Michael Moore is seriously cheesed off. Nothing new there. But something about America’s former cap-wearing curmudgeon in-chief seems different this time. He’s less, well, curmudgeonly than usual. His agitating… not quite as agitated as before. Could it be that this firebrand documentary filmmaker, this surly scourge of the political elite, has mellowed? Or has he simply become jaded to the point of lethargy?
No. It quickly becomes apparent that what we are seeing is a man whose sense of self-worth has been revived. A man re-entering the public arena with the relaxed swagger of someone emboldened – to an almost unbearable degree – by the knowledge that they were right all along: about Trump, about Hilary, about Obama, about the whole sorry state of things. This is the Second Coming of Michael Moore. Please form an orderly queue for the rapture.
Moore loves to say ‘I told you so’, and he takes great pride in reminding us that he called this one early. The film opens on Election Night, November 9th, 2016. While the champagne corks are popping in the Clinton camp, there’s a funeral atmosphere over at Trump HQ as the exit polls seem to confirm what everyone already knew. Then the results begin to trickle in. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan turn red. Suddenly the mood switches. Team Hilary is stunned, their sure bet having snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. This, Moore hastens to add, is precisely what he warned us would happen.
Then comes a startling admission. Twenty years ago, Moore had the opportunity to chastise Trump on live daytime television, but instead he gave him an easy ride. Of course, he wasn’t to know that the man he shared cosy small talk with on ‘The Roseanne Show’ would one day find himself sitting in the Oval Office. Yet the inclusion of this clip serves a function beyond easing Moore’s own guilt. As he points out, back in ’98 Trump was a Democrat and a vocal Bill booster. And it was Slick Willie who encouraged his old golf buddy to run for President – though if you ask Moore, Gwen Stefani is to blame.
Fahrenheit 11/9 sees Moore once again rail against the establishment, picking off a laundry list of targets as he highlights the gross incompetence and rank hypocrisy that have left hard-working ordinary Americans more disenfranchised and divided than ever. Trump didn’t simply drop out of the sky, posits Moore, he rose up through the cracks of a system that for too long has been rigged in favour of a powerful few. Populism is symptomatic of a breakdown of a truly representative democracy system. So if America is a busted flush, how does Moore propose fixing it?
To his credit he doesn’t offer any easy solutions, instead looking to the next generation for answers. Segments on gun violence and grassroots activism are where the film really hits its stride. Moore checks in with survivors of the Parkland school shooting and current members of ‘Never Again MSD’, the student-led gun control advocacy group behind the ‘March For Our Lives’ demonstration. He also meets several new faces on the political scene (all Democrats, an encouraging proportion of whom are women), and a contingent of West Virginia public school teachers who successfully negotiated a deal for higher wages and benefits earlier this year following a state-wide strike.
Moore can’t help indulging his worst tendencies though. At one point he parks a water truck outside the gated stately home of Rick Snyder – the Republican Governor Moore blames for the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the director’s hometown – and proceeds to give his front lawn a good soaking. Later, Moore strides into the statehouse to make a citizen’s arrest, but doesn’t make it past security. Both are cute stunts that say more about Moore’s proclivity for self-aggrandising ceremony than his ability to rigorously scrutinise his adversaries.
While he remains unabashedly one-sided and often over-simplifies complex issues, there is no denying the power of Moore’s distinct brand of provocative infotainment. He may labour the point at times, but this is – for better and for worse – the same filmmaker who won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2002 for his anti-gun polemic, Bowling for Columbine, and the Palme d’Or in 2004 for Fahrenheit 9/11, his searing takedown of the Bush administration’s ‘War on Terror’. The latter is still the high-grossing documentary in history.
If Fahrenheit 11/9 feels comparatively scattershot in its approach, less exact in its indignation, you suspect that’s partly because Moore knows it’s virtually impossible to lay a glove on Trump. The reality is that the 45th POTUS has rendered self-publicising political commentators and satirists like Moore largely irrelevant. (You need look no further than 2016’s Michael Moore in TrumpLand for evidence of this.) Yet in the brief moments when he climbs down off his soapbox and lets others do the talking, Moore shows us that there are reasons to be hopeful in these strange, uncertain times.