Based on your personal feelings towards Donald Trump and the Republican Party, your reaction to (and presumably interest in) Fahrenheit 11/9, Michael Moore‘s latest bombastic documentary, is likely already predetermined. If you consider Trump to be a crusading saviour of the people and his presidency really is making America great again, maybe sit this one out. That being said, and much to my surprise, Moore resists the urge to make this another cinematic presidential character assassination. Make no mistake, there are plenty of Trump attacks to be found here. But Moore finds balance and objectivity this time, placing the blame for the rise of Trump on both Republicans, who were complacent enough to let him take over their party, and Democrats, who failed to take him seriously.
While on its surface, the documentary appears to merely be a scathing exposé on how and why America found itself in its current precarious position of political division, Moore clearly also wants his film to serve as a desperate wake-up call. Prophesising the potential collapse of democracy itself, Fahrenheit 11/9 is a dire warning of what can occur when power is left unvetted, particularly of those with dictator-like tendencies. Yes, Moore does indeed go for the Trump/Hitler comparison, but not in the way you might expect. With a calmer approach that mostly leaves out his penchant for outlandish stunts (although, naturally, he slips a few in), this may be Moore’s most resolute work to date.
The documentary’s title is obviously a play on his 2004 film, Fahrenheit 9/11, which itself was a reference to Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, where Moore launched a scathing attack on the presidency of George W. Bush and his use of the terrorist attacks on September 11 as the catalyst for his misguided war in Iraq. The numbers in the reversed title of his latest film refer to November 9, aka the date Donald Trump was declared the surprise winner of the 2016 presidential election. This would suggest Fahrenheit 11/9 is to be treated as a sequel, and, sure, in a way, you could call it that.
Initially, it seems this pseudo-sequel documentary will find Moore simply changing his crosshairs from Bush to Trump. And, for a while, he does. He opens the film with a pre-election montage (asking the wishful question – “Was it all a dream?”) filled with Democratic arrogance, as everyone from George Clooney to Minority Leader of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi sneer at the very thought of a President Donald Trump, and the election was all but called for Hillary Clinton before a single vote had been cast. And then there’s the woman herself, basking in the glory of the support of uber celebrities like Jay Z and Beyoncé, as the crowd chants her name. Then, as we know, Election Night arrived, and the world turned upside down with the biggest political upset of our time. Or as Moore so eloquently puts it – “How the fuck did this happen?”
But it’s far from a rhetorical question. Moore himself knows precisely how this happened, given he was one of the few political commentators predicting an upset victory for Trump. While most pundits gave no credence to the idea of the celebrity-turned-politico actually winning this thing (including the New York Times, which gave Trump a 15% chance of triumph), Moore had long been heralding the very real likelihood of a Trump presidency. He saw the writing on the wall long before November, and you get the feeling he has no sense of satisfaction with ultimately being correct. Mentioning it here in the documentary feels more like self-aggrandising. You didn’t listen to me then. Ignore me again at your own peril.
Moore continues his Trump takedown by highlighting the brazen ways the businessman has never hidden his crimes, attitude, or less than scrupulous behaviour, particularly his bizarre relationship with daughter Ivanka, which Moore captures in an uncomfortable montage of eyebrow-raising moments between the pair. But none of this should come as new information. His actions have always been committed in plain sight, yet he has the innate ability to absolve himself of any judgement or punishment. That’s how he was able to ride out any scandal during his election campaign, like the infamous Inside Hollywood leaked “grab them by the pussy” tape. A master of manipulation, Trump was even able to twist the usually strongwilled Moore to his command 20 years earlier. The unlikely duo were both booked as guests on Roseanne Barr’s talk show. Despite knowing of Trump’s sketchy business dealings, Moore placated to the demands of Trump to act nice and not ruin the episode. In looking back on this bizarre moment, Moore realises Trump played him just like he’s now playing the American people.
It’s here the documentary takes a sharp turn elsewhere, as Moore investigates the 2014 water crisis faced by his hometown of Flint, Michigan that saw thousands of its citizens (especially children) poisoned with lead from the town’s contaminated water supply. Michigan’s Republican governor Rick Snyder had made the baffling (and financially-motivated) decision to switch the water supply for the area’s predominantly black population from the clean Lake Huron to the heavily polluted Flint River, leading to a state of emergency being declared. Snyder shrewdly seized this moment to fire elected officials and replaced them with his own associates with a vested interested in building their own pipeline. When it was announced President Obama would visit Flint, many assumed he would remedy the crisis immediately, and demand the water supply to Lake Huron be reconnected. Instead, he dismissed the situation as being resolved, and, at an infamous press conference, asked for a glass of Flint tap water to show how safe it was. Barely taking a sip, the PR stunt went down like a lead (no pun intended) balloon.
At first, Moore’s insistence on covering this damning moment in recent U.S. history in his documentary seems to serve for purely personal reasons. He has always been a champion for his beloved hometown, so it’s hardly surprising to see him demand our attention to a crisis that hits home for the filmmaker, and one that, four years on, is still ongoing. But there’s a deeper intention with relaying this information and a connection back to his main subject of Donald Trump. A state won easily by Obama in 2012, Michigan shocked commentators by swinging to the Republican Party in 2016. In fact, Hillary Clinton lost the state by only 11,612 votes. Moore hypothesises the Obama administration’s mishandling of the Flint crisis played a huge part in handing victory to Trump in a state the Republican Party had not won since 1988. Many in Michigan were potentially so disillusioned with a political party that ignored their desperate plight, they either bought into Trump’s rhetoric or they simply sat this election out.
In his final barbs against Trump, Moore saves his strongest angle for last by reaching for the comparison we somewhat expect is coming. In a series of genuinely unsettling moments, he dubs Trump’s voice over footage of Adolf Hitler to hammer home how much of a wannabe dictator the President truly is. Trump’s grandiose speeches synch up with vision of Hitler at his own eerily similar mass rallies a little too perfectly, and it’s impossible not to be shaken by the parallels between the two leaders. There’s no suggestion Trump is moving towards a mass genocide, but rather this serves as a warning of history repeating itself. When people sit back and allow a dictatorship to spring forth from a formerly democratic nation, the results are always catastrophic.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, as Moore attempts to provide a glimmer of change on the horizon, with a number of progressive citizens refusing to lay down and accept defeat. He visits the survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting, who have turned their grief into action by following Moore’s lead in tackling gun control. Despite being dismissed as a bunch of kids who don’t understand how politics works, they’re already making inroads and creating a hell of a lot of noise. Then there are a few rising stars of the Democratic Party, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who, despite facing an impossible path to victory, defeated the incumbent candidate in the Democratic primary in the Bronx and Queens, and Rashida Tlaib, who is set to become the first Muslim woman elected to US Congress.
By showcasing how ordinary people can genuinely make a difference, Fahrenheit 11/9 stands as a powerful and rousing call to action for the millions of Americans sitting idly by while their country falls into the hands of a power-hungry monster who potentially never expected to find himself behind the desk in the Oval Office. But now that he’s there, he may never leave. Moore demands action from those so often inept at taking it when it’s needed most. It’s hard to walk away from his documentary without a fire in your belly to take the world back from the dark side. As the great parliamentarian Edmund Burke once said, “When bad men combine, the good must associate.” The time to associate is now.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Fahrenheit 11/9 is in select cinemas now.