Michael Moore has titled Fahrenheit 11/9 like a sequel to his 2004 megahit Fahrenheit 9/11, and he opens it the same way. “Was it all a dream?” he again asks, in his too-cute, put-upon, slurry/naive way. “Everything seemed to be going as planned.” And he walks us through an alternate reality we were so certain would come to pass, trotting out clips in which pundits outright reject the very idea that Donald Trump would be president. And then he revisits November 9, 2016 (it would be nice if just one contemporary documentary would resist that temptation), capturing the bad-dream quality of the midnight-or-so realization that no, the impossible was possible. He also takes a moment to remind the audience that he predicted this, a choice that’s more than a little self-serving, but hey, it is a Michael Moore movie. And then after all that, he asks a not unreasonable question: “How the fuck did this happen?”
Moore has some theories. He floats the convincing notion that the Trump campaign at first was a publicity stunt to crank up Trump’s Apprentice salary, and that his vanity then took over. He was aided by a news media eager to chase the story, no matter how reprehensible. Moore offers up a damning montage of empty-podium coverage, with news networks counting down to the start of Trump speeches, and audio of disgraced man of the hour Les Moonves noting, in the thick of the election, that Trump’s campaign “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
Moore follows that with an effective montage of the president’s creepiest moments, many involving comments about daughter Ivanka. Then comes the turn. “Does this make you uncomfortable?” Moore asks. “I don’t know why. None of this is new.”
None of this is new. Moore’s point is that Trump has always committed his crimes in plain sight, but that line jumps out, as it’s less about the president than it is about this movie. Fahrenheit 9/11 felt urgent because so much of what it had to tell and show us was new; in the pre-YouTube era of 2004, before The Rachel Maddow Show and late night’s comedy truth-tellers, its most damning clips were not easily accessible, and its impassioned liberal arguments were rare on our screens.
That’s probably why it was such a smash. 9/11 remains the highest-grossing documentary feature of all time, by a considerable margin: It grossed $119 million domestic, nearly $50 million more than second-placer March of the Penguins, and nearly $100 million more than Moore’s next biggest, Sicko. So it’s not surprising that the filmmaker decided to give Trump the same treatment. But 11/9 plays not like a much-needed blast of truth but like an all-purpose Michael Moore sequel, a self-congratulatory follow-up to several of his films, with Parkland material in the Bowling for Columbine vein, references to Sicko and even excerpts from 1989’s Roger & Me. On one clip from a shared appearance on Roseanne Barr’s short-lived talk show, Moore is even seen making nice with Mr. Trump, who compliments Moore’s Roger & Me and notes, with a smile, “I hope he never does one on me.”
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Too bad he didn’t. The problem with Fahrenheit 11/9 is that it’s Trump’s Fahrenheit 9/11 rather than Trump’s Roger & Me. The genius of Moore’s first film was its entry point: Moore began with an up-close look at his hometown of Flint, Michigan, and then expanded out to make Flint a microcosm for a broken nation. This one gets that backwards, to its detriment.
Moore strains to connect Trump to Flint by latching onto the idea that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder was something of the canary in the coal mine, or at least the gas that killed the canary. He posits Snyder as a proto-Trump — another CEO turned “run it like a business” politician, arguing that that approach made the governor singularly unqualified to deal with the Flint water crisis, which Moore calls, correctly, “a slow-motion ethnic cleansing.”
And here’s where Moore’s priorities betray him. The current water crisis really is an equivalent to the tragedy at Roger & Me’s center, the abandonment of Flint by General Motors. The best material here — serious and comic — addresses that crisis: the specifics of how it happened, the danger the citizenry still faces and the efforts of Snyder’s administration to cover it up. What Moore reports here is vital, enraging and not widely known. What we know all about, on the other hand, is Donald Trump and the 2016 election.
So it’s hard not to wonder how much Flint material was left on the cutting room floor so Moore could take a victory lap for having said on TV in 2016 that Trump could win or rehash Trump’s well-documented history of racism and misogyny or (yes) relitigate 2016’s Democratic primary. Moore clearly calls his own shots, has long seen the whims of his films affirmed by his loyal audience and presumably doesn't have a lot of people around him questioning his instincts. But someone should have asked a simple question: Why spend so much screen time rehashing all that when there’s a more important story, one so clearly suited to Moore’s talents and righteousness, staring him right in the face?