Michael Moore returns to form with a bleak and unsettling take on the erosion of American democracy.
November 01, 2018
These days, you pretty much know what you're getting going into a Michael Moore film: snappy (if also convenient) editing, some cringeworthy stunts, and a broad comparison of America's woes compared to all those other countries doing it better. You watch Sicko and you leave feeling a little bit glum, a little bit entertained, and convinced universal healthcare would be better for the United States, but that it's probably never going to happen because of big business and dirty politics. Then you watch Where To Invade Next and you leave feeling a little bit glum, a little bit entertained, and convinced that US drug and prison policy would be worth overhauling, but that it's probably never going to happen because of big business and dirty politics.
Fahrenheit 11/9 kicks off in exactly the same fashion, but oh man does it shift gears and deliver something unexpected by the end. You leave feeling a little bit entertained, a whole lot glum, and entirely convinced that nothing short of democracy itself (to the extent it exists at all within the United States) is at risk of collapse because of, yes, big business and dirty politics.
And no, that's not even close to hyperbole.
This is a fine return to form for Moore, pulling a remarkable bait and switch such that his ultimate point comes at you just as you're beginning to question if he even has one. He achieves this by constantly changing Fahrenheit 11/9's subject matter and tone, beginning with an amusing recap on the smug and almost jovial certainty with which everyone from the Democratic National Committee to the Republican Party to the media (including Fox) and even the Trump camp itself assumed Hilary Clinton had the 2016 election in the bag. Like Showtime's excellent The Circus, this section of the film carries with it an uncomfortable blend of dramatic irony, on account of us knowing how it all ended up, coupled with an ongoing dismay that, well, that's actually how it all ended up. But then it changes tact and jumps to Flint, Michigan, where the contamination of the city's water supply led to an ongoing lead poisoning crisis. And then it jumps again, this time to school shootings. Then it's Ivanka Trump. Then Bernie Sanders and Hitler, and you find yourself wondering what the hell is this guy doing?
What he's doing is establishing a pattern, using small-scale examples examined with deep journalistic scrutiny, and then stepping back and applying that insight to national, global and even historical events. The litany of unfathomable scandals in Flint are used not only to shock us, but to reveal how Governor Rick Snyder's corporate influences first emboldened, then enabled, his wholesale suspension of democracy in the state (effectively a coup d'état in Moore's opinion). That it's unfathomable is the point: these successions of outrages, whilst shocking, do not in isolation feel like a crisis point to anyone other than those hapless few affected. Combined, though, they serve to steadily erode matters of far-reaching significance like voter confidence and trust in the three branches of government. The takeaway is, if it can happen in a town like Flint with the world watching on and still nobody does anything, then it can happen in your town, too. And then your state. And then your country.
But back to the whole Hitler thing. Ordinarily, thanks to Godwin's Law, you'd assume it's at that precise moment when Moore's point, however salient, loses all credibility. Instead, courtesy of some unsettlingly frank interviews with experts like Yale History Professor Timothy Snyder, we realise Moore isn't saying Trump is Hitler 2.0. Rather, he's showing that the current apathy and perhaps even amusement with which everyone from the experts to the press to the voting public dismisses or downplays each of Trump's outrageous comments and racist, bigoted, sexist or protectionist policies, is precisely what happened in Weimar Germany. It's just puffery until it's not. Just a weather balloon until it's not. Just a joke, until there's nothing funny about it at all.
And that's the same for Fahrenheit 11/9. It starts out quite amusing, but by its conclusion there are no more cheeky edits from Moore, nor any sniggers from the audience. It's a straight-up slap in the face, softened only by buying into Moore's unbridled enthusiasm for the activist youth movement in America (led by the likes of the survivors of the Parkland school shooting) and the surge of independent candidates and representatives poised to shake the foundations of the DNC. There are still some unnecessary stunts from Moore, along with some broader-than-usual bows drawn, but they're fleeting enough to have no impact on his broader message. The Flint section alone makes Fahrenheit 11/9 a film worthy of your time, but it's the whole that makes it so affecting.