One expects that Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9” will be an attack on Donald Trump, and it certainly is—but only in part. The cinematic essay goes much farther to become an assault on the entire American political system and both major parties. Their common malfeasance, he argues, has brought about the erosion of democracy that made Trump possible, and threatens to morph into true dictatorship of the Hitlerian sort. Yet Moore is ultimately an optimist, and ends with a celebration of the populist spirit that might save us yet.
The film begins with a funny-sad overview of the 2016 election, closing with the proclamation of Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, an event received with rapturous amazement by his supporters and stunned despair by hers. And it goes on to castigate the media for having collaborated over the years in fashioning Trump’s self-image. Moore even points to his own complicity, showing clips from an appearance he made with the Donald on a talk show in which he avoided confrontation and a premiere where he schmoozed with Jared Kushner, who helped promote one of Moore’s previous pictures.
Then, however, the picture takes a turn to the director’s hometown of Flint and an apparent digression on the city’s water crisis that began in 2014. But the digression is only apparent, since it introduces Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, whom he presents as a kind of proto-Trump, a businessman without any governmental experience who effectively initiated the poisoning of Flint’s water supply by engineering a scheme to shift the source for the city’s distribution system from the clean waters of Lake Huron to the polluted Flint River, all in the name of “cost-saving” but really for reasons of profit for people like himself.
The Flint story, which takes up a good deal of the film, allows for some typical Moore rabble-rousing, as when he attempts a citizen’s arrest of Snyder at the state capitol (in the process challenging his spokesman to drink a glass of “Flint water”) or hoses down the governor’s front lawn with it. He also introduces some heroic figures, like Dr. Mona Hatta-Attisha, who first brought the pollution crisis to public attention and, together with community activists, eventually forced a reversal of the system despite resistance from state officials, some of whom have since been the subject of legal action (though Snyder himself has escaped indictment). Moore is, of course, adept at accentuating particularly horrifying details, as when the supply was switched back to Lake Huron water, but only for the local GM plant rather than for all citizens, because the Flint River water was corroding the parts the factory was producing.
Yet this part of the film does not exculpate Democrats. It directs an accusatory finger at President Obama as well, recording his well-publicized visit to Flint during which, as a stunt, he sipped from a glassful of the local water—an act that activists considered a belittling of their concerns. A coda that shows parts of Flint being used for war games by the army—without prior warning to residents—adds to the critique.
Nor does Moore spare the “mainstream” media. He includes a montage of rather creepy photos of Trump touching his daughter Ivanka, and speaking of her looks, to emphasize the guy’s unsavory nature, but also offers a parade of TV newsmen, and not just from Fox, who have been brought down for sexual malfeasance. (Perhaps he’ll add a chapter on Les Moonves in the director’s cut.)
But he excoriates the media more broadly for falling in with Washington policies all too readily—supporting military interventions and domestic policies in what he sees all too often as a lockstep fashion. In short, Moore’s criticisms are hardly confined to what might be called his usual suspects. He’s aiming at a very broad range of targets.
Of course, after doing so Moore returns to Trump, whom he sees as the dangerous end result of the kind of general political corruption that his film has been describing, a two-party cabal of big money and elitism that has prepared the country for a presidency that could take a turn to dictatorship. “Fahrenheit 11/9” now adopts an “It can happen here” monitory tone, as it sketches, step-by-step, Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and draws parallels with today’s America.
Against this depressing backdrop, however, Moore sees signs of hope in populist candidates for office, not only avowed socialists like Bernie Sanders (robbed of the Democratic nomination by the part establishment, he argues) but a voluble candidate he interviews in West Virginia. He’s even more impressed by broad movements for change, taking great comfort in the uprising of teachers in the same state that won wage increases and the abandonment of regressive policies (a movement that spread to other states), and in the drive for gun reform initiated by the students in Parkland, Florida. Moore includes long segments on both, and takes great comfort from them. The rise of “the people,” he earnestly believes, can save a dream of democracy that’s never truly been realized in America.
It’s up to the individual viewer, of course, to decide whether Moore’s analysis of our national ills is convincing. But while “Fahrenheit 11/9” is undoubtedly a polemic, it’s one that casts its net wider than you might expect, and in his rumpled, shambling, entertaining way Moore makes points that are well worth considering.