By Liam Lacey
Michael Moore’s new documentary, Fahrenheit 11/9, is named for the day that Donald Trump was elected president. It plays on the title of Moore’s most successful film, Fahrenheit 9/11, about George W. Bush and the September 11, 2001 attacks and by implication, marks another catastrophe. The director has been promoting it like an Ultimate Fighting Championship cage match, insisting his film is “the real beginning of the end for Donald J. Trump,” and that “this is a movie that takes Trump’s mask off.”
You know, that contest between those two big American guys who wear trucker hats and who are really good at insulting rivals and say they speak for the forgotten workers who were ripped off by the elites? No, I don’t mean to say Michael Moore is just like Donald Trump – Moore is on the side of social welfare, health care, gender equality and all those good things. But when he gets worked up, he can sound positively Trumpian. What the two have in common is a taste for hyperbole and an appeal to the politics of emotion and reductive claims.
The “beginning of the end,” if the end comes, surely started with the Special Council investigation in May 2017. As for the “mask,” in what conceivable way has Donald Trump been masked? Does Moore really imagine his film can do more to inspire, shock or provoke people than Donald Trump and his White House gang already have? How can he possibly manage to stoke fresh outrage when the media has been ablaze with it for the last two years?
Well, he can’t. But to give him credit, Moore succeeds in preaching an energetic sermon to those of us who sing generally in his political choir. Using the Trump election shock as a launching pad, he then scatter-bombs various targets of venality in divided states of America. These segments are often expertly edited and narrated though barely linked together, like segments from his old TV series, TV Nation.
Among the segments are familiar archival montages of the president’s racist history and his indecent relationship with his daughter, Ivanka (good for stoking disgust, but unnecessary). We have an up-to-date recounting of the man-made Flint, Michigan poisoned water crisis, an occasion for one of Moore’s better zingers: “No terrorist organization has figured out how to poison an entire American city. It took the Michigan Republican Party to pull that off.” Moore also makes a trip to the leaders of the Parkland, Florida students’ anti-gun movement, which is refreshing because the kids have as much cocky self-assurance as the filmmaker does.
A segment on a West Virginia teacher’s strike makes the claim that the term “redneck” derived from pro-union Virginia miners, which isn’t true. Though miners tried to reclaim the slur, the expression dates back to the 19th century, where it refers to exactly what you think it does: poor white Southern outdoor workers. The claim is symptomatic of Moore’s preference for things that sound good even if dubious. As a self-styled champion of the common folk, he can’t allow that progressives and the working class may be at odds or that the “liberal” values he claims Americans share are more about exercising freedoms than worrying about others’ welfare.
There’s no argument with Moore’s claim that Trump’s success depended on the failure of 100 million qualified voters to cast a ballot in 2016 though the reasons for that epidemic of apathy are harder to peg. Moore blames the Republic elite and rich donors but also Democratic centrists including Bill Clinton, Hilary Clinton (who he previously supported), and President Barak Obama. Indeed, much attention is paid to a bit of ill-conceived showboating by Obama where took a sip of water in Flint, Michigan to show the water was drinkable.
As well, The New York Times and the Democratic National Committee come under fire for undermining the Democratic campaign of Bernie Saunders. And, of course, there’s a visit with 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the winner of a New York Democratic primary, who, like Saunders, has made the words “democratic socialist” hip again.
For the old fans, there are a few splashes of Moore’s caustic levity, including archival footage of Hitler, voice-dubbed to recite Trump’s speeches. A scene where Moore marches into the Michigan governor’s office with his film crew and harasses a PR guy feels like an attempt to reprise his greatest shtick.
It’s disappointing that the Trump election has given Moore no reason to question the wisdom of populist politics (at various points he’s suggested Oprah or Tom Hanks for president) in favour of a more sober reconsideration. By the end of the film, though, he gets out of the way to allow a different and younger voice to speak. That voice belongs to teenaged Parkland shooting survivor, Emma Gonzalez, who offers her eulogy to her 17 dead classmates.
No matter how many times you see it, it remains a tremendously powerful piece of oration and a reminder that, on some occasions, the meeting of politics and emotion can be essential.
Fahrenheit 11/9. Directed and written by Michael Moore. Opens wide September 21.