In Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9, we have the comedic documentarian at his most sombre. Apart from one or two scenarios that act as comic relief to darker material, what comedy is found in the film is mostly in the form of painful irony and sharp-edged satire, not the gentle humour typical of Moore’s earlier films. It is an expression of anger, disappointment, and fear, understandably scattered and lacking in focus and direction, but certainly heartfelt.
The title of Michael Moore’s latest documentary is, of course, a reversed form of the title of his earlier work, the 2004 political diatribe Fahrenheit 9/11. The earlier film referred to the well-known September 11 attacks (9/11 according to the anomalous US dating system), while 11/9, or the 9th of November, refers to the date on which Donald Trump was elected US president. The comparison of Trump’s election with a major terrorist attack is deliberate and, from Moore’s perspective, fitting, although the parallel more or less ends with the title, in the first example of the film’s slightly erratic narrative.
The account begins a day or two prior to the 2016 US presidential election, rehashing the confident predictions that Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, was certain to win by a wide margin, and the widespread shock and disbelief when she did not. The coverage of Trump’s unexpected victory leads to the film’s central question: how did this happen? Moore backtracks to Trump’s decision to run for president, which oddly enough, seems to have originated with his dismissal from a television programme. His joke, that being out of a job he might as well go on to run for president, was so well received by his fans, that Trump held several mock campaign rallies, apparently in order to prove his popularity greater than that of his TV replacement. Clips of the simulated rallies are shown to closely resemble Trump’s later, genuine campaign events. The warm response evidently, and bizarrely, convinced him to attempt an actual run for the position.
As the film makes clear, in terms of publicity, Trump was a success from the beginning; his willingness to insult and mock his opponents, to make shocking, hostile, threatening, racist, or jingoistic remarks freely and without restraint, drew the attention of the media, and resulted in his being constantly on camera. It was a situation that inspired the often quoted remark by a CBS television network CEO, that Mr Trump’s nomination “may not be good for America, but it’s great for CBS.” Moore briefly turns to the media coverage, in contrast, of opponent Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which received less attention simply by virtue of Ms Clinton behaving rationally; and pauses to note that many of her key television interviews were conducted by men later found to be compulsive abusers and persecutors of women.
At this point, Moore leaves the presidential election behind almost completely, in order to answer his own question of how all this came about. Interestingly, he does not dwell on Trump himself, or his supporters, in order to answer this question. In fact, for a good part of the film, mention of the president or the election all but ceases. Instead, Moore takes a broad view of the US political landscape in the five or so years prior to the election, in an effort to find the attitudes, political conflicts, and social forces that made such an election possible. “How did this happen?” is not merely a rhetorical question in this case; it is the puzzle this documentary attempts to solve.
The film becomes choppy and disjointed as it examines the dissatisfaction of the American working class – perfectly justified in Moore’s view – and the turning away from conventional politics that resulted. The story grows smoother and more engaging when Moore turns his attention on his own home state of Michigan for an example that seems like a preface, perhaps even a trial run, to the events of 2016. Five years before Trump’s election, Michigan chose a new governor, Richard Snyder, a wealthy businessman and venture capitalist with no political experience. Snyder groundlessly declared a state of emergency, using this as an excuse to summarily remove the mayors of four Michigan cities from office, then to privatise various public services and turn them over to corporations. He became a virtual autocrat over the state and used the police to control the population, particularly targeting racial minorities. Moore allows the parallels to Trump’s administration to speak for themselves. One of Snyder’s actions gained a great deal of media attention: he changed the system for supplying drinking water to several cities, allowing automobile plants access to clean tap water, but providing households with water severely contaminated with lead, resulting in illness and lifelong disabilities for thousands.
The film moves on to scenes from other parts of the country which illustrate several vague points – mainly, how little US government agencies represent the public; the extent to which business interests determine policy; and how disenchanted most Americans had become with their government. Periodically, the action returns to the situation in Michigan, detailing the governor’s elaborate cover-up of his worst misdeeds, and the tragic effects of poverty, political corruption, and tainted water on the public. The ultimate betrayal, and a partial explanation of the political sea change of 2016, was a visit by then-president Barack Obama to Flint, Michigan, the most severely affected city, in a scene which serves as the unexpected climax to an array of government treachery. Obama had been enthusiastically supported and trusted (and voted for) by people of the region, but he was evidently convinced to compromise and downplay the danger of their water contamination, and further, to approve the use of the city as a military testing ground. Moore succeeds in capturing movingly the shock felt by witnesses to this painful moment of disillusionment for the entire state of Michigan – a state that had been a stronghold of Obama’s political party – which resulted in many simply ceasing to bother voting.
Having established the background against which it became possible for Americans to vote in such an unexpected way, Moore returns to the newly elected Donald Trump. Largely ignoring the man’s ineptitude, outrageous remarks, and personal failings, all of which have taken up so much media time, the film focuses on the genuine threat to democracy and the rule of law that the administration represents, in terms of consolidating power, attacking the press, enabling racial intolerance, and circumventing the law. As one party official commented soon after the election, “There is no more Republican Party; there’s a Trump Party,” and Trump has succeeded in pushing the system in the direction of autocracy. Moore does, predictably, fulfil Godwin’s Law and compare Trump to Adolph Hitler, but in a fairly thoughtful way, not simply calling Trump a Nazi, but examining why Germans of the 1930s were drawn to a populist leader like Hitler, and offering parallels with American voters of 2016. He makes some interesting observations, including likening the “9/11” attack with the Nazis’ Reichstag fire, both events that justified an extreme response and eased the introduction of authoritarian powers. Without minimizing what he sees as a serious threat to democracy, Moore is sympathetic to those who voted for Trump, understanding their sense of betrayal.
Moore concludes on a relatively optimistic note, with an overview of the political activism that has arisen in reaction to the current administration’s extremism. He encourages American viewers to consider that they may have reached the final or nearly-final moment when “things could be turned around,” urges them not to give in to hopelessness, and suggests that, however corrupt and non-representative the US government may have been until now, “the America we want to save is the America we’ve never had.”
For further viewing…
In the newly released American Dharma, renowned documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (A Brief History of Time, The Fog of War) presents an in-depth portrait of former Donald Trump advisor and ‘alt-right’ media luminary, Steven Bannon. The information comes almost entirely from a surprisingly candid, face-to-face discussion with Bannon himself, augmented with news clips and animated illustrations. An informative, often alarming look inside a leader of the American radical right.