Fahrenheit 11/9

October 25, 2018
Michael Moore hoses down the Governor's lawn with Flint water (rich in lead)

Godwin’s Law states that the longer an on-line discussion continues the more likely it is that someone will mention Hitler. In Fahrenheit 11/9 it takes Michael Moore an hour-and-a-half to invoke Der Führer, but when he does there’s no holding back. We get newsreel footage of Hitler addressing a rally, but the voiceover comes from Donald Trump. For every Nazi atrocity there is a cringeful American parallel.

Many of these matches are less than credible. To compare the 2009 attack on the World Trade Centre to the burning of the Reichstag in 1933 is a confusing tactic. 9/11 may have given the United States an excuse to invade Iraq but it wasn’t the result of an internal conspiracy. The Nazis are generally believed to have torched the Reichstag themselves, so as to blame the incident on the Communists and justify a power grab.

On the other hand… American politics has ventured so far into the realms of the fantastic that even analogies with the Third Reich no longer seem far-fetched. Three years ago it would have been unthinkable for Neo-Nazis to parade around the streets of Charlottesville without drawing universal condemnation, yet President Trump found there were some very fine people in their ranks.

Under Trump we have become so accustomed to lies and scandals that never a week goes by without some bombshell that would have brought down any previous President. Primo Levi showed that human beings can adjust to even the most barbaric conditions. How much easier is it to get used to the antics of Donald Trump, which come across as a perpetual TV sitcom? It’s obvious to every student of Paradise Lost that the devil has all the best lines. Under Trump evil becomes high entertainment.

Moore’s tactic is to fight fire with fire, to create extreme responses to extreme situations. When crime and incipient despotism have been normalised, he tries to jolt us back into awareness. He stages his own lame stunts, such as turning up at the Michigan Governor’s office to make a citizen’s arrest.

The title of this documentary refers to the day in November, 2016 when it became apparent that Trump had won the election. Moore piles on the hubris for Hillary Clinton’s supporters, who thought they had it in the bag. He shows a montage of laughing commentators writing Trump off. Election night begins as a huge Democrat love-in and ends in devastation. Meanwhile, over at Trump’s much smaller, more low-key party, the President Elect and his supporters seem disturbed rather than triumphant. He never expected to win.

Moore goes looking for who is to blame. Gwen Steffani is one candidate, but ultimately he can’t get past those Democrats who saw themselves cruising to victory. As the film progresses Moore will reveal some very ugly aspects of the Clinton and Obama presidencies, and show how the party falsified its own grass roots voting returns to eliminate Bernie Sanders. He makes a clear case that the Democrats brought about their own apocalypse through a mixture of complacency and corruption that betrayed their natural support base. Disenchanted Democrats stayed home while revved-up Trump supporters queued to vote.

For Moore, Trump isn’t the cause of America’s woes but a symptom of a wider malaise. In this movie the President plays a kind of supporting role, as the end result of many bad calculations. Moore’s main subject, although one would never know until well into the film, is the crisis that engulfed his home town of Flint, Michigan, when Republican Governor, Rick Snyder, decided to build a new water supply. While the work was underway the citizens of Flint were forced to drink contaminated river water with alarming levels of lead.

It’s a long story, but Moore’s case is that firstly there was no need to build a new pipeline, as the existing one worked perfectly. The project was a windfall for investors and corporates, whose interests were protected even as the children of Flint absorbed lead into their bloodstreams and DNA. Governor Snyder, whose callousness can scarcely be believed, seems to have been complicit in all kinds of deceptions and cover-ups.

This is a powerful story, and worthy of a documentary in its own right, but for Moore it’s only the start. He leaps around from topic to topic in an effort to chart all the bad things about American life today, from school shootings to the exploitation of teachers and other workers, to the pervasive lack of civility that has infected everyday life.

As a consequence, the documentary becomes an anthology rather than a single, unified narrative. Welling up from beneath this hubbub of topics is a heroic story about the masses taking back the political process from their corrupt representatives. Moore dwells on the teachers’ strike in West Virginia and the high school students’ anti-gun campaign in the wake of the Florida shootings, as successful examples of people power.

The problem is that these mass movements resulted in only piecemeal changes. The system remains intact. The election boundaries are still hopelessly gerrymandered; the working classes mired in lethargy, or hot for Trump. One understands that Moore wants to inspire hope, not despair; to make his audience feel that fundamental change is possible. To do this, he has to ignore the damning evidence to the contrary assembled in this film. Rick Snyder, for all his offences, is still Governor of Michigan. Donald Trump is President. The gun lobby is still paying politicians, environmental controls are being rolled back. Health care, welfare and wages are steadily eroding while the rich are getting much, much richer. It looks like there’s a lot more pain ahead before anything begins to improve. It’s more likely that Donald Trump will simply declare himself President for Life, then we need not hear another word about the crisis of American democracy.

Fahrenheit 11/9
Written & directed by Michael Moore
Starring Michael Moore, Donald Trump, Adolf Hitler, Gwen Stefani, and a cast of 1000s
USA, rated M, 128 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 27 October, 2018