The opening moments of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018) provoke an uncomfortable sense of the Freudian uncanny- The recognition of the familiar in a strange new context which inspires an often difficult to define sense of dread.
It is the 9th of November 2016, the now infamous night of the American election and the date from which Moore takes his title, one that poetically calls back to his Palme d’Or winning Fahrenheit 9/11. Armed with the distance of years, Moore guides us through the circus of election night in his characteristic ‘all knowing’ narrative style. He transports us back to Washington DC, a journey accompanied by the soundtrack of countless news outlets decrying the possibility of a Trump victory and asserting with certainty Hilary’s accent to presidency. We return to Hilary’s ‘victory party’ an extravagant glass venue filled with her supporters anticipating the metaphorical smashing of its glass ceiling. Just down the road, we observe a comparatively sombre almost empty assembly for the Trump campaign. Looking back in this way there is a striking sense of unreality to the evening. Is it the slick corporate theatre of American politics? Or is it the cringe-inducing dramatic irony of watching Hilary’s supporters triumphantly sing the campaigns’ anthem ‘Fight Song’ full in the knowledge of their defeat? What kind of absurdity is Moore referring to when he asks ‘was it all a dream?’ Because of course it wasn’t a dream. The 9th of November 2016 saw the election of a president few, not least Donald J Trump, had expected. It is here that Moore lays out Fahrenheit 11/9’s central premise, an attempt to answer the question ‘HOW THE FUCK DID WE GET HERE?’
For a film dubbed ‘Moore’s Trump Movie’ Fahrenheit 11/9’s focus on the Trump administration and the man himself, is surprisingly fleeting. Moore skates quickly over depressingly familiar ground, citing Trump’s ties to Russia, his misogyny (with particular emphasis on his inappropriate behaviour toward Ivanka), and his blatant racism. Moore does however recast this information in his own distinct style, by boldly injecting humour and highlighting farce. It is our sense of familiarity that drives Moore’s pacing and motivates the political satirist to keep the figure of Trump at the film’s edge. Moore instead desires to probe the causes of our familiarity. Trump, Moore states, has ‘always played the media for suckers’ and Fahrenheit 11/9 aims to expose Trump’s tentacle-like control of American media. Moore most effectively points to the complicity of the press through the damning audio recording that sees the President of CBS say ‘It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS…the money’s rolling in it’s amazing.’
There are of course some less familiar themes, like for example Moore’s claim that no one ‘is more to blame’ for Trump’s Presidency than (you guessed it) Gwen Stefani. Most memorable is Moore’s comprehensive comparison of the Trump era to Nazi Germany. It is not however the lazy and worn Hitler/Trump comparison you might expect, although there is plenty of material for that avenue of thought (“there were very fine people on both sides”). Instead, Moore sketches a decidedly historical argument. He cites the status of 1940’s Germany as a cultured and educated democracy that too fell victim to a charismatic, autocratic leader promising jobs. He finds further similarities in the reaction of the media and Hitler’s use of ‘states of emergency’ to efface democracy. Moore’s argument is well researched, and even includes interview with the last surviving Nuremburg prosecutor. But, of course no Moore/Trump/Hitler comparison would be complete without footage of a Hitler rally clumsily dubbed over with a Trump speech- a moment that elicits Moore’s distinctive brand of laughter, that mixture of horror and humour.
Fahrenheit 11/9 then, isn’t really a ‘Trump movie’ at all, choosing instead to focus on what brought us here. The film takes a somewhat surprising turn for those expecting a liberal love song as Moore lays the blame primarily with the Democrats and not the Republicans. America, Moore argues is an essentially leftist country citing that 71% of Americans are prochoice, 75% think immigration is good for the US and 74% want stricter climate change actions among other powerful statistics. So if liberals make up the American majority Moore asks, why has conservative politics consistently dominated American government? Fahrenheit 11/9 persuasively makes a case for the historic failure of the Democratic Party, finding them guilty of bowing to profit, upholding established seats of power, and even rigging the 2016 democratic primary. His argument is most successful in its use of the 2014 Flint Michigan Water Crisis, which saw a city in the poorest state in the country knowingly poisoned with contaminated water in pursuit of private profit. Moore draws telling comparisons between Trump and Michigan’s Governor and demonstrates how democratic governments (even under Obama) where actively paving the way for the politics we see today. The testimony Moore collects from Flint’s residents is utterly heartbreaking, and as a Michigan native himself Moore can be forgiven for allowing the issue the largest portion of the film’s attention to ensure those affected gain a voice.
Despite the decidedly bleak picture Moore paints, Fahrenheit 11/9 is not without hope. Moore finds it in the various pockets of activism and grass-roots political movements across the country. We spend time with the West Virginia Teachers and The Parkland High School Students, who each provide an exciting prospect for change. Moore should also be given credit for highlighting several rising stars in the Democratic Party in his film. By including Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Rashida Tlaib prior to their election to congress, Moore anticipates their energising effect on the political landscape. But perhaps ‘hope’ is the wrong word. Hope in Fahrenheit 11/9 is not assured. In interview Moore confesses ‘I don’t know how much hope I have left’ and that is certainly felt in his film. What Moore does seem sure of however, is the urgency of the change needed and the necessity to understand just what is at stake if that change fails to come, American Democracy.
Reading the critical response to Moore’s latest film I am struck by how much of a polarising figure he has become. Many take issue with Moore’s very particular style of storytelling, one that keeps himself as protagonist and guides the viewer with at times painful simplicity through his chosen anti-establishment topic. Particular venom is reserved for Moore’s ‘stunts’ that have become a regular feature of every film (In Fahrenheit 11/9 he attempts to put Flint’s governor under citizens arrest). But it is this style, which turns off so many, that makes Moore such an effective political filmmaker. He is able to condense vast swathes of information into only 2 hours. 2 hours that desire not only to inform but also to entertain. What you cannot question is Moore’s commitment to understanding the American politics, after all he was one of the few that saw Trump coming…
More like this?
As I mentioned, Moore’s films are all very distinctive in style, so if you enjoyed Fahrenheit 11/9 I would encourage you to take a look at the rest of his catalogue.
Some of my favourites are:
Fahrenheit 9/11 (Available on Netflix)
Where to Invade Next (Available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime)
Bowling for Columbine (Also available on Netflix)
Where can you find it?
It is available to rent on Amazon Prime and Sky On Demand