Michael Moore Attempts Another Election Intervention With ‘Fahrenheit 11/9’
Named editor in chief of Mother Jones in 1986, Michael Moore was fired after only four months on the job. The cause, reportedly, was that he had refused to run an article by Paul Berman that was critical of the Nicaraguan Sandinista human rights record. But Moore maintains that his termination was for putting a photo of laid-off General Motors worker and Mother Jones employee Ben Hamper on the cover. Moore sued and won a $58,000 settlement that kick-started his career as a filmmaker with his 1989 award-winning documentary, “Roger & Me,” a scathing indictment of GM’s then-CEO, Roger Smith, following massive layoffs at the automaker’s plant.
Moore may have been fired for the reasons he gives, but killing Berman’s article seems the more likely justification. It fits a pattern evident in most of his movies, from “Roger & Me” to his 2004 Palme D’Or-winning “Fahrenheit 9/11.” While he assiduously builds arguments in his films, presenting them with humor and panache, he routinely neglects to address the opposition’s viewpoint, no matter how flimsy it may be. It’s an unfortunate omission that lends credibility to his political adversaries, even when they’re blatantly wrong.
A half-hour into his latest film, “Fahrenheit 11/9,” Donald Trump and Moore sit down with Roseanne Barr over a lunch in the late 1990s for her short-lived talk show, “The Roseanne Show.” Trump tells Moore he admires “Roger & Me” before turning to Barr and adding, “I hope he never does one on me.”
It might sound ironic, but Moore’s new movie isn’t so much about our sitting president as the title would suggest. (The figures 11/9 refer to the date when Trump presidential election victory was announced, Nov. 9, 2016.) Instead, it’s about a number of items that Moore finds vexing—Second Amendment rights, teacher strikes, the failing Democratic Party, young social progressives—as well as Trump. And the most potent sections in “Fahrenheit 11/9” address the water crisis in Flint, Mich.
The new movie opens with a portrait of Trump as the media-made president, with such liberals as CNN CEO Jeff Zucker responding, “Uh-uh …” when asked in 2016 whether the network’s coverage of the Trump campaign is newsworthy or a ratings grab. Moore moves from Zucker to now-disgraced CBS CEO Les Moonves, who is famously quoted during the election as saying, “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. … I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Trump rightly appears in a montage of famous sexual predators such as Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer, but Moore unfairly speculates about whether an incestuous relationship exists between Trump and his daughter Ivanka, basing the examination on tone-deaf comments by the president. Yes, in and out of context, the comments are lecherous, and Trump has certainly earned the public’s opprobrium. But the allegations make him look like a victim and make the filmmaker look petty.
In a typically Moore-ish touch, we see Hitler giving a speech in grainy black-and-white footage, with Trump’s voice dubbed over. It’s a puerile ruse, but good for a laugh as Moore proceeds to liken the rise of Hitler to the coming of Trump, a comparison that has become cliché. Trump and Hitler are not the same, though Trump’s admiration for political strongmen is evident in footage of his recent meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, when the U.S. head of state shamed himself and his country with his deferential treatment of the Russian president.
The narrative then jumps abruptly to what appears to be a separate movie about the water crisis in Moore’s hometown of Flint. Here’s where the new “Fahrenheit” showcases some of Moore’s best work, dispensing with antics and laying out in stark terms how in 2013 Republican Gov. Rick Snyder announced a financial emergency in Detroit and tapped crony Kevyn Orr to be emergency manager. As a result of other appointments that followed, most of the state’s African-American population now lives under selected, rather than elected, government officials.
Privatizing treated water from Lake Huron, Snyder then piped water from the polluted Flint River to Flint’s citizens. High lead levels made the water unpotable, but the governor refused to address the issue, fudging water test results instead. “He’s a murderer,” Moore claims in the movie, making the potent point that “[n]o terrorist has ever figured out how to poison an entire city. It took the Republican Party and Rick Snyder.”
Adding insult to injury, Barack Obama visited Flint in 2016 and blamed the water crisis not on Snyder but on a “culture of neglect,” before declaring filtered Flint water safe enough to drink and pretending to sip from a glass in front a dumbstruck crowd at a high school gymnasium.
The Flint crisis emphasizes one of Moore’s larger points: the erosion of democracy in America, with one subject speaking of American democracy as an aspiration. While Democrats won the popular vote in six of the last seven elections, and the majority of voters support background checks for gun buyers and are pro-choice and for affordable health care, none of these positions are under consideration by an increasingly recalcitrant Republican-held government.
Moore lays the blame at the feet of the Democratic Party for pursuing compromise positions rather than fighting to win. Moore’s proverbial crosshairs land on President Bill Clinton, highlighting his 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which included Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a plan that essentially stripped aid from the neediest. The Prison Reform Act of 1994 is blamed by many for exacerbating the incarceration rate, particularly for people of color, and Clinton’s deregulation of Wall Street in 1999 repealed the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, allowing investment banks, insurers and retail banks to merge in a way many believe resulted in the financial crisis of 2008.
While Moore finds the Clintons reprehensible, he is most aggrieved by the party’s support of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 contest against Bernie Sanders, evidenced by moves such as handing states like West Virginia to Clinton at the Democratic National Convention, despite the fact that Sanders had beaten her soundly in that state’s primary.
But help is on the way, as “Fahrenheit 11/9” would have it, in the form of such fresh new candidates as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, social progressives who are part of a rising generation that prefers socialism to capitalism. Meanwhile, 52 percent of Republicans think postponing the 2020 presidential election is a good idea.
Informative and engrossing for the most part, “Fahrenheit 11/9” seems to be composed of various documentaries stitched together to form a single work. Moore makes his points in entertaining and digestible sequences, but the scope of his movie is too broad, hopscotching from Flint to West Virginia to Washington to Nazi Germany and back again.
Moore would no doubt argue these are all segments of a greater whole, but he asks the audience to follow along based mostly on faith and not evidence. When casting a woman like Ocasio-Cortez in angelic hues, he might enhance his credibility by identifying accepted criticism against her and discrediting it. As it is, “Fahrenheit 11/9” fits into his body of work by preaching to the choir. Finding a few people who agree with him doesn’t effectively bolster Moore’s case, even if he ends up on the right side of history.