'Fahrenheit 11/9': Film Review | TIFF 2018

A pretty unfocused target.

Michael Moore's satirical documentary probes the reasons why Donald Trump got elected and records dissent against the political system from all around America.

Michael Moore fans who go into Fahrenheit 11/9 expecting to see a masterful takedown of the current U.S. president will be in for a disappointment. Although he does cook up some typically tasty morsels and makes astute considerations of the man, Donald Trump is not the main thrust of the film, which could more accurately be described as a preoccupying state of the union review.

The multiple targets and multiple threads which weave in and out of Fahrenheit 11/9 make it feel jumpy at times and less focused than Moore’s docs on health care, the automobile industry and the Columbine high school shootings. Nonetheless, there is much food for thought in the film, shot with the director’s characteristic passion, flair, wicked sense of humor and willingness to push the envelope. Among the risks he takes is a direct comparison of Trump to Adolf Hitler, which leads him to speculate that a further, frightening erosion of democratic process and constitutional rights could be in the making. The film was heartily acclaimed at its world premiere in Toronto; out in the real world, though, it is unlikely to travel far beyond the director’s regular audiences.

The title is a play on Fahrenheit 9/11 made in 2004, Moore’s top-grossing, Palme d’Or-winning documentary attacking the war in Iraq, and refers to the historic date, Nov. 9, when in the early morning hours the 2016 presidential election was called in favor of Donald J. Trump. With all the media attention currently focused on Trump, he is probably both too easy a target and his outpourings have already been thoroughly raked through the coals. That could account for Moore’s decision to cast his net wider to include the Parkland High School shootings and the rising students’ movement, strikes by underpaid teachers and the poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, his hometown. Most strikingly, perhaps, is his scathing criticism of the Democratic party establishment, including Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama.

The filmmaker is known for his uncannily accurate prediction that Trump would win the election, despite Hillary Clinton’s large lead in all the polls. While people on TV talk shows laughed at the very notion of a President Trump, Moore got it right. The film touches on most of the points he made in that prescient article, “5 Reasons Why Trump Will Win,” because they are still politically valid: the loss of jobs in states like Michigan to NAFTA countries (supported by Clinton), fear of a woman president, Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity, disappointment in the Bernie Sanders’ camp and general anger against a broken political system.

The opening scenes rehearse the pre-election illusion among most Democrats and Republicans that Clinton was destined to win, and the shock when she did not. Moore plays the operatic “Ridi, Pagliaccio” (laugh, clown) over the tears of Clinton supporters and the not-so-happy faces of the winners. Moore himself had a strange encounter with the young realtor Trump back in 1998 when the two of them were scheduled to appear together on Roseanne Barr’s talk show, an experience that left him with the conviction that Trump was a smart manipulator.

A distasteful sequence of photos shows Trump with his arms all over his daughter Ivanka, concluding with his famous comment that he would date her if she wasn’t his daughter. “He’s always committed his crimes in plain sight,” goads Moore, with more illustrations of racism and misogyny which made the Toronto audience gasp.

At this point, the film takes off in an unexpected direction to review the nightmarish decision of Michigan’s Republican governor Rick Snyder to switch the water supply of four predominantly black cities from the pure Lake Huron source to the highly polluted Flint River. Lead poisoning resulted in widespread sickness, especially among young children, but the governor refused to acknowledge the danger. When President Obama flew into Flint like a superhero on Air Force One, everyone expected him to save the situation; instead, he is shown asking for a glass of tap water and raising it to his lips to show how safe it is, to general dismay. Later, tanks arrive in Flint along with the army, who begin blowing up empty buildings as target practice — without any warning to residents, stresses Moore.

It’s an unsettling account and, though at first it seems peripheral to the film’s subject, Moore shows that it led straight to a fall-off in Democratic voters in the next elections, causing Hillary to lose by a small margin. His point is that it’s not apathy that keeps most people from voting, but disillusionment with party politics. He believes that the majority of Americans favor progressive laws but are thwarted by the conservative, compromise-oriented professional politicians and by the so-called liberal media. (The New York Times is specifically called out.)

Back to Trump. Moore is adept at satirizing his subject through editing and sound bites, but it doesn’t prepare the viewer to see Hitler dubbed to speak at a mass rally in Trump’s voice. The parallels he makes between the two leaders are numerous and provocative.

A ray of hope, or something more, is offered in interviews with determined West Virginia teachers who went on strike against the decision of their union. Other women activists are singled out, like young progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated an incumbent to win the Democratic primary in the Bronx and Queens, along with the high school students behind the recent huge student protest marches.

Production companies: Midwestern Films
Director, screenwriter: Michael Moore
Producers: Michael Moore, Carl Deal, Meghan O’Hara
Executive producers: Basel Hamdan, Tia Lessin
Directors of photography: Luke Geissbuhler, Jayme Roy
Editors: Doug Abel, Pablo Proenza
World sales: AGC International
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Docs)
121 minutes