The maddening thing with most of Michael Moore’s documentaries is that at some point, he hurts his own line of argument, whether it’s an unnecessary digression or a small mistake. Moore’s oeuvre is certainly not there for comfort viewing, but I always feel restless watching something new of his because he seems to veer off at some point into the undergrowth. Remember how he quoted wrongly from the hull of a Lockheed bomber plane in Fahrenheit 9/11? He starts to build up his argument with footage, witness accounts and pictures that seem too good to be true, and then he commits a blunder that makes the movie lose steam – not all of it, but the story he wants to tell gets weaker, and the movie has a hard time recovering from it.
He does a similar thing in his latest Fahrenheit 11/9, which could either be a forceful stab at Trump, or a roundhouse kick at the whole mess of the last 25 years of US politics. It is neither, because Moore can’t decide where he wants to use his crowbar: Trump, Flint, school shootings, teacher strikes; it’s all in there, but because he is meandering like that, he loses momentum.
Take for instance the moment when he explains about the old water pipeline from Lake Huron to Flint with its clean water, and the new, completely unnecessary water pipeline that takes its water from the lead-poisoned Flint River because it’s cheaper. This manoeuvre was cooked up by the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, and has caused twelve deaths and a four-digit number of children poisoned with lead. Snyder only acted when his backer GM complained that their cars got quality problems because of that selfsame water; he saw to it that the factory, and only the factory, got the old, clean water back. That bit is a sort of mini-doc, and it works really well as such, but then to claim that maybe Donald Trump learned a thing or two about political corruption from Synder in order to get back to the A-story is a very weak, almost non-existent link.
Another example: he ends his prologue with the question about how Trump’s election into office could have happened, only to immediately follow it up with the quip that it was Gwen Stefani’s fault because she earned more on The Voice than Trump earned on The Apprentice. It’s a bad idea to rile your audience up and then feed them a line dripping with irony. Moore has a kind of righteous anger that comes off the screen so much that most of the audience can feel it, too; in a way, that is almost his trademark. Moore could make whole movies riding on that anger, but he resorts to funny asides when they’re uncalled for. I know that a bitter pill like personal disappointment goes down much better when coated in humour, but too much irony gets it stuck in the throat. And it’s morally questionable to put Trump’s words into an on-screen Hitler’s mouth. What is gained by that comparison? It’s too facile and one of Moore’s cheaper shots.
For all the shortcomings, Moore knows how play his cards right most of the time. There is that Roseanne Show excerpt from years ago where he sits at the same table as Trump. He admits that Jared Kushner threw him an after-party at the premiere of Moore’s 2007 doc Sicko. He also admits that Steve Bannon managed the VHS release of Fahrenheit 9/11. That is as effective and puzzling as when Moore presented his NRA membership card, but at the same time, it’s a signal that Moore seems to know what he is talking about, and not just an outsider with a lot of anger. There is the sobering fact that it was Bill Clinton who allowed for all the deregulations. There is the moment where Obama turns up in Flint, but doesn’t bring the much-hoped-for emergency relief, drinks a glass of Flint water to everyone’s disappointment, and then fucks off out of there again. There is the fact that in November 2016, Hillary Clinton claimed some districts for herself when in reality they were all won by Bernie Sanders. And there is the sequence of incredibly creepy TV scenes in which Trump muses about having sex with his daughter Ivanka, who is sitting right there beside him, and the cameras are rolling. And there are those new hopefuls like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have the thankless task of chipping away at the old farts who get nothing done politically but who still rule the Democrats. Powerful stuff, and the thing that Moore is best at. Those scenes work to great effect, but then we are off to the lead poisoning and its non-existent link to the main theme. There is a strong red thread missing in this movie, and if you take the title seriously, that should be not just a thread, but a fuse. And most of us have come to see how Moore takes down Trump, have we not? It’s all good and well when Moore sprays leaded water on Snyder’s front lawn, but Trump seems to get away with too much in that movie. Just like in real life.