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“Maybe the America we’re trying to save is an America that never existed.”
If there is a theme of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9, this is it. But rather than presenting a penetrating case diagnosing the symptoms and positing a cure for a particular social ill or trumpeting a clear rallying cry for a desperate opposition, this time, Moore is more interested in creating a time capsule explaining how America got to President Donald Trump.
Yes, Moore would like us to vote Trump out of office, and he clearly wouldn’t be opposed to blue-wave midterm for Democrats. But, what is most important for Moore here is painting a picture of the various aspects of American life that gave us Trump, and the complicity of the various forces that dominate our supposed democracy. Fahrenheit 11/9 is not surgery, it is a thorough diagnosis by a seasoned professional.
For those on the left side of the aisle (which you have to assume comprises the vast majority of Fahrenheit 11/9’s audience), the first 10 minutes of the film will be the most divisive. In no uncertain terms, Moore asserts that while James Comey and Russia certainly didn’t help matters, Hillary Rodham Clinton also did not run a very good campaign. Those who still manage to look back on Clinton’s campaign fondly will be disavowed of the notion that she had a competent strategy as Moore takes us back in time to the days before the election in a cringe-inducing, horror film-style sequence backed by Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.”
Moore shows us a parade of self-satisfied celebrities and pundits absolutely sure that Clinton is going to win. He shows us a hubristic Clinton brushing off questions about Goldman Sachs donations. He shows us despondent campaign workers in Wisconsin and Michigan trying to convince themselves that Clinton’s absence from the trail in these crucial states is no big deal. We see Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Moore himself warn that Trump could win only to be laughed at by fellow talk show panelists and media grandees.
This section of the film ends with Trump’s victory speech—in which he and his supporters are shocked (a nice reminder that even the victors didn’t see this coming)—accompanied by a short voiceover from Moore in which he asks, “How the fuck did this happen?”
The rest of the film, which endeavors to answer this question, is surprisingly even-handed. Rather than attempt to point to one reason that Trump became president, Fahrenheit 11/9 takes us on a round-robin journey through all of the factors that landed the reality star in the White House.
Overall, the film is quite compelling, but the strength of each section depends on how deeply Moore believes in the argument he is presenting. The documentarian is incredibly comfortable talking about the media. His dissection of its role in Trump’s election—and his own position within the media—is one of the best segments of the film.
Moore is surprisingly empathetic toward Clinton in describing how she was treated by the media. He clearly illustrates the fact that a number of the men who either interviewed Clinton or ran the networks that covered the election have been found guilty of sexual misconduct. He then turns to his personal experience to explain why the entertainment industry can seem so out of touch. A sequence in which we see Trump and Moore guest-starring on Roseanne Barr’s 1998 talk show becomes a springboard for a conversation about how insular and defensive of the status quo American media tends to be. The game is rigged and Moore knows it because he has been invited to the VIP lounge a time or two.
Moore also clearly believes in the idea that material conditions and bigotry are interconnected. Some liberals don’t believe in intersectional class analysis, but after you see the racial and economic motivations behind Flint, Michigan’s water crisis laid out in painstaking detail, then related to the larger political realities of the United States, the idea that identity politics and class politics are somehow separate can be put to bed forever.
Flint, the teachers’ strike in West Virginia, and the shootings in Parkland, Florida, become the linchpins for Fahrenheit 11/9’s most compelling argument: Trump is an organic product of American life, not an anomaly. Moore argues that there simply isn’t much difference between Trump and the clumsy evil of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, the draconian cruelty of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, or the empty suit stuffed with lobbying cash that calls itself Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
As Moore sees it, the American story has been consistently tragic throughout the country’s history. Wealthy plutocrats press for more and more draconian measures while co-opting the opposition with lobbying cash and animating their base with bigotry, misogyny, and lies. Fahrenheit 11/9 illustrates this in particularly compelling ways because Moore is able to use footage from his old films like Roger & Me and his past TV appearances in which he has enjoyed a front-row seat in the viewing of American decay to underscore his argument.
Some aspects of Fahrenheit 11/9 don’t play as well. Moore has deeply nuanced ideas about what constitutes “the working class” and “real America.” He is less adept at wrestling with ideas like institutional corrosion and creeping fascism.
In the section of the film that discusses the consolidation of power in a fascist state, Moore relies more heavily on talking heads, including On Tyranny author Timothy D. Snyder and the last living Nuremberg prosecutor, Benjamin Berell Ferencz, to make his argument for him. At best, this section feels undercooked, and at worst, it verges on the conspiratorial. It’s difficult to make the argument that Trump is both a moron propped up by a shameless oligarchy and an authoritarian bent on reshaping American life, and the former claim frankly has a far more compelling body of evidence behind it.
In Fahrenheit 11/9, Moore also strikes an uncharacteristic note of hope. He clearly feels that electoralism alone, especially if it means voting for old-guard Democrats, is not enough. But, he is clearly optimistic about the various burgeoning political movements in America. Black Lives Matter, Democratic Socialists of America, and the NODAPL movement all get quick shoutouts in the film. The teens who organized the March for Our Lives are prominently featured. For those who have grown up with Moore films, it is compelling to watch him speak to young activists and politicians and think that the next generation will do better than his ever could.
There is something very sweet about watching the aging firebrand pass the torch. The old man is clearly impressed with the youthful energy of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Richard Ojeda, three Democratic candidates who are running insurgent congressional campaigns highlighted in the film. While as a younger man, Moore took it upon himself to tell Flint’s story, he lets a new generation of activists who are more involved in day-to-day life there (many of whom are women of color) have the spotlight this time.
There is no American filmmaker with such a high profile who has been so antagonistic to the establishment for so long as Moore. While many socially conscious filmmakers lose their fastball as they rub elbows with the elite, Moore has never lost that chip on his shoulder or his natural alignment with the little guy. In 1998, he asked Trump to his face if he had ever stood in an unemployment line. In 1989, he confronted GM CEO Roger Smith after a rash of auto factory closings decimated Flint. You get the sense he would do it all again today. When Moore hoses down the Michigan governor’s mansion with a truck of Flint water, you catch that devilish look and rebellious grin that have long been the trademark of one of America’s great provocateurs.
Roger and Me will likely remain Moore’s greatest work. Youthful passion and the intimate knowledge that comes with lived experience can’t be manufactured. The film is eternally rewatchable and stands as perhaps the defining document of American economic inequality. But, just as he proved with Bowling for Columbine and Sicko, with Fahrenheit 11/9, Moore once again demonstrates that American cinema without Moore would be similar to American politics with Trump: a tragic loss.
Brenden Gallagher is a politics reporter and cultural commentator. His work has been published by Motherboard, Complex, and VH1. He’s the co-founder of Beer Money Films, an indie production company. Based in Los Angeles, he works in television drama as a writers assistant.