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Review: Fahrenheit 11/9

September 21, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

How did America get to the point in 2016 where the ubiquitous businessman turned realty show star Donald Trump was able to win the presidency?

This is the basic question fuelling Michael Moore’s latest film, Fahrenheit 11/9, a sometimes engaging but mostly frustrating and ultimately overly simplistic and wholly unfocused screed against the problems plaguing the United States today.

Named for the day after the 2016 election when Trump was confirmed as the next president in the wee hours of the morning, beating the establishment favourite Hillary Clinton in a shocking upset that led to the total meltdown of the media, the title of Fahrenheit 11/9 also positions the film as a sequel of sorts to Moore’s 2004 Iraq War documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.

While this title works as a clever inverse of that earlier film’s moniker, it also seems more than a little sensationalistic, and the suggestion that Trump’s election was a national tragedy near the same level as the 9/11 terrorist attacks seems like a gross exaggeration. The actual content of the film offers a mixed bag of pointed social commentary and biased opinion, with Moore’s usual heavy handed, preaching to the choir style being sometimes effective, and other times eye-rollingly manipulative.

Nonetheless, Fahrenheit 11/9 offers a lot to talk about, so I’m just going to jump right in. Near the start of the film, Moore lays out his theory that Trump only announced he was running for president in the summer of 2015 because he found out that NBC was paying Gwen Stefani a higher salary as a judge on The Voice than he was getting as host of The Apprentice. So, according to Moore, he held a fake press conference as a way to gain publicity, in hopes that it would convince the network to up his salary.

But when Trump criticized Mexican immigrants at the press conference, was accused of racism, and subsequently fired from the network in the midst of the backlash, his plan backfired and he decided to stay in the race. I can’t say if there is validity to these claims, or if it is merely an anecdotal theory. But what Moore fails to mention is the fact that Trump has toyed with the idea of running for office since at least the late 1980s, evidenced by a multitude of interviews that he did with the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Larry King, which are viewable on YouTube, when he was actually being encouraged to run by many of the same people who turned against him when he eventually did.

Trump also came very close to securing the Reform Party nomination in 2000, which ultimately went to Pat Buchanan, whom Trump attacked as being anti-semitic and anti-gay throughout the campaign. It’s also worth noting that many of Trump’s social and foreign policy positions have stayed the same over the past few decades, showing a level of consistency even if you vehemently disagree with him. This is not to say that I’m defending Trump as president, but to say that his political ambitions were simply a ruse or came out of nowhere is also utterly false, and it seems dishonest of Moore to not even mention any of his prior attempts to run for the presidency.

But the film moves so fast and Moore throws so many things at the screen, with his usual mix of calculated edits and ironic musical cues, that he seems to hope we will be too outraged by what we are seeing to even notice the blatant manipulation of what he is doing here. The problem is that all of these purposely ignored facts do add up, and they actually threaten to invalidate his larger argument. Moore takes too many cheap shots to seem like a completely honest purveyor of the truth, which is absolutely the wrong approach, especially when there are legitimate criticisms to be made against Trump.

We get a montage showing how several of the reporters who challenged Hillary Clinton in interviews, which was their job to do, were later accused of sexual misconduct. This feels purposely misleading, not because it isn’t true, but because Moore fails to mention the fact that serial predator Harvey Weinstein was one of the major backers of the Democratic Party before his fall from grace. It’s actually insulting how Moore tries to make the #MeToo movement into a right vs. left issue here, when in reality it’s a much larger social and cultural problem that goes far beyond political boundaries.

The glaring fact that Bill Clinton himself is (allegedly) a rapist is also ignored in favour of a really gross sequence that seems to suggest an incestuous relationship between Trump and his daughter Ivanka, with no real evidence to back this up beyond a few tasteless jokes he has made over the years. This is not to say that Trump has a stellar record with women, because he clearly doesn’t and I will be the first to admit that some of the things he’s said and allegedly done are disgusting, but there is a fairly large well of other stuff to draw from without relying on these spurious and salacious claims.

Moore appears apologetic for not going harder on Trump when he first met him back in the 1990s on Roseanne Barr’s talk show, but this is just more evidence of the fact that nobody really seemed to have a problem with Trump before he took on the political elites by running for president. Moore also offers his own mea culpa for the fact that Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon were both semi-involved in the marketing and release of his 2007 healthcare documentary Sicko, while conveniently leaving out the fact that the same film was produced by none other than Harvey Weinstein, who was also set to produce this one before the funding fell through for obvious reasons.

The best stuff in the film comes when Moore is focused on his hometown of Flint, Michigan and the water crisis that took hold there in 2014, when Governor Rick Snyder switched the town’s water supply from Lake Huron to the polluted Flint River, so that his company could profit off of building a new water pipeline. But lead from the pipes leached into the water supply, and was ingested by the residents, leading to dangerously high levels of lead being found in the blood of countless children, which the governor’s office systematically tried to cover up.

A federal state of emergency was only declared in Flint in 2016, at which point President Obama visited the city and held a condescending town hall session in which he pretended to drink the water, and glibly talked about how he probably ingested lead paint as a child and turned out okay, which went over about as well as you would expect. But this crisis has little, if anything, to do with Trump, aside from adding to the feeling of being ignored by the status quo that plagued many communities, and even Moore has to concede the fact that Trump was the only presidential candidate to visit the Flint water treatment plant during the election cycle, pledging to help fix the failing infrastructure once in office.

