Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 opens with the word “Hillary.” It ends in silence. The in-between includes Hitler and Rashida Tlaib, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and West Virginia high school teachers, Bernie Sanders and The New York Times.
It’s a surprise to report that a lot of the film, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last night, catches you by surprise—not only because of the deja vu didacticism of so many contemporary political docs, but also because, by now, we think we know Moore’s shtick. Even Trump seemed to have an inkling as to what he would look like under Moore’s microscope: Back in 1998, on The Roseanne Show, Trump allegedly praised Moore’s work before expressing his hope that Moore never make one on him.
More so than many of his previous films, Fahrenheit 11/9 is a sprawling collage of a polemic, careening from issue to issue with little regard for transitions. When segues do come, they spring out of Moore’s rascally voiceover, which canopies the film with his familiar brand of wit, fervor and infectious lefty idealism. There’s also a distinct sense of self-awareness to this one, along with what feel like deliberate measures to cut against pedagogy and moralizing. This feeling comes to a head in the movie’s final sequence, which hits so suddenly and unexpectedly you’ll be a little sore from the whiplash.
Earning the majority of the film’s screen time is Flint, Michigan, or rather, the megalomaniac of a governor who facilitated and then conspired to downplay and perpetuate the town’s water crisis. A corrupt, greedy magnate who rose to office with experience in business rather than politics, Rick Snyder was behind the original order to switch Flint—a poor, largely African-American town—to a lead-poisoned water source, a decree that Moore repeatedly describes as a kind of slow-motion ethnic cleansing. Interviews with a town physician, community organizer, and government whistleblower, along with clips and photographs of children from the town, fill in the contours to the catastrophe.
The connection to Trump is clear: like Trump, Snyder was a businessman rather than a politician. And like Trump, Snyder runs his district as an authoritarian criminal. If Snyder was able to harm so many, what could Trump do?
But just as the movie presents Snyder as a sinister premonition for Trump’s years to come, it offers a large faction of influential good guys as our beacon of hope: young liberal insurgents out to challenge the Democratic powers that be. These include West Virginia high school teachers, whose historic strike earned them higher salaries and inspired a national movement; diverse politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Richard Ojeda, whose platforms embrace progressive values; and the students of Parkland, whom Moore accompanies to their “secret” clubhouse to document the teens’ planning of the March For Our Lives.
Moore does manage to sneak in a few of his grand guerrilla stunts. In one scene, he storms into the Michigan state executive offices with handcuffs to perform a citizen’s arrest on Snyder; in another, he drives to Snyder’s home with a Flint River water tank to spray poisoned water all over his garden. Because every Moore movie’s got to have at least one of those episodes. But mostly, Fahrenheit 11/9 harnesses the power of montage, juxtaposing the disturbing (Trump’s relationship with Ivanka) with the distressing (The New York Times’ tendency to support war and the establishment) with the comic (Moore self-mocking a photo of him “massaging” Jared Kushner) with the buoyant (Ocasio-Cortez’s win) with the downright frightening (comparisons of Trump to Hitler).
The Hitler juxtaposition operates an especially potent (if unoriginal) observation. To introduce the comparison, Moore opts to overlay footage of Hitler with audio of Trump—a fusion that reads at first as funny, then as menacing as Moore hammers in the analogy with interviews from experts and a lengthy segment delineating the signs that America is in the midst of tumbling away from democracy toward despotism.
Yet overall, the documentary, in all its messy tangents, actually spends a minority of its time on Trump. Indeed, Moore’s best zingers and most penetrating indictments land on the Democratic Party, whom he implicates (along with dominant liberal news media) as part of an establishment system continually churning in place to maintain the status quo and impede forward movement. He even calls out Obama on a few occasions: for letting down the people of Flint, for accepting Goldman Sachs money, for deporting immigrants, for drone strikes. But best of all, Moore acknowledges and emphasizes that he himself is not totally free from that establishment either. “The best thing my generation did was raise you all,” he marvels to a Parkland teen in one scene. Her sharp reply: “On the contrary: social media raised us.”
Vagueness and clutter distract from the cogency of Moore’s points on several occasions, and the frenetic pace makes it constantly difficult to keep up. But by the end, he’s stuffed so many tangled tangents in there that the documentary’s impassioned spirit and impact as a whole outweigh the less convincing bits.
“How the fuck did this happen?” Moore demands in voiceover toward the beginning of the film, following a melodramatic election night montage. It’s a question that he only partially gets around to addressing, but no matter. We know the real question he’s striving to confront: What the fuck do we do now?
He might not have the answer, but he can introduce you to a few people who do.