Michael Moore is an all-time American documentarian. You may feel differently. You’re wrong.
You may not agree with his politics, but his filmmaking, open activism and methodology helped popularize a style of political documentary that remains influential to this day. (Don’t give me that Dinesh D’Souza bullshit; they’re not comparable.)
Moore himself can barely keep up with a world where his “take it to the people in power” stunts are outdated. Direct access to the people in power has never been greater, nor has general awareness of power differentials in American culture. It’s a new world.
Fahrenheit 11/9 is the first time Moore feels lost, unfocused, pinned by the enormity of it all. It’s a reflection of our disturbing era and the reason why 11/9 might be his roughest and least essential film to date.
The title is a blunt inversion of Moore’s most successful film, 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which (controversially at the time) took on the George W. Bush Administration’s response to the September 11th attacks. The rise of Donald Trump and the solidification of a resurgent right wing are direct descendants of that day, but 11/9 is only briefly about Trump and the 9/11-level national crisis that unfolded in the wake of his election.
Moore starts with Trump, hitting on how he came to be, the symptom of the same elite interests that Moore has hit on before in each of his films. He segues to Hillary Clinton versus Bernie Sanders before coming home to Flint, Michigan, where governmental malfeasance in the Statehouse created a poison water crisis four years ago that persists today. Moore also touches on the students of Parkland in the aftermath of that school’s shooting, the Obama Administration’s poor response to the aforementioned water crisis and up-and-coming progressive candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Richard Ojeda.
Moore ends the movie with direct comparisons between Trump and the rise of the Third Reich in 1930s Germany before a final glimpse at Emma Gonzalez, standing on stage during the March for our Lives — a hopeful image in a movie that emphasizes the work we have yet to do.
It’s impossible to avoid comparing Trump to Hitler. It’s unpleasant, but the comparisons aren’t superficial and the place Hitler holds in American mythology makes him the most viable example of the way a modern autocrat rises to power. Moore overstates his rosy historical assessment of 1920s Germany and throws this part of the movie in at the end, where it feels dissonant. In fact, about 75% of the way through, Moore loses focus.
None of these threads are handled poorly, but the movie struggles at bringing them all together. The unifying message is the same as any film by Michael Moore (and that is not a dig): There are moneyed interests that harm our society, whether purposefully or through simple indifference, and the answer is organization and political activism.
11/9 is clearly a movie about motivating the undecided to get out to vote, but Moore is late to the party: The world has learned from him, incorporated what he created into their own movements, and has seen social media assist those progressive causes he holds dear far more than a two-hour grab-bag of stories will.
Segments of the movie feel episodic, like snippets of movies Moore was already working on: the Flint water crisis, the post-Parkland activists, the 2016 primaries, even a dissection of what “populist” means in the Republican lexicon (read: racism). Each of these pieces would make for interesting full-length movies with more focus and room for wit, insight and engagement. I would still love to see any of those films.
One moment of 11/9 features Moore disclosing his own encounters with Trump, former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, and Trump’s senior advisor Jared Kushner throughout the 1990s and 2000s. How did those people rise into prominence? How did Fahrenheit 9/11, the most financially successful documentary of all time, impact political discourse and entertainment? What role has Moore had on political discourse? That’s a movie I want to see.
I’ve been a fan of Moore’s work for most of my life. Bowling for Columbine is a masterpiece. 11/9 is not a disappointment, but it’s not on the level of his other films. It gives voices to the dispossessed, but in this day and age, many of those voices have their own outlets. The world has moved on from Moore, and maybe the core reason why 11/9 feels like a weaker entry in his canon is that it’s the first time he has ever felt like a passive participant in the narrative.
He’s trying to capture a broader idea, the feeling of mid-2018 and, in fact, the mid-2010s. “How this happened” isn’t answered by attacking a single villain, and it’s not solved by the efforts of a single person. In trying to convey the age of Trump and the nascent new progressive movements that may or may not pan out, Moore finds himself less focused on a compelling experience and more on a loud, desperate, final plea for a political movement that would result in better wages, healthcare and basic dignity for American citizens.
Hanging over all of this is that 11/9 is being released several weeks before the 2018 midterms, our last, best electoral hope for stopping the institutional assault of Republican governance. Without knowing the results of 11/6/2018, the full scope of our national disaster on 11/9/2016 is still being written, and Moore — and the audience — need to work as hard as possible to make sure Cortez and Ojeda and Gonzalez and all our local Democratic and Progressive candidates help open the next chapter.