Scholars of movie Westerns sometimes talk about the “good bad man,” a hero with a checkered past and flexible morality who nonetheless rises to the occasion just when the world needs him most. You may not approve of his methods, but he gets the job done, and when it’s done he gets on his horse and rides swiftly out of the frame, allowing the legend to be printed without him.
Michael Moore is the documentary equivalent of that iconic type: the good bad man with a movie camera. His movies aren’t pretty, and they don’t play by the rules; they’re full of exaggerations and half-truths, slippery logic and jury-rigged timelines. But there are moments when half a truth feels like a generous helping, and Moore’s overarching points hit home with such force that sweating the details would be like picking fleas off a charging grizzly. We’re in such a moment now, and Moore knows it.
A note Moore sent out before Thursday’s world premiere of Fahrenheit 11/9 at the Toronto Film Festival promised that the film would be “THE moment of truth we’ve all needed for sometime” and expressed his hope that “its release in theaters nationwide on Sept. 21st may well be the real beginning of the end for Donald J. Trump (and perhaps, more importantly, the eventual end of the rotten, corrupt system that gave us Trump in the first place).” That blend of puffed-up optimism and self-aggrandizement is Moore at his most tiresome. There’s not much daylight between the suggestion that after two solid years of grassroots activism, his movie might be the thing that finally puts us over the top and the “I alone can fix it” posturing of the man he’s promising to take down.
Fahrenheit 11/9 begins in that eye-rolling vein, with an election night recap and a “Was it all a dream?” callback to the movie’s titular predecessor, a movie that Moore similarly promised would help oust a sitting Republican president. (It did not.) The movie’s revisitation of the hours when the confident predictions of Hillary Clinton’s victory slid into the horrified recognition of Donald Trump’s victory is stomach-churning—those who remember that night as a thrilling surprise rather than a world-threatening catastrophe will find no purchase here—and it slides right into one of Moore’s characteristic overreaches: that the road to Trump’s presidency begins with Gwen Stefani.
Moore puts forth the notion that it was Trump’s jealousy over Stefani’s higher salary on fellow NBC reality series The Voice that inspired the initial mock announcement of his presidential run, and that it was only after Trump’s free-associative racism prompted the network to remove him as host of The Apprentice instead of giving him a raise that Trump was forced to run for real. It’s the kind of thing that feels like it might be true, especially when you’re in a movie and can’t whip out your phone to check it, and it serves Moore’s primary purpose, which is reassuring viewers that they’re not about to sit through about 130 minutes rehashing familiar talking points. But it also stems from Moore’s weakness for reducing political and cultural currents to a clash of personalities, one of which is always his. The question of how we got here—or, as Moore puts it, “How the fuck did this happen?”—isn’t one that can be answered with glib anecdotes, no matter how cleverly he puts them across.
Fortunately, Fahrenheit 11/9 isn’t a successor to Moore’s record-breaking Fahrenheit 9/11—still by some distance the highest-grossing documentary of all time—in name alone. The secret of Fahrenheit 9/11’s success was Moore’s atypical willingness to stay behind the camera and off the soundtrack and let others’ stories take precedence over his own. There’s no equivalent in the new movie to Cindy Sheehan, whose grief and anger over her son’s death in the Iraq war vindicated Moore’s sometimes-shaky claim to acting as a stand-in for voices that the mainstream media often ignores. (He still keeps the habit of using phrases like, “We in Michigan,” as if he were still a humble Rust Belt working man and not a multimillionaire media personality—one who, as he admits here, had at points in his career rubbed elbows with Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, and Trump himself.) But the movie’s strongest sections cede the floor to the progressive activists and insurgent political figures whom he paints as the country’s best, and perhaps last, hope of salvation.
Moore is at his fiercest when he returns to his hometown of Flint, Michigan, to chronicle how the state’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, staged a hostile takeover of its Democrat-run cities and, at least in Moore’s telling, precipitated a change in Flint’s water supply that led to its residents drinking water contaminated with bacteria and lead. In Roger & Me, Moore publicized Flint’s economic woes by embarking on a deliberately quixotic quest to confront the head of General Motors about the closure of the city’s auto plants, a tactic he briefly revisits here when he drives a tanker truck filled with Flint water up to the gates of the governor’s mansion. But he tacitly acknowledges that while he may consider this his fight, it is not his story, and that the latter belongs to the poor and largely nonwhite citizens of Flint who have been poisoned by the government’s negligence.
There’s no formal mea culpa in Fahrenheit 11/9 for the way Moore has often crowded his ostensible subjects off the screen, but it’s possible to see, in the way the movie deals with the survivors turned activists of the Parkland shooting, a veiled correction to Bowling for Columbine, a movie that addressed the American epidemic of gun violence and came to the conclusion that the problem was not guns but Americans. Sixteen years and innumerable assault weapons later, that thesis seems disastrously wrongheaded at best, as David Hogg and Emma González and the others whose eloquent testimony Moore cites can attest. After the lights came up on Fahrenheit 11/9’s premiere, Moore took the stage accompanied by Hogg and other activists from Parkland and Flint and invited them to speak rather than taking questions from the audience.
Moore is still plenty present in Fahrenheit 11/9, especially as the movie builds to its most sweeping argument: that the U.S. is on the verge of a fascist takeover and at the same time on the cusp of a progressive revolution. He makes the point in many ways, from recutting footage of Nazi rallies so that Trump’s voice seems to be issuing from Hitler’s mouth, Bad Lip Reading–style, to interviewing a 99-year-old Nuremberg prosecutor for whom the parallels are all too clear. Although he spends time with rising stars from the Democratic Socialists of America, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, Moore stops short of offering hope for the future—because, he says, hope is a dangerous thing, a wish that things will be better rather than the conviction to make them so. (It’s not the film’s most pointed rebuke of Obama, whose drone strikes and deportations, Moore suggests, laid some of the groundwork for Trump.) What we need, Moore concludes, is action, fueled by a sense of urgency and anger—qualities he is especially well-equipped to inspire. Watching Fahrenheit 11/9 often feels like getting socked in the gut, but it leaves you with your blood pumping hard and fast, ready to get up off the floor and throw the next punch.
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