Fahrenheit 11/9 lets Trump-era 'WTF?' give way to hope
Michael Moore’s documentaries are always something of a three-ring circus, with their combination of daring expository journalism and clownish mockery.
Fahrenheit 11/9 is even more so, covering much ground and naming multiple villains as it aims an inquiring lens at three distinct topics: Donald Trump’s election win, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan and the citizen activism sparked by school shootings and other social ills.
The title hat-tips to Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore’s Oscar-winning 2004 doc about America’s stumbling efforts in the so-called “War on Terror.” But it’s also a direct numerical reference to Nov. 9, 2016.
In the wee hours of that day, the presidential election was called in Trump’s favour. Not by the popular vote — he trailed Hillary Clinton by three million ballots — but by the electoral college system of winner-take-all state ballots, a legacy of the slave era originally designed to protect racist southern interests.
Moore’s new movie begins by asking the question even Trump himself has privately asked — “WTF?” — about how America ended up with him as president. The filmmaker makes merry with hubris, showing scene after scene of political pundits, celebrities and journalists declaring there was no way Clinton could lose the election and no chance at all of a Trump win.
As Moore seeks to answer the “WTF?” question, not always seriously, he may surprise viewers by arguing there’s more than one villain in this twisted tale — and at least a couple of the baddies are people you’d likely never suspect. Trump is indeed a very bad president, he says, but “Donald Trump didn’t just fall from the sky.”
Complacency on the part of regular people and political parties, along with complicity by ratings-hungry media, contributed to a slide in societal values and a thirst for sensation that led to the elevating of The Apprentice’s showboating TV star to the most powerful job in the world.
The film displays damning statistics: 63 million ballots in the popular vote for Clinton, 60 million for Trump and another 100 million potential votes which were never cast, for a variety of reasons, and which could have changed history had they been cast.
Moore posits the amusing theory — one that actually isn’t completely far-fetched, knowing Trump’s penchant for one-upmanship — that pop star Gwen Stefani is to blame for the carrot-topped egotist’s bid for the presidency.
Trump, the theory goes, found out that Stefani was getting paid more for episodes of The Voice than he was for The Apprentice, and he tried to call NBC’s bluff with a presidential bid that would prove his popularity and force NBC to pay him more money. A couple of ecstatic public rallies later, Trump decided he was seriously in the game, although Moore argues that, deep down, the man never really wanted to be president.
Part 2 of Fahrenheit 11/9 arrives with an abrupt segue about 40 minutes into this two-hour doc, switching from Trump’s antics to the trauma of Flint, Mich., Moore’s hometown. The auto-building city has suffered mightily from abandonment by General Motors and by degradation of the local water supply, the latter due to a monumentally foolish decision by Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican crony and pal of Trump’s.
Snyder disconnected Flint’s water from the safety of Lake Huron and switched it to the toxicity of the Flint River, a cost-cutting move his officials tried to downplay and also cover up, even as the water was poisoning thousands of adults and children. Moore’s film introduces us to a whistle-blower in the bureaucracy who refused to falsify test results that showed sky-high levels of lead in many Flint residents.
But perhaps the most shocking “villain” whom Moore calls out is former president Barack Obama, who is seen visiting Flint and blithely accepting Snyder’s claim that the city’s water is now safe to drink (it’s not, even today). Obama is twice seen pretending to drink from glasses of Flint water, but he actually barely sips them, and he blithely accepts Snyder’s assurances, much to the fury of Flint residents interviewed afterwards.
Enraged by what happened to his hometown, Moore chooses an amusingly cathartic gesture: he fills up a tanker truck with Flint water and drives to Snyder’s mansion, where he proceeds to spray its contents onto the governor’s lawn and driveway.
This then leads to the scattershot third section of the film, the weakest of the three, in which Moore yields to bad humour — a lip-synching comparison between Trump and Hitler is as obvious as it is overdone. But it’s also here that we get signs of a popular uprising against the many ills that plague America and the world.
Moore visits with surviving students of the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla. earlier this year, who have now become vocal advocates for gun control. He talks to West Virginia teachers who defied their own union and went on strike for better pay and benefits — but also demanding that education be a bigger priority for the state.
Moore also sees welcome signs of diversity in the Democratic party and in voter preference. He congratulates Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a rookie politician of Puerto Rican heritage who defeated Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in a New York City congressional primary vote last June. Moore also salutes Rashida Tlaib, the first Muslim-American woman to serve in the Michigan state legislature.
A movie that begins as a “WTF?” lament about Trump ends with hope for the future — but only, Moore persuasively insists, if citizens everywhere pay attention and get involved.
Peter Howell is the Star's movie critic based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @peterhowellfilm
Documentary on how Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency and how it connects with a host of other issues. Directed by Michael Moore. Opens Friday at GTA theatres. 120 minutes. STC