Toronto: Michael Moore's 'Fahrenheit 11/9' Could Divide Academy's Doc Branch

FAHRENHEIT 11/9 Still 3 - Publicity - EMBED 2018
Courtesy of State Run Films and Briarcliff Entertainment

MIchael Moore aims contaminated Flint water at the mansion of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in 'Fahrenheit 11/9.'

Michael Moore is still mad as hell, and not gonna take it anymore. Fourteen years after Flint, Michigan's most famous son sought to prevent President George W. Bush's re-election with his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 — even forsaking the film's Oscar eligibility so that it could air on TV before Election Day — he has made Fahrenheit 11/9, a nod to the earlier film and to the 2016 date on which the world learned Donald Trump had won the presidential election of the day before. The new film aims to — well, that part is unclear to me. And if Academy members feel the same, that could affect its Oscar prospects.

Fahrenheit 11/9, which will be released with the help of Tom Ortenberg's startup Briarcliff Entertainment on Sept. 21, had its world premiere screening Thursday evening, the opening night of the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival. Following a dinner for Moore's family, friends, collaborators and a few members of the press, the film unspooled at the Ryerson Theatre, and its end credits were greeted with brief applause that grew into a standing ovation when Moore himself took the stage.

Moore is, without a doubt, the most famous documentary filmmaker of all time, recognizable as much for his stubble, hat and Hitchcockian profile as for his decades of muckraking left-leaning productions, dating back to 1989's Roger & Me. By this point, one pretty much knows what one is going to get when one goes to see a Moore film, which is why his films tend to attract audiences who already agree with his general political inclinations. In other words, he usually winds up preaching to the choir.

The surprising thing about Fahrenheit 11/9 is that he goes after members of the choir, too. Not only does he provide unnecessary reminders of how Trump rose to power — on top of assorted non sequiturs supporting the idea that Trump is a creep (such as photos and audio related to his relationship with his daughter Ivanka) — but he casts part of the blame on the Democrats' senior congressional leadership and even former President Barack Obama. (There was a palpable sense of Moore losing some of the audience when he went after Obama.) And by the end of the film, it's not clear what Moore believes the public ought to do except burn down the whole system — which is sort of what Jill Stein voters sought to do, en route to helping Trump get elected.

Moore, at 64, is sticking to the same format that made him famous. He presents himself as a plainspoken everyman but also a bit of a sage (e.g., he predicted Trump's election in 2016 because of his familiarity with the concerns of people from Michigan). He slips in some highly suspect, unverifiable claims (e.g., that Trump decided to run for president because he was trying to convince NBC to pay him a bigger performance fee for The Apprentice than it gave to Gwen Stefani for The Voice). He tries to shock his audience (e.g. rolling footage of a Hitler speech with Trump's voice dubbed over it). And he occasionally inserts himself into his own film with stunts of one sort or another (e.g., hosing Michigan Governor Rick Snyder's lawn with water from Flint).

Moore deserves credit for sharing evidence of his own past interactions with Trump, Jared Kushner, Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon, and for tracking down 99-year-old Ben Ferencz, the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg Trials in Fahrenheit. But some may feel the film lacks a clear and coherent thesis, something usually needed to advance in the awards race. The Academy's documentary branch seems to have mixed feelings about Moore himself. It has, in the past, elected him to represent it on the organization's board of governors, but it has also nominated only two of his films for the best documentary feature Oscar — Bowling for Columbia (2002), which won, and Sicko (2007), which didn't.

I would be surprised if Fahrenheit 11/9 doesn't attract a decent audience at the box office, in a year in which several docs have already earned small fortunes — but I would be sort of surprised if hard-bitten doc branch members also rally behind it.