Moore is also quite effective when he is openly criticizing the corrupt leadership of the DNC, detailing how they rigged the primaries against the more progressive and more popular Bernie Sanders in favour of the corporate-backed Hillary Clinton, pushing her over the edge for the nomination with unelected super delegates in a move that left many Democrats feeling disillusioned. Their unfair treatment of Bernie and his supporters, who did put up a good fight against Clinton before finally selling out and backing her, is what led many people, myself included, to walk away from the party.

But Moore also frequently goes over the top in his doomsday warnings that Trump’s election was a death knell for democracy, when in reality he was democratically elected under the system they currently have in place. Moore clings to the fact that Clinton came out slightly ahead in the popular vote, with Trump winning the electoral college in a landslide, as proof the election was undemocratic. He even describes the wooden boxes carrying the electoral college votes as “baby coffins” in one of the film’s most cringe-inducing and unintentionally laughable moments.

The distinction, of course, that Moore fails to make, is that the electoral college was actually put in place as a safeguard for democracy so that people in more populous states such as New York and California would not always be the ones deciding elections. Whether you agree with the system or not, the fact is that the majority of people in more than half the states voted for Trump, which is what the electoral college is meant to reflect. But Moore goes for sensationalism on this issue, instead of offering a more nuanced argument against it.

Moore also jumps around a lot, going off on tangents that are only superficially connected to his main argument. We get a sequence focusing on the Parkland, Florida school shooting that happened earlier this year, when an insane former student opened fire with an AR-15, killing seventeen people. This allows Moore to revisit the themes of his Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine, but the connections that he makes to Trump are strenuous at best, and his overview of the event feels rushed.

The shooting resulted in a group of survivors-turned-activists, led by Cameron Kasky, David Hogg and Emma González, to spearhead the March For Our Lives, advocating for better gun control and protesting the amount of campaign dollars that many politicians take from the NRA. Moore claims that the march, along with hundreds of others across the country, was organized entirely by students, but at least for the sake of transparency, it’s worth noting that they were funded by powerful corporate groups and received millions of dollars in donations from celebrities.

Moore is also far too fawning in his portrayal of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-professed “democratic socialist” who became a rising star after coming from behind to defeat career politician Joe Crowley in a New York primary election earlier this year. But Ocasio-Cortez is herself a politician running on feel good sloganeering and a simplistic retooling of the facts, as evidenced by her apparent refusal to debate anyone who disagrees with her, and her embarrassing assertion that “unemployment is low because everyone has two jobs”, a claim that has been widely debunked by people on all sides.

By the time Moore lip syncs audio of Trump at one of his rallies over footage of Adolf Hitler, it just feels like a cheap stunt, mostly because the comparisons that he tries to make between Trump and Hitler are superficial at best. Even Trump’s rhetoric about “fake news”, which many point to as proof of his authoritarian impulses, is a very specific response to the biased treatment that he gets from many media outlets, which is almost undeniable at this point, whether you agree with him or not. It’s also crucial to make the distinction that Trump’s words thankfully haven’t been met with any sort of legislative action to actually crack down on the press.

And herein lies my biggest problem with Fahrenheit 11/9. Moore often plays so desperately to his rabidly anti-Trump base, that I’m not sure if the film is actually going to help anything, or if it will just add more fuel to the increasingly polarized outrage fire that has ripped apart our entire political discourse. Moore seems to have at least some understanding of the fact that many of the same disenfranchised working class people who in the past have supported his work – many of whom voted for Obama, who promised change but arguably failed to really deliver it in any sort of meaningful way – helped bring Trump into office, which is what makes his often simplistic approach here so disappointing.

The real reason why Trump won is because people wanted something different, and he presented more of an option for change than Hillary Clinton, even if that change was just to take a battering ram to the system as it was. Even Moore begrudgingly admits at one point that he got some enjoyment out of watching Trump take on the Republican establishment one by one during the primaries, with him even laying waste to Jeb Bush along the campaign trail, as Trump blasted the records of his competitors for signing off on the Iraq War and destabilizing the Middle East.

There are many moments when we can tell that Moore is cherry picking facts, when in reality the truth actually paints a much murkier and more aggravating picture. Moore also seems too convinced of the fact that the solution to all of this is for candidates to take an even harder left turn. What he doesn’t properly address is the fact that the modern left’s fixation with identity politics, and their increasingly censorious attempts to shut down any voices with which they disagree, are a big part of what is fuelling this backlash to political correctness that led to Trump being elected in the first place.

When the film is focused on the Flint water crisis, and the political corruption that led to it, Moore is on fire. When the film is focused on how the DNC openly colluded against Bernie Sanders, Fahrenheit 11/9 actually does a good job of peeling back the curtain on the many problems within the current political system, where corporate donors are essentially able to buy elections. But at the same time, there is uncomfortable truth to the fact that Trump’s election basically proved that it was still possible for an outsider to take down the system, with him spending far less than his rival in order to win.

Yes, the system is broken. And that’s why Trump won, not necessarily as a result of the broken system, but rather as an angry response to it. The date in the title could just as easily represent, apart from the national disaster that Moore sets it up to be, the night when the old establishment was finally taken down. The most ironic thing about Fahrenheit 11/9 is that, while Moore is pretty effective at outlining how the political system as a whole is broken and has been for a long time, he is much less effective at making an original or even particularly compelling argument against Trump himself.

We’ve mostly seen and heard this all before. And the very same populist anger running through America that Moore documents in Fahrenheit 11/9, coupled with an undeniably strong economy and a record low unemployment rate, is what will likely, for better or worse, propel Trump to a second term in 2020.

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