Fahrenheit 11/9Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/20/18 14:30:35
When Michael Moore sits down to make a movie in which he has a clear and specific topic that he wants to deal with—the economic devastation of his hometown of Flint, Michigan (“Roger & Me”), the culture of fear in America that has led to the proliferation of guns (“Bowling for Columbine”), the people that took advantage of the horror of 9/11 to advance their own agendas (“Fahrenheit 9/11”), the inequities and failure of the American health care system (“Sicko”)—the results have been some of the most powerful and provocative documentaries of this era. However, when he has gone into projects that didn’t have such a specific target that he could focus on with laser-like precision, as was the case with “The Big One,” “Capitalism: A Love Story” and “Where to Invade Next”—the results have been far more scattershot with his obvious passion and purpose crossing the line into outright hectoring. Oddly enough, his latest film, “Fahrenheit 11/9,” seems to be a combination of both of Moore’s usual approaches. On the one hand, a large part of the film feels curiously unfocused as he veers from topic to topic like a TV news program that is desperately afraid of losing the attention of the viewers for even a second. At the same time, a couple of the numerous narrative threads running through the film are so strong and powerful that they dominate the proceedings to the point where many viewers will find themselves wondering why Moore didn’t just center the film on those particular topics in the first place.The advanced hype for the film has suggested that it would be a cinematic takedown of Donald Trump by Moore, who was one of the few voices on either side of the political fence who suggested that people who laughed off his campaign did so at their own peril. After a montage chronicling Election Day from its pro forma beginnings to its unexpected conclusion (a sequence that is virtually indistinguishable from the similar one that kicked off Dinesh D’Souza’s recent craptacular “Death of a Nation). As it turns out, Moore is less interested in Trump himself than in the set of circumstances that made the election of a man like him not only possible but gruesomely inevitable. Most of his scorn is aimed squarely at the Democratic Party, whom he accuses of ignoring the will of voters, who he sees as being more left-leaning than they are usually given credit for, in order to move to the center in the hopes of attracting more moderates in the spirit of compromise. It is this complacency within the party, he argues, that helped do in the chances of winning the presidency by going with a more centrist candidate like Hillary Clinton, whose negatives were high enough to cause her to avoid campaigning in key states as she was seen as a liability, over Bernie Sanders, who inspired genuine passion amongst his supporters that was lost once the nomination was given to Hillary. He also puts a good portion of the blame on the media, who seemed cheerfully willing to handle Trump with kid gloves in exchange for big ratings while at the same time holding Clinton to the fire. (The Where Are They Now? montage of some of her inquisitors is almost too grotesque to be believed.) He also reveals the name of the person that he holds personably responsible for Trump getting the idea to run for President in 2016 in the first place—Gwen Stefani.
The problem isn’t so much what Moore is saying here—aside from the viability of Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate, I agree with pretty much everything he says about the way the election played out—as the fact that it is all old news at this point. Everything that he says here has already been said in venues ranging from venues like CNN and MSNBC to shows like “The Daily Show” and “Last Week with John Oliver” to a countless number of books, magazines and website think pieces and he doesn’t really bring anything new to the proceedings. We know Trump’s long history of lying almost as a reflex action and then all but daring people to call him on his lies. We know his disdain for anyone or anything that does not immediately benefit him in some way. We know of his creepy fascination with his daughter Ivanka, represented here in a montage that reaches an ick factor rarely attained in any film not made by David Cronenberg. The only really interesting Trump-related items to be had here are the ones in which Moore himself was involved. There is time that both were scheduled to appear on Roseanne Barr’s one-time talk show—Trump was not aware who his fellow guest was and refused to appear until, as we see in behind-the-scenes footage, Moore agrees to go easy on him in front of the cameras. We also learn that the premiere party for “Sicko” was hosted by Jared Kushner and that it was released on home video by a company headed by Steve Bannon. Trump and Bannon are even both seen talking about their admiration for Moore as a filmmaker, a compliment that he is unsure of how to take. These moments are amusing enough, I suppose, but hardly enough to justify an entire film.
