Michael Moore‘s latest documentary agitprop Fahrenheit 11/9 feels like a Frankenmovie. Moore, master of the genre and previous nailer of the zeitgeist in films like Bowling for Columbine, Sicko, and the classic Roger and Me seems to not have his finger on the pulse of what’s really going on in America. Or, perhaps he’s responding to a frenetic schizophrenic political landscape.
Moore’s schtick, while perfect for the Clinton/Gingrich and Bush years, really seems to be wearing thin as well. As a friend who works in liberal causes put it to me, “If a white man in his 60’s is going to tell us what’s wrong with America today, he better bring it.” And, yeah, he sorta doesn’t. While there are attempts at being intersectional and lifting up the voices of the oppressed who are not white and male, the film still takes a primarily class-and-economics based approach and doesn’t really plumb the depths of racism or sexism that also got us where we are. It’s a reductive take from the most sophomoric of your Bernie Bro friends, which is sad. Because this is Michael Moore we’re talking about, and we should expect better.
Rather than focus on one theme and do it well, it’s as if he’s tried to make three different movies with vastly different tones and purposes and then mash them together. The result is jarring and unpleasant. It doesn’t work, and I’ve never felt so much personally in agreement with the politics of a film and yet disliked it so much. Say what you will about agitators like Dinesh D’Souza, but his Death of a Nation was at least cogent even if it was insane and false.
The three movies Moore tries to make here are:
Act I: The rise of Donald Trump,
Act II: The longstanding issues that birthed Trumpism in the first place — and The Resistance and how we’re fighting back
Act III: These people are literally Nazis. . . and we’ve already lost. And it’s mostly this third act that is so jarring and doesn’t work.
But when more is on, he is on. During Act II he delves into the water crisis in his home city of Flint, Michigan, and the politics that allowed this to happen. Moore is in his element here and this is both beautiful and inspiring as he lifts up the local voices and highlights exactly what’s going wrong and how terrible it is. It’s only here he breaks out of his mold and calls out what happened for what it was: the attempted genocidal poisoning of a majority black and poor city. He does similar work in traveling to West Virginia and talking to teachers who are striking, and traveling to Florida to speak with the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He also highlights a new breed of political activism and candidates including spending time with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez before she won her primary. It’s a beautiful history-in-the-making and A-Star-is-Born moment.
If he’d only just made this film, and stuck with it, it would be among his best. It is focused and cogent the way that Sicko was and laid out a very serious case of the failings of our government that have nothing to do with Trump.
But of course he has to address the elephant in the room, and that means a less-than-stellar First Act which is a stunningly uneffective hit job on Donald Trump. At times funny when it should be serious, and at times overly serious when it should be satirical, there’s also an especially cringey several minute turn where he deconstructs Donald’s gross sexual feelings towards his daughter Ivanka. We get it, Michael. It’s gross. Most of us coming to see this have already seen these clips, this isn’t new, and it’s just plain uncomfortable. There’s no deeper truth or way forward. And when you’re going to take on someone like Trump, it’s sad to see such a failure of imagination to really make something stick.
The best parts of Act I are the skewering he does of several other sacred cows who were complicit in the rise of Trump. This includes both the Democratic National Committee, Nancy Pelosi, and the mainstream “liberal” news media. He goes after their cravenness for ratings and how they propped up Trump as a sideshow. But most interestingly he goes after the culture of sex predation that’s seems to infect far too many corners of the media landscape. He certainly makes a case that the media was always going to be unable to deal with a serial groper and sexually predatory candidate when they themselves are far too much the same way. Again, when Moore is on, he is on. But it’s sad because it never quite gels into a cohesive critique or explanation of what happened.
In Moore’s attempt to cover everything, he ends up truly covering nothing and adding no new heat nor light to the conversation. Perhaps those who aren’t generally tuned in to the news may learn something, but Moore has to understand that he’s preaching to the choir here and he’s generally not giving them anything new to sing about or any particularly good take. He also tries ham-fistedly to re-prosecute some of the elements of the 2016 election and his feelings that somehow Bernie Sanders ran in a rigged primary. At this point it’s just gross, it accomplishes nothing, and Moore should learn to move on.
Which leads to the Third Act, where Moore details the rise of the Nazis and how similar this is to what is going on now. However, one of the things Moore fails to mention in his take on this is the inability of the center-left and the far left to effectively combat the rise of fascism because they were too busy fighting each other. And here Moore is pouring more gasoline on the fire and opening up old wounds between Bernie folks and Hillary folks rather than giving a clear sense of vision to move forward.
The ending is completely frustrating because he basically makes the case that we are screwed, and nothing can fix what’s wrong. That sort of nihilism doesn’t sit well, and it also is so completely different from the realism and hope that Moore is able to tell during his second act.
I miss the optimistic Michael Moore from his previous films. While I dismissed as clever hokum the cheery optimism of Where to Invade Next, what was brilliant about that film in hindsight was its beautiful denouement where Moore and a childhood friend walked along the crumbling remains of the Berlin Wall and talked about how magical it was that that wall came down. After decades of it being the symbol of oppression and separation, finally it was all too much and within days the barriers were broken down, and people were literally coming, hammers in hand, to break down this wall to be reunited with friends and family from the other side. We could use a little bit of that optimism here, because especially in context of an election happening in only a few weeks, Moore has to understand that is ending is more likely to depress the troops that would fight the midterm battle.
This is why for the first time in several decades I have to recommend to people to please do not go see Michael Moore’s new movie, at least not yet. Know that it is out there, and know that he’s trying to go back to the well of his greatest hits. He’s critical of Trump, he shows how organized people working hard can stand up to political bullies and make real headway. . . and then he burns it all down in a little literal Reichstag fire with memories of 9/11 and fascism on the move.
In one sense, maybe he’s trying to steel audiences for if something truly terrible does happen in the next few weeks or months or years — which would be an actual moment where democracy could slip away from us long-term. But the actual effects of this are to mostly just be hella depressing. So if you insist on seeing Fahrenheit 11/9 in theaters in the next few weeks, don’t let it stop your resolve, or maybe leave about 2/3 of the way through as soon as Moore starts showing Triumph of the Will footage with Trump’s voice dubbed over Hitler. Because it’s all downhill after that.
2 out of 5 stars