Michael Moore began his filmmaking career with an investigative passion and a flair for showmanship. His 1989 debut feature, ‘Roger & Me,’ used the funny populist hook of Moore, in his working-class Everyman persona, pursuing Roger B. Smith, the then-head of General Motors, to confront him about the company’s abandonment of Moore’s hometown, Flint, Michigan. In his new documentary, ‘Fahrenheit 11/9,’ Moore, his sense of showmanship not only intact but enhanced by a bigger production budget, fills a water truck with the same supply that’s piped to Flint residents for drinking and bathing. This water is famously polluted with lead (among other toxins), in a yearslong scandal that’s still not come to a satisfactory conclusion. (“No terrorist organisation has figured out how to poison an entire American city,” Moore notes in voice-over. “It took the Michigan Republican Party to pull that off.”)
He drives the truck to the home of the most powerful Republican in Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder, and waters his lawn with it. For Moore, the situation in Flint is a microcosm of the disaster he sees President Donald Trump imposing on this country.
The movie begins with a 2016 election “how did this happen?” montage, making clear that the cycle of instant news followed by the internet’s instant reaction has diluted the immediacy of Moore’s canny cinematic storytelling — it was a lot of stuff I’d heard and seen before. But Moore recognises an affinity he shares with the president — also a showman.
So he is in a nearly unique position to shame the viewer with a frank perspective on how Trump used his extrovert side to make citizens complacent about the less savoury aspects of his character. Trump has “always committed his crimes in plain sight,” Moore says in the film.
He alludes to accounts challenging his business practices and highlighting his expressions of bigotry. And yet while Trump starred in ‘The Apprentice,’ Moore continues, “nobody wrote in to NBC to ask for the removal of an overt racist” from its airwaves. This moment jolted me. As a nearly lifelong New Yorker, I had long been someone who shrugged off Trump’s words and actions for decades, believing he was just a bad joke that the city was inflicting on the rest of the world. And so here we are. ‘Fahrenheit 11/9’ has a structure of peaks and valleys. There is an abundance of “America is [messed-up]” material.
The sections on the Flint water scandal are infuriating. The “he was robbed” threnody for Bernie Sanders is considerably less compelling, but it raises valid points. Relief arrives with “but there’s hope!” scenes, which depict insurgent Democrats like the congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and young activists like the Parkland school shooting survivors Emma González and David Hogg. They’re Moore’s idea of The Solution. Democratic Party elites like Bill and Hillary Clinton and this newspaper, which Moore considers an epitome of gutless centrism, are, among others, part of The Problem.
The version of the movie I saw had no end credits, and according to a publicist at the screening, Moore is tinkering with the movie still. The cut screened for me and other critics ended with a contrived but emotionally effective coup de theatre that dares the viewer to call it cheap. But the more I flirted with the dare, the more plausible Moore’s dramatic speculation felt. He’s still got it in the showmanship department. —— Don’t miss it
Fahrenheit 11/9 releases in the UAE on December 6.