Moore’s point to all this is that for the Democratic Party to revive itself, it needs to stop with the endless compromising and tap into the more left-leaning spirit amongst the base that they have been willfully ignoring in recent years. He observes the current political campaigns of such unabashedly progressive congressional candidates as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Rlaib and Levi Tillemann, all of whom appear to be on the way to victory in their respective districts against the odds. He observes the strike in Wes Virginia called by teachers over low salaries and a new insurance plan that not only required them to purchase Fitbit watches but penalized them monetarily if they didn’t register enough steps. Most importantly, he follows along the kids from Parkland as they channel their rage and sadness over the shooting spree that killed their classmates into action even as they are being told by practically everyone that they are too young and too uninformed to understand how the process works. They understand it, all right—they just think it sucks and that it needs to change.
The best part of the film, however, comes during the scenes where Moore shifts the focus of the film from the 2016 election and its immediate repercussions to once again return to his hometown of Flint, Michigan. In merciless detail, he recounts how Rick Snyder was elected governor in 2010 with the promise to run the state like a business and then brought the city to its knees with a deal to build a new pipeline that would supply water from the dirty Flint River rather than Lake Huron. The deal made millions for certain businessmen but ended up supplying the people with water so contaminated with lead that it was unfit to drink, Nevertheless, Snyder and his cronies refused to switch back to the old water source with one exception—after General Motors complained that the water was rusting the car parts on their assembly lines, they were given the cleaner water while the largely poor population was forced to make do with bottled water even as they continued to get sicker and sicker. This section finds Moore at his best as he illustrates in a clean and concise manner exactly what happened, who profited from it and wound up paying the ultimate costs for the price of running things like a business. He even gets to tie it back in to his theme of the terrible costs of Democratic compromise when President Obama finally comes to Flint and does virtually nothing about the situation. This was indeed one of the low points of the Obama presidency and Moore does not let him off for a second.
Throughout the film, Moore indulges in some of the attention-getting stunts of the sort that he first made his name with in “Roger & Me” and TV shows like “TV Nation” and “The Awful Truth.” The trouble is, pranks of this sort are now pretty much commonplace thanks to things like “The Daily Show” and any number of YouTube blogs and what was once a fresh and vibrant method for Moore to cut through the bullshit now just feels kind of stale. At one point, he turns with a camera crew and a pair of handcuffs in the hope of making a citizen’s arrest of Gov. Snyder that understandably goes absolutely nowhere. Later, he fills up a tanker truck with Flint River water and drives out to the governor’s mansion to hose it down—this bit is kind of funny, I guess, but it just seems like it was borne out of a desire to get a couple of laughs rather than to demonstrate any recognizable point. In the worst of his stunts. Moore cobbles together old footage of Adolph Hitler with Trump’s rantings and ravings in an attempt to underscore the similarities in style between the two. Again, this is a point that many have observed in the past couple of years and seeing Trump deliver those words on his own is chilling enough. Actually merging the two in the way that he does here, however, is the kind of cheap shot that I would expect from the likes of D’Souza, for whom such outrages are nothing new. What makes it even more offensive here is that Moore is a talented enough filmmaker to not have to fall back on such shock tactics—all it does is further underline a point that has already been made while at the same time giving more ammunition to the anti-Moore brigades.At its best moments—such as the stuff involving Flint and the new generation of activism that is already making waves—“Fahrenheit 11/9” has the combination of energy, anger and humor that has fueled Moore’s best and most distinctive works over the years. At its worst, it is little more than a rehash of recent history that doesn’t really add much to the story of how we got to this particular moment in time. If Moore had jettisoned all the Trump stuff and focused entirely on the Flint disaster, he would have had a complete story that would have made all of his points in a concise and powerful manner that might have made for his most captivating work to date—one that theoretically could have unite people of all political persuasions in a sense of deep and abiding outrage as he did with “Roger & Me.” Instead, he went the other way and while it may make more sense from a commercial standpoint—“Michael Moore Takes One Trump” is an undeniably better log line than “Millions Being Poisoned In Flint”—the end result is an okay movie with a potentially great one fighting to get out.
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