Michael Moore is a tragic figure. I’m not quite sure how. It is something intangible, an aura about the man. One observes it in his demeanor: the sweatshirts he wears, his forthright projected sloppiness. In his tactics: his willingness to continue fighting on a mass electoral scale for what is repeatedly defeated electorally, his voracious use of social media. Certainly it is all of these; but it is more.
Moore’s new film Fahrenheit 11/9 is a projection of this, without a doubt. The film nominally about Donald Trump is actually immensely complicated, convoluted, multi-faceted. It is not quite a good film. I must get this out of the way. It is too long. Its pacing is chaotic, plot-lines repeatedly circle back on themselves, transitions are abrupt and tenuous. It is un-usefully dramatic: the theatrical music in particular is too much. Multiple trajectories in the film feel half-hearted or half-completed (Gwen Stefani, Trump’s relationship with Ivanka) or semi-gratuitous (if interesting: Moore’s personal history with Trump). Some just seem interjected haphazardly.
In fact, it is the part of the film specifically not about Trump that hits the hardest: the poisoning of Flint, Michigan. Flint-native Michael Moore does an excellent job demonstrating that the elevation of former Gateway CEO Rick Snyder to the governorship of Michigan in 2010 on a platform of ‘running the state like a business,’ combined with the subsequently declared emergency which allowed Snyder to bypass the elected governments of four major Michigan cities and install cronies as ‘emergency managers,’ well-presaged Trump and this moment of federal governance (in a similar way, we might add, to Scott Walker’s Koch-funded union-busting in Wisconsin).
The segment is drawn-out, poignant, and deeply painful, illustrative of the fact that the Republican government chose to sacrifice a majority-black city in the name of corporate profit—a ‘slow-motion ethnic cleanse’ Moore rightfully declares—and subsequently lied for well over a year about what they knew was an ongoing disaster.
The segment is capped by Obama’s visit to Flint, at which the last president is greeted as a hero on his arrival but effectively disowned after plainly pretending to drink a glass of Flint’s polluted water in an embarrassing effort to reassure residents of its cleanliness. The sequence is heart-wrenching and infuriating. Indeed, the fact that this incident has receded from the national consciousness is an ongoing crime, and its only reasonable conclusion is that Snyder and his cronies should be in prison.
This takeaway is unmistakable throughout the film: the people in power are sociopathic criminals. And the Democrats, the only systemic bulwark against fascistic governance, are rightfully portrayed as weak, compromising, and utterly out of touch with or uncaring towards what Moore declares to be the working-class, liberal majority of the United States.
This disconnect is illustrated in many ways: a multitude of polls suggesting wide majorities of Americans favor socialistic policies like universal healthcare, support for unions, and diminishing of the military budget; the famous segment at which Nancy Pelosi declares to a questioning teenager that ‘we’re capitalists, that’s just the way it is’; and perhaps most ominously, in the opening sequence, which depicts Hillary Clinton’s rallies the night before and night of the election, at which victory is taken for granted—as thousands of deluded supporters sing ‘Fight Song’ and ‘Don’t Stop Believing,’ while Clinton hugs Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and the crowds cheer for any multiplicity of other vacuous, ultimately meaningless platitudes before the horrifying final defeat.
Moore’s attack on the liberal establishment and media—also of note, multiple segments depict centrist and right-leaning op-eds and articles in the New York Times, a paper whose failings he discusses in one too-brief interview with Bernie Sanders—is appreciated, if at times erratic, consistent with the general jerky tenor of the film.
Moore spends time focusing on other significant moments and movements over the past two years: in particular, the Parkland student-led movement for gun control, and the campaigns of Democratic challengers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. These segments are often poignant—he believes in it—but their incorporation into the film’s long narrative does feel semi-rushed, and the transitions into and out of them are jarring. Perhaps that is part of the problem as well: Moore just tries to fit too much in.
The film ends largely by comparing the rise of Trumpism to the rise of fascism, especially Nazism, in the early 20th century. To those who already see in the current administration incipient fascism this is nothing new, but the comparison is important as ever: the degeneration of public discourse, the hypnotic charisma of the demagogue, the demonization of minorities, the appeal to salvation in the ‘centrists.’ All invariably the case today.
Why is it, then, that Fahrenheit 11/9 does not convey this horror with the grace or intensity of, say, Adam Curtis’ Hypernormalization (admittedly a quite different film)? The theatricality is abundant and this cannot be overstated. Moore spraying Rick Snyder’s mansion with Flint water is a cathartic enough gesture, but Snyder remains in power and nowhere near prison.
Moore’s obvious attempt to influence the midterms through the film similarly feels flat-footed and, in this repetitive cultural climate, unmistakably reminiscent of Moore’s unsuccessful attempt in Fahrenheit 9/11 to deny Bush a second term. The filmmaker is—for all his genuine engagement with the working-class, the impoverished, the downtrodden—a mass media figure, more connected with the liberal establishment than with those on whose behalf he, I believe quite honestly, makes his films.
Michael Moore is fed up—righteously—but what is his conclusion? If there is one, it is not quite ‘reengage in the electoral system,’ but it largely is. Perhaps ‘taking over the Democratic Party’ is a new spin? And maybe there are valid arguments for it. But when Moore says: ‘this time, it’s different,’ one has a gnawing sense of sameness, or just that something is missing.
Is this the tragedy of Michael Moore? It remains difficult to say. I have a certain affection for the man, a fundamental sympathy. For all the caricatures and his inevitable shepherding of energy back into the Democratic Party, Moore was one of the few prominent media figures to predict Trump’s win in 2016. He does get it in a way. He really relates. And he refuses to give up; he responds the only way he knows how. Perhaps this is admirable enough.