Guesses about Donald Trump’s fate aside, it was always a safe bet that the relentless hot spatter of scandal and outrage that his candidacy/presidency created would eventually merit a feature-length movie response from liberal provocateur Michael Moore. If only to remind us, as Moore does at the beginning of his latest, the feverish anti-Trump documentary “Fahrenheit 11/9,” that his Rust Belt-aware cynicism accurately predicted the Donald’s win over Hillary Clinton. (The title, a number-flip shout-out to his Oscar-winning George W. Bush documentary, refers to the day after the 2016 election.)
If your tolerance for the hows, whys and what-nows of America’s current political miasma is well-frayed from a steady diet of headlines and head-scratching, the good news about Moore’s new broadside is that it’s not some jokey rehash of Trump’s readily lampoonable sins. Instinctively, Moore seems to have grasped that such an approach would have been an easy recipe for the resistance to feel superior, and therefore complacent.
Instead, Moore takes to task Democrats’ timid politics and blindness to Trump’s corrosive communications skills, even owning up to his own past celeb-coziness with the Trump orbit (including the fact that Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon were involved in promoting Moore’s 2007 film “Sicko”).
It’s a brutally honest kickoff for what this loved/hated populist rabble-rouser intends to be a dire warning, and a messy, impassioned (and yes, fitfully jokey) call to action that shames the left as often as it demonizes the right, and leaves one feeling that the best course for anyone concerned about progressive causes, feckless politicians and the future of democracy is to get out and fight.
It makes this perhaps Moore’s most convincing jumble of unkempt righteousness yet, in much the way our current precariousness imbued Spike Lee’s oft-polarizing techniques to renewably urgent effect in this year’s “BlacKkKlansman.” Moore’s movie may not have the ferocious artistry of Lee’s – or really, any artistry -- but it’s a powerfully blunt instrument nonetheless, designed to awaken more than inflict bruises.
There’s already enough pain, anyway, in places like Moore’s hometown of Flint, Mich., literally poisoned by a shady water-source switch, signed off by privatization-mad Gov. Rick Snyder, that overwhelmingly affected the depressed city’s communities of color. (In his blistering rundown of the crisis, Moore calls it an “ethnic cleansing.” He also faults former President Obama for flying in to fake-drink the water and back up the city’s leaders.)
The intrepid work of dedicated citizens – fed-up mom LeeAnne Walters, Dr. Mona Hanna-Atisha and featured whistleblower April Cook-Hawkins -- exposed the malfeasance, in much the way Moore goes on from there to celebrate West Virginia teachers of all political persuasions who marched off the job to demand better wages, inspiring educators across the country to do the same. He similarly finds motivational examples in the awakened activism of Parkland, Fla.’s shooting-scarred teens, and ascendant Democratic political stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib.
Although he’s less of a physical presence this time around, Moore’s addiction to cheap jabs remains, including a stunt in which he drives a tanker of Flint water to Snyder’s house for a yard spray – it’s like a bad YouTube prank clip with only five views. He also mars a surprisingly well-reasoned comparison of today’s climate to the rise of Nazi Germany by including a dumb lip-reading gag adding Trump’s voice to footage of Adolf Hitler speaking. Who needs the lame comedy when he has a potent interview with a 99-year-old Nuremberg prosecutor who sheds tears over his own observed parallels?
That doesn’t mean Moore wants you to cry, however. He also doesn’t want you to buy into optimism, either. We’re past that, he believes. “Fahrenheit 11/9” may be a scattered summing-up of bad origins, and a loose blame game about our present corrosiveness, but what gives it its sear is its message of a ruptured country as eminently fixable, as long as wishing and hoping is replaced by organizing and doing.
Rated: R, for language and some disturbing material/images
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Playing: In general release