Outside of voiceover, Michael Moore doesn’t make an appearance in Fahrenheit 11/9 until about 45 minutes in. And that’s just the back of his head. It takes another five or 10 minutes for him to show his face. One hour into the documentary’s 128-minute runtime, Moore performs one of his signature stunts, carrying handcuffs into the Michigan State Capitol to make a citizen’s arrest of Governor Rick Snyder. He then goes to the Governor’s Mansion to hose down the residence with dirty water from Flint.
These stunts are not funny or effective in any way. That sort of thing doesn’t always work, but it wouldn’t really be a Moore movie without some kind of shenanigan. Fortunately, the sequence is brief and the filmmaker is back to only really appearing on screen as a concerned interviewee. Compared to his other works, Fahrenheit 11/9 isn’t so much a first-person documentary, except in the manner of the constant narration and subjective take on Donald Trump and the looming demise of democracy in America.
The more important the issue, the less we tend to see of Moore in his documentaries. He is quite restrained in Sicko, despite what the trailer promised to those fans who enjoy his presence. And now he’s relatively absent from Fahrenheit 11/9. So is the humor, another element to most of Moore’s films that needs to be held back here. The best joke in the film, ironically, is when we hear inquiry of whether a bunch of protestors in Flint have any weapons. A receptionist answers, surely edited out of context, “Michael Moore is here.”
Fahrenheit 11/9 is mostly a sad and scary and angry and alarming movie. There is little room for comedy next to a montage of people who’ve died from Legionnaires’ disease in Flint or following a sequence of smartphone-shot footage of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, including audio of shots fired and view of one of the dead. And while it seems satirical to feature clips of Adolf Hitler speaking at a Nazi rally with Trump’s voice replacing the Führer’s and shots of the Reichstag fire where the overlayed audio is news of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center on September 11th, neither is played for laughs.
I’m sure the documentary sounds like it’s all over the place. There is a sense that Moore was working on separate films about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the Parkland shooting and the election of Trump and then decided to compile them all into Fahrenheit 11/9. The title would imply the film is primarily focused on the Trump presidency, as it refers to the date that he was declared the winner of the 2016 election. But much of the doc goes into tangents that don’t seem to be linked to Trump, not at first anyway. Ultimately, it does manage magnificently to stay on track.
Fahrenheit 11/9 begins with the presidential election, in an attempt to explain how Trump won and why it should have been obvious to everyone (but maybe not because of Gwen Stefani). By the end of the film, Moore has shown us how America could be sinking into an autocracy, and it might be too late to stop Trump from becoming a dictator. Moore blames the Democratic Party for killing democracy in the US as much as if not more than the Republicans. He shows why voters on the left became disillusioned even before all the problems with the last election, with none other than the exiting President Obama carrying much of the blame.
Don’t get the wrong idea: this isn’t a film about how we should have had Bernie Sanders as the nominee. Sanders is in the doc, in a very short interview segment, and there’s a sequence about him being shut out of becoming the 2016 presidential candidate by a rigged establishment-focused organization. But Moore has so many other things to do here than cry over spilled milk. He doesn’t pile on Hilary Clinton or push further for Sanders. He devotes more time to the next generation of Democratic politicians, including New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, and West Virginia’s Richard Ojeda.
There is optimism to be found in the film, not only through the showcase of those hopeful legislators of tomorrow but through the power of protest and political activism. The film spends a lot of time in Ojeda’s neck of the woods, mostly to cover and celebrate the victory of this year’s statewide teachers’ strike. Moore also honors the students of Parkland and the marches they’ve inspired and coordinated. Fahrenheit 11/9 might be another Moore movie that only appeals to those who already support its message (I saw it in a theater with only three other people, one of whom was obnoxiously vocally agreeing with everything the film has to say), but maybe it can influence that audience to do more.
One of the boldest, if not the most enlightening segments of the film is when Moore points out that the US is truly a leftist country. That’s right, through a series of poll data and recognition that Democrats won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, the case is earnestly made that a majority of Americans believe in such liberal things as universal health care, the legalization of marijuana, the threat of climate change, equal pay for women, etc. Unfortunately, nearly half of the US population that is eligible to do so doesn’t bother to vote.
Moore admits that he has been too nice. He acknowledges his past pleasantries with Trump, his chumminess with Kellyanne Conway, his professional ties to Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon. He seems to admit he’s been no better than the constantly compromising Democratic elites. Now it’s time to rise up. Does Fahrenheit 11/9 mean to incite a new American Civil War? If not its intention, the film sure does come close to that notion. It’s a stark opposite to fellow 2018 documentary John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls, which longs for the olden days of greater respect between parties and more bipartisanship in Washington. The time has come to fight in the streets.
Fahrenheit 11/9 comes across as a final rallying cry. In covering so much ground, it’s the ultimate Michael Moore movie, in its dealing with an issue in Flint, spotlighting a major school shooting, taking on the president and capitalistic motivations of politicians, and highlighting a ridiculous health insurance situation. He even slips in footage from Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine and likely other past films of his. The latest is what all those previous efforts have built towards. But if Columbine didn’t lead to gun control and Fahrenheit 9/11 didn’t influence the ousting of George W. Bush, what can this one do?
As with any documentary, Fahrenheit 11/9 is best when it’s giving us something new. Interviews with a woman who was instructed to falsify test results in a study of lead levels in children in Flint and with 98-year-old Nuremberg Trials prosecutor Ben Ferencz and a couple of academics speaking on the parallels of Trump’s America and Nazi Germany, are more significant than any found footage Moore has ambitiously compiled (and arranged with superb skill from editors Doug Abel and Pablo Proenza — though I don’t get their random use of Spike Jonze’s music video for Wax’s “California” in one spot). As he admits, we’ve seen most of that stuff before.
The gravity with how he talks in his narration this time, though, is also momentous. There is more despair and wrath in his speech, and while the lack of comedic entertainment value might keep Fahrenheit 11/9 from being a huge moneymaker at the box office, perhaps it will better empower its audience towards change than his funnier films have. Moore believes the world is in greater trouble than ever right now. And his latest doc is his most imperative yet.