“HOW. THE. FUCK. DID. THIS. HAPPEN?”
This is the question Michael Moore asks in Fahrenheit 11/9, after showing us all the familiar but still sorrowful scenes from the night of Nov. 8, 2016. We see the happy faces at Hillary Clinton’s headquarters, basking in their certainty of their candidate’s victory—FiveThirtyEight.com, after all, gave her an 85-percent chance of winning. And then we see their smiles slowly curdle into astonishment and grief as the returns come in from North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania…
Fahrenheit 11/9, an obvious and pointed title inversion from Moore’s 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11, speaks of a political situation that to Moore’s mind is even more dire than the destruction of the World Trade Center and the wars that ensued in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are still troops in both countries, but that, as Moore argues ardently, is dwarfed by the hostile takeover of America by a malevolent president and a complaisant, power-mad Republican leadership.
Audiences know before they enter a theater exactly what they will get if they see a Michael Moore film. They will not get what most people assume to be balanced reporting; they will get polemics, editorializing, and grandstanding on whatever issues Moore thinks are germane to his argument. And an argument it is, hewing resolutely to the left of the American political spectrum. This means, of course, that many people would rather boycott a theater playing Fahrenheit 11/9 than enter it. There is no question that whenever Moore releases a movie, he is preaching to a very specific choir. However, I happen to be a member of that choir, and to my mind Fahrenheit 11/9 is the best, most enraging, most exciting film Moore has ever produced. (For the record, Moore and I are not related, though I have been accused of resembling him physically.)
As usual, Moore ranges far and wide in his latest film, spending less time on Trump’s election than on the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., the teachers’ strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma, and of course the continuing crisis of poisoned water in his native Flint, Mich. Moore ties all the injustices on display—especially the last—to greed and racism. He is particularly scathing about Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan legislature passing a law that allows the governor to fire the elected officials of any town he deems to be in an emergency situation and replace them with managers of his own choosing. These managers have dictatorial powers, and it is no surprise to know that all of them Snyder has appointed, in Flint and elsewhere, are close political cronies of his. It is scarcely less surprising to know that all the cities Snyder declared to be
in emergency situations were majority black cities.
Moore takes us through the horrific litany: the children with irreversible lead poisoning, the deaths from Legionnaires’ disease, the family homes rendered worthless because no one wants to buy a house in Flint. (What is less well-known was that General Motors was given a dispensation to keep receiving its water from Lake Superior instead of the Flint River, because Flint River water corroded auto parts.) Protesters hoped for the best when President Obama visited Flint. I will not reveal what Obama did there, except to say that protesters’ hopes were dashed. As one sad-faced activist said, Obama was her president before his visit, but no longer.
Throughout Fahrenheit 11/9, Moore presents damning evidence that the leaders of the Democratic Party are just as susceptible to big-money donors, and just as likely to ignore or override the wishes of rank-and-file members, as their Republican counterparts. In its 2016 Democratic primary, he shows us, all 55 counties in West Virginia went to Bernie Sanders. But at the convention, it took only the third ballot for West Virginia delegates to grant all the state’s electoral votes to Hillary Clinton. (When Sanders conceded the nomination to Clinton, Moore shows us, his hand trembled so much that he could not replace the microphone in its holder.)
This was the reason, more than any other, why non-voters comprised by far the largest part of the electorate on Nov. 8, 2016, Moore tells us. When voters feel their wishes are ignored, he says, they stay home.
Whatever hope Moore has is not placed in the Democratic Party, or at least not in its current leadership. His hope is placed with congressional candidates such as Richard Ojeda of West Virginia, a much-decorated retired Army officer and a straight-talking, cut-the-bullshit advocate for working people; with the striking teachers of West Virginia and Oklahoma, who forced their state legislatures to rescind pay cuts and reductions in classroom funding; and with David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Emma Gonzalez and the other courageous students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, fighting the National Rifle Association in memory of their dead classmates.
Moore lost points with critics for his analogies between Trump and Hitler in the latter part of Fahrenheit 11/9. I too wish he had refrained; Nazi analogies are too cheap, too cliched, too easily interpreted as hysterical. But I agree with Moore that, whoever the Trump administration is benefiting, it isn’t the majority of the American people.
Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman was a blazing call to arms to everyone who wants racial justice in this country, and Fahrenheit 11/9 extends that call to all fronts. It is sad that both films will be ignored by the people who most need to see them; but, like a Trump campaign rally, both are well-designed to invigorate and ignite their intended audience. At the moment, not much ignition is necessary. The day I started writing this review, the Senate in a narrow partisan vote confirmed a Supreme Court justice with accusations of attempted rape hanging over his head, and who made it plain his chief mission on the high court will be to extract revenge from the Clintons and anyone he suspects of supporting them. Our country is as bitterly divided as it was in 1970, perhaps as much as it was in 1860.
Nevertheless, Moore ends Fahrenheit 11/9 on a note of hope—the sad but resolute face of Emma Gonzalez, as she addresses a crowd. When we have young people such as Gonzalez, Moore tells us, the country will not be lost. I agree.