore is worshipful of Bernie Sanders and the left insurgents who have sprung up in the wake of his 2016 bid.
I can’t help but critique Moore’s films through two lenses. As an acolyte of the Young Turks and a supporter of social democracy, I find the agitprop of Fahrenheit 11/9 deeply satisfying — and a necessary wake-up call to a party that, if we’re to believe Joe Biden is a 2020 presidential front-runner, still doesn’t get it. But as a film critic, Moore’s tactics remain suspect, his editorial decisions questionable.
Case in point: If the film has a heart, it pulses in his beloved Flint, Mich., where he documents the city’s water crisis with the righteous fury it deserves. From the origin of his film career, Flint has been Moore’s lodestar, his canary in America’s coalmine — his microcosm and worst-case scenario. The closest Fahrenheit 11/9 comes to delivering stunning information we didn’t already know is when covering Flint.
He interviews a former city government whistleblower who was told to fudge the dangerously high numbers of lead content in tested children. And he excoriates President Obama for his bungled, nothing-to-see-here press conference at the peak of the city’s despair, in which he asks aids for a glass of leady water and pretends to take a sip — an example of callous cognitive dissonance that’s practically Trumpian.
And yet, while condemning Obama’s infantile stunts, Moore can’t help but engage in a few of his own, like visiting Michigan Gov. Rick Synder’s office to make a citizen’s arrest, complete with handcuffs; or spraying the lawn of Snyder’s gated mansion with a water hose in an act of impotent disobedience. This Barnumesque grandstanding, a holdover from Moore’s undisciplined past as a pop-cinema provocateur, only undercuts his cogent points.
Moore can be acerbically funny and bracing without such adolescent shenanigans, as he proved in 2016’s Where to Invade Next?, arguably the best film of his career. But, propelled by a juvenile desire to shock, Fahrenheit 11/9 backslides into moral abnegation. By overdubbing a Hitler speech with Trump’s words as the movie spirals toward its splintered conclusion, he simply provides fodder for his enemies. (Did he learn nothing from the Kathy Griffin fiasco?) This sequence is followed by a sobering, intellectually grounded study of the ways in which Trump’s actions and rhetoric mirror Hitler’s despotism, but by then, the people who most need to hear it will have already tuned out.
In fact, of all the low-hanging fruit Donald Trump offers for daily picking, Moore spends more time than is necessary on his physical closeness to his daughter Ivanka, and the sick sentiments about her body he’s expressed to anybody who’s asked — hardly revelatory insights for his plugged-in audience.
The film is best when it discards Trump for a blessed 40 minutes or so, spotlighting gratifying stories of successful teachers’ strikes, the rise of liberal outsider candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the student activists behind the #NeverAgain movement, which brought Moore to Parkland during the lead-up to the March for Our Lives. (“Emma and I failed two psych tests,” comments one of the students, “but it’s OK. We’re changing the world.”)
But if the catastrophic overtones of the movie’s gimmicky denouement tell us anything, it’s that Moore is hardly convinced these sanguine advancements are enough to take America back. One of the frustrations of Fahrenheit 11/9 is that Moore, furiously editing his movie to keep pace with the news cycle (a clip from the Helsinki summit somehow made it into the final product), has not provided enough distance to reach a conclusion, which puts the film at odds with the inspirational policy prescriptions of Capitalism: A Love Story, Sicko and Where to Invade Next?
He’s more or less like the rest of us, dog-paddling through a slow-building dystopia, unsure what tomorrow will bring. Moore tells us how the f*** Trump happened. But even for this know-it-all, the deeper questions, about where we go from here, are beyond his ken.
FAHRENHEIT 11/9. Director: Michael Moore; Distributor: Briarcliff Entertainment; Rating: R; Opens: Friday at most area theaters