The empty rage of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 11/9
The activist documentarian is all performative grandstanding
Nearly two years after Donald J. Trump won the 2016 presidential election, you may still be asking yourself: "How did this happen?" Take comfort that you're not alone: Director Michael Moore is troubled by the same question.
His answer, however, is no good at all.
Moore's message in the documentary Fahrenheit 11/9, which premieres Friday, is clear enough: Every American is in danger as long as Trump remains president, whether that danger is a mass shooting, a nuclear war, or a state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing. But Moore's call to action isn't stirring — and coming from him, it's downright disingenuous.
Journalists and cultural critics have invested much of the last two years into litigating the ways the 2016 election went haywire and allowed Trump to become commander in chief. Today, the matter of how he ascended to the highest office in the land no longer has any urgency or meaning; more pertinent is how a majority of the American people may challenge him or even dethrone him.
Moore knows this. He dedicates a chunk of Fahrenheit 11/9 to highlighting champions in the fight against Trump's politics: the Parkland students, for example, or grassroots political campaigns couched in democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's effort to succeed longtime House Democrat Joe Crowley as the representative of New York's 14th District. But Moore also spends an awful lot of time pointing fingers.
So who's to blame for Trump's rise to power? Republicans, sure, but that's too obvious. Also guilty, by Moore's count: the Democratic establishment; Barack Obama; James Comey; the media; Gwen Stefani (though this argument is made with Moore's tongue firmly in cheek); you, and probably your mother too. Even Moore is responsible, because once he went on talk TV with Trump and didn't let him have it. In the film's best twist, we learn that Stephen Bannon's production company, American Vantage Media, helped fund the DVD release of Sicko, Moore's 2007 film. That's not Moore's fault, but it demands a firmer reaction than the one he actually gives: "I don't know what to think about that," he says with a verbal shrug, after playing a clip of Bannon praising his talent and deriding his politics.
And then Moore kicks off a clip show of Trump saying creepy things about his daughter Ivanka and taking creepy pictures with her. By design or not, the montage rubs out all recollection of Moore's self-acknowledged complicity in the Trump debacle. He does his penance, then sweeps it under the rug immediately to continue his grandstanding.
Now, Moore does have a gift for grandstanding, and at his best he's a raucous entertainer; around an hour into Fahrenheit 11/9, as the topper to his recap of the Flint water crisis, he commandeers a water truck, motors on over to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's mansion (modest by most mansion standards, which Moore coyly notes in subtitles), and sprays down his property with water straight from the Flint Water Plant. You'll probably have a laugh, and that is definitely by design. It's one of Moore's signatures: comedy folded into grim-faced political commentary.
But for the informed viewer, Fahrenheit 11/9 doesn't say anything that hasn't been said already. Instead, the film takes everything we already know and reinterprets it in service of condemning a stagnant and self-absorbed liberal political machine for paving Trump's road to the White House. Spacing out Moore's righteous censure, we see a dirge for America — or in his words, "the America we've never had" — coupled with a paean to the people fighting for the country's soul in Flint, in the government, on Twitter, and everywhere else the front lines have been drawn. Parkland students Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg feature prominently, along with April Cook-Hawkins, a former Flint health official who claims her former boss instructed her to falsify blood lead test results, and Iraq war vet Richard Ojeda, now the Democratic nominee to represent West Virginia's 3rd District.
These people, Moore argues, are the ones who will save America from collapse. But he muddies that sentiment through his own hypocrisy. Moore attempts to set himself apart from those darn conniving, nefarious media types, even though he's unimpeachably part of the media. If you need persuading, just go back to Fahrenheit 11/9's 20-minute mark, where he admits as much. "It seems I'm a bit too comfortable with the enemy," he says, just before Kellyanne Conway materializes in the frame and gives him a big hug. He knows her from their talk show appearances together. Moore is media, and it's not even subtext — it's text.
"But," you may interject, "Moore is the only media person who accurately predicted that Trump would win the election!" This is true, of course, but his Nostradamus-level forecast makes Fahrenheit 11/9 feel even phonier. "How the f--k did this happen?" he says with a pronounced tremble in his voice at the film's start — as if, not two years prior, he hadn't written an essay titled "5 Reasons Why Trump Will Win."
Forget disingenuous. Moore's stance in Fahrenheit 11/9 is flat-out performative. Occasionally, the gimmick works, like with the gag at Snyder's Michigan mansion. But he's still playing to the camera, as is his wont. He's a master craftsman when it comes to using the camera to weave the narrative he wants to weave — sort of like Trump. And also like Trump, Moore is comfortable shortchanging his workers when he thinks he has just cause.
Turns out, the activist documentarian emperor has no clothes. The merit of Fahrenheit 11/9 lies in its subjects, not its presenter. They're the exemplars of patriotism Moore wishes he was.