The title of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9” clearly suggests that it’s going to be a sequel, of sorts, to “Fahrenheit 9/11.” And since the earlier film was Moore’s freewheeling satirical grab-bag essay about the presidency of George W. Bush, it seemed likely that Moore would take something of the same tack with the presidency of Donald Trump. I went in expecting a fair amount of finger-in-the-eye newsreel satire, with Moore offering a clever rehash of Trump’s greatest hits of infamy.
For 20 minutes or so, that’s exactly what it is. Moore replays all the pre-election liberal smugness about how America couldn’t possibly elect Donald Trump (there’s a funny clip of Hillary Clinton, on stage at a Beyoncé/Jay Z concert, beaming with overconfidence as she thanks all these rappers who, as Moore points out, she has obviously never heard of). Then comes Election Night, and Moore replays, once again, how hope collapsed like air draining out of a balloon. He makes the point that Donald Trump has always committed corruptions and outrages in plain sight. It’s not that we don’t see them; it’s that he has a gift for getting people not to mind them.
Moore sums up just how true that is by concocting a deeply creepy montage of all the times Trump has mentioned his daughter, Ivanka, as if he coveted her sexually. We get the comments, along with films and photographs of him cradling her body too closely, and it adds up to something decidedly unseemly. Yet as Moore himself has declared: We know all this! We’ve seen and heard it before. Moore details his own bizarre media-world run-ins with members of the Trump clan — like how he played the role of good soldier when he was invited onto Roseanne Barr’s talk show along with Donald (who said that he loved “Roger & Me”), or how, later on, Jared Kushner was such a fan of “Sicko” that he threw a premiere party for it.
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But then Moore takes a left turn (pun intended, kind of) by returning to his hometown of Flint, Mich., to offer a piece of in-depth reporting about the scandalous water crisis there, which resulted in the lead poisoning of thousands of children.
The crisis pre-dated Trump’s election, so you may wonder why it’s so relevant to his presidency. But Moore answers that question with his ominous portrait of Rick Snyder, the autocratic Republican governor who, as Moore tells it, staged a de facto coup d’état when he declared a state of “emergency management” in Flint, using the crisis to neuter elected officials and put his own people in place. He did it because the poisoning of Flint’s water supply was the result of a corporate cash grab. A profitable but completely unnecessary new pipeline was built, and during that time the city stopped getting its water from Lake Huron and, instead, used water from the rancid, polluted Flint River.
As night follows day, people got sick. Which we’ve all read about. But Moore’s point — a profound one — is that the poisoning happened because the government structure had been eliminated. The message of what took place in Flint is that our safeguards are disappearing.
For a while, the Flint story takes over the movie, and that’s disquieting in two ways. The events themselves are horrific beyond words, but the viewer starts to wonder where this is all heading. Maybe Moore should have made an entire movie about the Flint water crisis. His best films (“Sicko,” “Bowling for Columbine,” “Roger & Me”) have always had a devastating focus. “Fahrenheit 11/9” veers from Trumpian nose-thumbing to muckraking exposé to a bunch of other things that feel like tangents, and not always reliable ones.
Trump bashes The New York Times for being in the tank with the government agenda (using, as his example, Thomas Friedman’s combative pomposity on a talk show), yet that’s too easy a condemnation. For those of us who feel that the Times has been bold, and essential, in its reporting on Trump, the whole mainstream-media-is-just-a-corporate-tool argument feels kneejerk and false. Moore makes a big show of branding prominent media figures (Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin, etc.) as sexual predators who were brought down by #MeToo. But it’s an utterly specious argument to suggest that because these famous figures were secretly corrupt, that undermines the integrity of media itself.
For good measure, Moore tosses in a riff on the Electoral College (he thinks it’s an absurd anachronism, and he’s right), and he replays his own defining gambit by showing up at the Michigan State Capitol to make a citizen’s arrest of Gov. Rick Snyder. Talk about seen it before! Yet even as you’re taking in these sometimes serious, sometimes snarky documentary jigsaw pieces, and thinking they look just fine on their own but wondering what they add up to, Moore starts to pull the movie together. “Fahrenheit 11/9” is long and unwieldy, in a way that may hurt its chances with mainstream audiences. The days when even the liberal faithful would turn out in droves to see a Michael Moore movie are gone, and this one, despite its title, lacks a catchy dramatic angle.
Yet if you stick with the movie, it starts to acquire a potent chill. Because “Fahrenheit 11/9” is truly about something, and that’s Michael Moore’s fearless — and I would say accurate — perception that what’s going on in our government today is more sinister than even a lot of liberals think. In “Fahrenheit 11/9,” Moore captures how the groundwork is being laid for a full-scale destruction of democracy. Moore’s point is that democracy has always been a frail blossom, never entirely here to begin with (as Leonard Cohen put it: “Democracy is coming … to the USA”). He’s saying that those of us who look at Trump and think that the Constitution, or Robert Mueller, will save us may be kidding ourselves.
In the last half hour, Moore takes the leap into his real message: that Trump truly is a dictator, and that he has already gone a long way down that path by neutering the entire Republican Party. That’s half our elected representatives! Moore lunges right for the ultimate comparison — Hitler — but his point is not to bash Donald Trump by likening him to the most evil mind of the 20th century. It’s to say: Here’s how it happened, back when no one thought it could happen. Not thinking it could happen is how it happens.
How do we stop it? The short answer — still my favorite — is elections. Vote the destructive racist sociopath out of office. But Michael Moore is in thrall to his vision of a people’s uprising. He’s right that any true democracy comes from the people, but that perception, in his case, is too wound into dogmatic ideals of action: a new generation of candidates who call themselves socialists and won’t back down. A lot of us would say, without necessarily being tools of the corporation: That’s admirable, but is it really going to win over the kinds of middle Americans Moore claims to be the champion of?
He has always had a hifalutin romantic vision of them — that they’re blessedly ordinary, but also dogged and instinctive Marxists. (I don’t think that’s accurate on Moore’s part; I think it’s projection.) Moore thinks the whole system has to be tossed out, and he gives us a resonant piece of evidence: a clip of Barack Obama, back when he was president, visiting Flint, and doing an I’ll-have-a-glass-of-water stunt that feels like corporate cover. You may never feel the same way about Obama again. (Some of us gave up on him when he wouldn’t fight for Merrick Garland.) Yet Michael Moore is a purist. He rejects the corruption of the contemporary world, and in “Fahrenheit 11/9” he uses the suppression of primary vote totals in West Virginia as evidence that Bernie Sanders would have been a more popular candidate than Hillary. The movie says: He just wasn’t allowed to be.
I find that unconvincing. We live in a middle-of-the-road country, and that bothers Michael Moore because he’s a secret hipster; he doesn’t want to acknowledge how morally fuddy-duddy most people are. “Fahrenheit 11/9” would be better if it didn’t romanticize the new wave of progressive action (which, incidentally, I believe in) as if it were the second coming. Yet the movie, in its way, summons something ominous and powerful. It’s not a screed — it’s a warning. It says, quite wisely: Take action now, or you may no longer have the opportunity to do so.