Gonzo documentarian Michael Moore is no stranger to controversy. In fact he openly courts it. This oftentimes enrages his social and political opponents, and brings mixed results when it comes to the quality of his films. He received critical and audience acclaim for Roger & Me. He won an Oscar for Bowling for Columbine, then drew boos from the crowd during his acceptance speech as he denounced the Iraq War. He lobbied against George W. Bush with Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004, sacrificing the film’s Academy eligibility in hopes of influencing the election. Not only was he unsuccessful, his tactics earned a rebuttal film called Michael Moore Hates America (though Moore was a good sport about the whole thing). On the flip side, his damning account of America’s healthcare system, Sicko, miraculously gained the endorsement of Fox News. Suffice to say, the man’s been all over the place with his films and the public’s reaction to them.
Now we have the spiritual follow-up to the Bush film with Fahrenheit 11/9, so named because Donald Trump was officially declared President-elect in the wee hours of November 9, 2016. Ostensibly, this should be referred to as Moore’s Trump movie, but honestly, he’s hardly in it at all. Only about 20 of the film’s 120-minute run-time is devoted to Orange Hitler, mostly because, what can be said that hasn’t been already?
Honestly, it’s kind of surreal. It’s well established that Michael Moore is an unapologetic super liberal, and his examinations – while largely accurate – are heavily biased in their framing. But that doesn’t really apply here, as Moore’s not making wild accusations or conjectures, but instead simply using Trump’s own words, on camera (and Twitter, obviously). It’s one of the more jarring and baffling things about this entire administration. The man tells you right to your face that he’s committed crimes and that he’s mentally unhinged, so Moore doesn’t need to bring it up.
Really, the only truly odd theory is brought up early in the film. After several increasingly depressing inserts of Rachel Platten’s hit, “Fight Song” as Hillary Clinton’s presidency slipped away, Moore posits that the entire reason we’re in this mess is because of Gwen Stefani. The argument – which would be beyond preposterous in any other universe but almost seems sane now because we live in The Upside-Down – is that Trump was jealous that Stefani made more money during her time on NBC’s The Voice than he did as the star of Celebrity Apprentice, so he staged his campaign announcement (complete with paid actors, a verified fact) to start a contract bidding war with NBC. After it backfired and NBC terminated him because of his patently racist comments, he decided to spite the media and go full force into the campaign. Again, in any normal world this would be laughable, but after the crap we’ve gone through for the last three years (campaign and administration), it makes about as much sense as anything else.
So, with Trump only being 1/6 of the film, what does Moore do with the rest of the time? Quite a bit, actually. Aside from the usual interviews with people to confirm how shitty everything is, as well as the standard issue political complaints (gerrymandering and the Electoral College chief among them), the rest of the film is divided into two large alternating segments (the editing won’t win any awards, I can assure you; it’s almost fatiguing to jump between tangents so many times).
The first is about his hometown of Flint, Michigan, which still does not have clean water. Moore lays out in devastating detail how Governor Rick Snyder took over minority cities with emergency ordinances, thereby silencing the will of the people and their local governments, delegating municipal responsibilities to corporate cronies. The personal success of his avarice then drives him to build a new water pipeline (lucrative contract for political donors) from Lake Huron, forcing the current one to be shut down, and for Flint to be switched to the polluted Flint River for their water supply. Moore lays out the greed, the corruption, and of course, the illnesses and deaths as a result of the poisoned water. Add in the documented cover-up (which has landed some of the governor’s staff in jail), and basically Moore has presented the prosecution’s opening argument should Snyder ever be indicted for murder.
Despite the disjointed editing, Moore for the most part eschews his worst habits when it comes to the Flint situation. The case is presented with great detail and careful expert testimony. He even uses the situation as a starting point to launch into his disappointment with many liberals and Democrats, particularly President Obama, who came to Flint only to mime drinking the water for a photo op, rather than declare a disaster zone and get the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA on site to fix the problem.
The only mark against this whole diversion is that this is the one area where Moore briefly goes back to his confrontational tactics, this time using a tanker truck to spray water from the Flint River onto the grounds of the Governor’s Mansion. It would have been great if he could have sprayed some on Rick Snyder himself. I’m sure Moore would have endured the short jail term, and it would have made for an interesting legal quandary if Snyder had gotten sick, because he could sue or prosecute Moore for knowingly poisoning him, but that would also mean acknowledging his own culpability in delivering a toxic water supply in the first place. Basically, I’m saying that if Moore wasn’t willing to risk the full range of consequences, his stunt seems as perfunctory as Obama’s, and rings just as hollow.
The other great arc is regarding the future. While the film ends with Moore cautioning against trusting to hope, he gives an awful lot of screen time to the people who do give us just a smidgen of a shred of a speck of hope going forward. He interviews a West Virginia Congressional candidate who takes pride in the history of the “redneck” as a union coal miner rather than the current connotation of a braindead (and likely racist) yokel. He meets and follows just a few of the record number of women and minority candidates nationwide, including surprise upset candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who unseated one of the top Congressional Democrats in the party primary earlier this year.
And most importantly, he spends time with my heroes, the Stoneman Douglas survivors. My heart breaks with every mass shooting I see on the news, to the point where I feel like Sharon Marsh on this week’s South Park premiere, filled with impotent, helpless rage and fear. But those kids give me a reason to have faith in humanity again. They saw Hell, and they decided, “No more.” They organized in massive numbers. They used social media in ways never seen before for political activism. And most importantly, they would not shut up. In Moore’s presence, their efforts pay dividends, as they watch a Maine politician who normally runs unopposed suddenly get a challenger for his job and then drop out of the race after he called Emma González a “skinhead lesbian.”
This is what I and a lot of people cling to. I cry every time I see these kids in action, because they’re taking action in ways that weren’t even possible when I was their age, in the wake of Columbine. If I ever get a chance to meet any of them, I’m just going to give them a big hug and say, “Thank you for doing what my generation couldn’t.” So yeah, even though Moore says that hope is dangerous, he also shows why it’s essential to our survival.
In a weird way, I think Moore – who guaranteed Trump’s win months in advance – is almost saying that Donald Trump may actually have a positive impact on this country. He’s patently evil, and he brings out the worst in all of us (evidenced in the film by a montage of smartphone videos of racists beating people up and hurling slurs). But his presence has also fueled the largest political engagement in modern history. We’ve hit rock bottom as a country, but from those depths Michael Moore shows that our better angels have emerged. And maybe, just maybe, America will be made great again.
Until then, though, can we just see to it that he and Snyder get butt-raped in prison?
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you think we’ll survive the Trump era? How exactly does one become a skinhead lesbian? Let me know!