Anyone who recalls then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz ickily licking his comb to style his hair in the opening sequence to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is in for a treat: a fleck of spittle. Moore’s quasi-sequel about governmental mendacity spends a conspicuous amount of screen time on the blob in the corner of Donald Trump’s mouth the day he announced his candidacy for the highest office in the land. It’s gross. To Moore’s many detractors, this is the kind of gesture that tips him from documentarian to propagandist. But Fahrenheit 11/9 proves how the frumpy Michigander who correctly called the 2016 presidential election deserves our attention now more than ever.
The film opens with that ultimate trigger of liberal tears: a montage of scenes from Hillary Clinton’s would-be victory party as the moral arc of the universe bent toward shit. The 11/9 of the title refers to the day after — specifically, to 2:35 a.m. on Nov. 9, 2016, the moment the networks called it for Trump. From there, it’s a discursive romp from Washington to Lansing and back, indicting virtually everyone in elective office who isn’t named Bernie Sanders. We see Flint’s water crisis as an ethnic cleansing that the sainted Barack Obama all but ignored. We see Trump perving out over his daughter Ivanka (a lot) and crudely manipulating the media, as far back as 1985. We hear the novel theory that all of this is Gwen Stefani’s fault — well, not really, although Trump’s pique that NBC was paying a pop star more than him so rattled his ego that he altered the course of human destiny.
Moore squeezes the Establishment’s pressure points in a way that lets almost no one off the hook, but he reserves particular ire for The New York Times and Democratic Party apparatchiks. He makes a compelling case that centrist self-congratulation masks an institution with no read on the country it hopes to govern. To Moore, America is a left-wing nation — if only the cowardly Democrats would see it.
There’s a great deal of truth in that, and Fahrenheit 11/9 is an excellent delivery mechanism. Further, inside the cresting Blue Wave is an intra-party sub-revolution that’s vaulting to the fore candidates like Bronx socialist dynamo Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and straight-shooting West Virginian Richard Ojeda, both of whom Moore interviews. He connects some necessary dots in noting how many of Hillary Clinton’s media antagonists later went down in sexual-abuse scandals. He also excoriates CBS president Les Moonves for giving candidate Trump limitless airtime — and this was before Moonves’ #MeToo fall from grace.
But before much righteous outrage enters the bloodstream, Moore rips viewers back into fear. When it comes to Trump-Hitler comparisons, Moore not only goes there, he goes all the way there — Godwin’s law be damned. His point is not simply to be inflammatory for the sake of turning out liberal voters; it is to state that we are zero 9/11s away from a post-democracy. This is almost certainly the film’s most polarizing bit, especially for anyone fond of “Are you deliberately trying to alienate moderates?” reasoning.
Moore’s true limitation, however, is his inability to admit he’s an insider now. Fahrenheit 11/9 is full of candidly offered evidence: Moore tussling Jared Kushner’s hair, Moore and Trump gabbing on Roseanne’s talk show. A replayed 911 call in which the dispatcher asks if there are any weapons elicits a response the filmmaker no doubt found extremely droll: “Michael Moore is here.” He compartmentalizes his fame, but you can’t credibly remain an avatar of the proverbial white working class and stage a Broadway show, as Moore did last fall, with The Terms of My Surrender. At least one of those personae is rooted in showmanship.
Celebrity Everyman or not, to his infinite credit, Michael Moore isn’t one of those progressive purists who refrain from fixing the world until such time as everything is already perfect. He’s at bottom a roll-up-your-sleeves type, and his hope is that Trump’s legacy will be a revitalized Democratic Party that prioritizes workers and the oppressed over speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. Moore is upbeat about this possibility, but he won’t let us forget that the damage to the system is dire and may never heal. “How the fuck did this happen?” is Fahrenheit 11/9’s thesis statement, and if you’ve grown desensitized to how profoundly Donald Trump has changed everything, it’ll wake you right back up. After all, there was a time when political ambitions could be thwarted by misspelling “potato” or screaming a little too exuberantly into a mic.
Rated R. Opens Thursday.