“How the fuck did this happen?” So asks Michael Moore at the end of his introduction to Fahrenheit 11/9 after running down the events of the 2016 presidential election and the seeming impossibility of Donald Trump’s victory. Moore is rather late in asking that question, which has nagged at the better part of all political conversation since that fateful day, and many of his attacks on Trump feel stale and rehashed. The documentarian castigates the media for promoting Trump’s buffoonish vulgarity for ratings during the election, yet here he regularly falls back on montages of the president’s most asinine and crass statements for cheap shocks and mocking laughter.
Moore’s hypocrisy extends to the way he admits to, then downplays, his own financial connections to people in Trump’s orbit, such as Steve Bannon, whose production company, American Vantage Media, helped to fund Sicko‘s DVD release. In an archival clip, Moore shows Bannon discussing how he hates the director’s politics but loves his films, to which Moore can only lamely reply, “I don’t know what to think about that,” in voiceover, sidestepping how deeply such a statement implicates Moore’s polemical, fact-stretching style.
That distortive approach is evidenced early in Fahrenheit 11/9 when Moore sardonically lays the blame for the Trump administration at the feet of Gwen Stefani, claiming that she indirectly drove Trump to run for president as a publicity stunt out of wounded pride that she made more money as a coach on The Voice than he did as star of The Apprentice. It’s a funny claim, but it’s one that’s impossible to confirm given the lack of sourcing and Moore’s long history of refracting causes through his own interpretations.
Worse, Moore doesn’t even build on this thread, instead leapfrogging to a semi-related and uncomfortably comical round-up of all the media men who covered the election and had sexual assault skeletons in their closet. Throughout, the free-associative nature with which Moore stitches together his cable news clips suggests what it would be like to have Jean-Luc Godard editing The Daily Show. For example, when Moore settles on Trump as a Hitler analogue, he weaves in and out of footage of Trump rallies and Hitler’s own public addresses, even dubbing Trump’s rambling speeches over Hitler’s gesticulating oratory for mildly comic effect. This approach might once have singularly defined Moore, but today you could find such comedy tossed off as a Twitter meme, exposing the hollowness at the core of Moore’s methods.
The filmmaker’s image of Trump may be superficial and incomplete, but he offers a far more legible, coherent overview of Democratic Party machinations that have turned off huge swaths of voters who otherwise might deliver overwhelming majorities in elections. Moore sprints through a number of egregious sins, from Bill Clinton’s taking of corporate cash to the notorious superdelegate process in the Democratic primary that allowed party loyalists to cast convention votes for a chosen candidate regardless of the primary vote of a given state. As ever, Moore cannot stick to any of the specifics long enough to truly unpack any one of the issues he raises, and his simplifications distort relatively normal procedures into ominous condemnations. For example, he notes that Bernie Sanders won all 55 counties of West Virginia during the primary but only got 18 of 29 delegates, ignoring that the allocation owed more to Hillary receiving 31 percent of the overall vote than superdelegate nefariousness. Nonetheless, the overall portrait he paints of the Democratic Party establishment’s obsolescence has more bite and incorporates more relevant facts than his comic-strip caricature of Trump.
More rewarding is the detour that Fahrenheit 11/9 makes to explore the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. With surgical precision, Moore introduces Rick Snyder, a corporate executive who bought his way to the governor’s mansion in Michigan, then moves on to cover how Flint’s water supply was poisoned. And Moore vigilantly lays out how lead poisoning has since afflicted the town’s populace, statistically the poorest city in the nation, permanently damaging the health of people who have no means to leave their homes.
Snyder, when confronted of this news in official reports and urged to switch Flint’s source of water back to Lake Huron, instead mounted a PR campaign to lie about the city water’s dangers so as to ensure that he could continue to build a new pipeline and pocket money from the corporations who would profit from it. Moore, who viciously calls this water crisis an act of ethnic cleansing of Flint’s majority black population, rounds up damning testimony from activists, doctors, even Flint’s sheriff, whose voice shakes with rage as he contemplates how Snyder can get away with mass poisoning without rotting in jail. Moore never convincingly ties this material into the larger Trump thesis, but on its own this is his most urgent show of protest since Roger & Me.
The single worst aspect of Moore’s films has always been his insistence on foregrounding himself and his sardonic yet moralizing voice, and he even manages to undermine some of the Flint material through his staging of insipid stunts, from an attempt at a citizen’s arrest on Governor Snyder to encouraging politicians who insist that Flint’s water is safe to drink a glass of it. The director’s grotesque history of exploiting atrocity also rears its head when he pivots to the Parkland school shooting survivors, like David Hogg, as symbols of a brighter future. Instead of simply getting the teenagers’ perspective, Moore uses footage of the shooting for empty shock value. None of this is new for Moore, but it’s especially frustrating in a film that otherwise has so many compelling threads. Fahrenheit 11/9 represents a sincerely bold attempt to capture the overwhelming civic decay that led to our current political crisis, but Moore’s circus-showman duplicity is as crass and abhorrently self-promoting as that of the man he seeks to oust.