No right-wing troll could ever trigger liberals as effectively as Michael Moore does in the first few minutes of Fahrenheit 11/9. He opens his new agitprop state-of-the-union documentary with footage from election night 2016, dragging us again through the slow-motion car crash of the evening’s events: the festivities at Hillary Clinton headquarters, the string of pundits insisting with total certainty that “Donald Trump is not going to be president,” the moment when everything began to turn—with the inevitability of a nightmare—away from the frontrunner and toward the cartoon fat cat who seemed to do everything in his power to torpedo his own chances. In one brilliantly cruel touch, Moore keeps cueing up and restarting Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song,” the Clinton campaign’s generic empowerment anthem, until the song becomes a grotesque parody of itself, ironically slathered over images of jaws dropping as the night goes much differently than anyone anticipated. Mostly, though, he just captures, with the queasy pull of a post-traumatic flashback, how it felt to so many of us, watching a worst-case scenario play out in real time.
“Was it all a dream?” Moore ponders aloud over the first images of premature election-night celebration, and if the moment doesn’t take you back to his last nonfiction rebuke of a sitting president, reversing the numbers in the title should make the connection explicit. Fahrenheit 11/9, in other words, bills itself as a kind of spiritual sequel to Fahrenheit 9/11, still the biggest hit of the director’s career and, by a substantial margin, the most commercially successful documentary of all time. But Moore hasn’t made another point-by-point exposé—he’d need an O.J.: Made In America running time to mount the comprehensive case against Donald J. Trump, whose list of failings, offenses, and assaults on democracy grows by the day. Instead, the filmmaker pursues a path arguably even more ambitious, attempting to take the temperature of the whole country during this moment of national crisis. As one might expect, it’s not his most focused act of impassioned muckraking.
Moore bookends his replay of November 8 with another open-ended question: “How the fuck did this happen?” Fahrenheit 11/9 doesn’t dig deep for an answer, assuming no one needs the sensibly drawn conclusions (“Of course it was Russia, and of course it was James Comey”) further explained. Anyone who’s seen one of the filmmaker’s pop-polemical screeds will recognize his approach: the alternately sardonic and earnest voice-over narration; the arranging of soundbites and news clips into damning montage (Moore was doing this years before Jon Stewart refined it into a winning nightly strategy); the vaudevillian comic relief, tied intrinsically to the director’s big personality, which honestly isn’t so different—in its look-at-me bluster—from Trump’s. Moore has a gift for digging up incriminating evidence on his targets, but Fahrenheit 11/9 produces no previously unearthed smoking guns, no pee tapes or tax returns. Of course, 45’s corruption remains an open book; Trump commits many of his crimes in broad daylight and plain sight—a point the film underlines with a disturbing highlight reel of all the times the president has ogled, objectified, and caressed his own daughter on television.
After the hopeful but speciously argued Where To Invade Next, which offered its own plan to make America great again, Moore has reconnected with his rage. For our current predicament, he finds a lot of blame to go around, placing it on politicians tucked into the pocket of big business, on the superdelegates who worked against Bernie Sanders at the convention, on anyone who didn’t hold Trump accountable for his sexual misconduct and shady business practices years ago, back when a public outcry could have ousted him from his Apprentice perch. (Moore includes himself in that particular critique, dusting off an old clip of him and the future president trading good-natured quips on The Rosie O’Donnell Show.) Fahrenheit 11/9 reserves much of its scorn for cable news and the part it played in Trump’s rise to power; an audio clip of an executive remarking that his campaign “may not be good for America, but it’s good for CBS” encapsulates how the media enabled the circus because it boosted ratings. At this point, the cynical might note that Trump has been good for Moore’s business, too—besides this documentary, he’s gotten a stand-up special (of sorts) and a hit Broadway show out of The Donald, to say nothing of what correctly predicting Clinton’s defeat has done to reenergize his brand.
For as much as the right once painted him as public enemy no. 1, Moore is no partisan shill. Some of his most withering attacks are aimed at the Democrats: their compromises, their lack of backbone, their own destructive relationship with corporate interests. Trump provokes an endless supply of disgust and outrage, but the most infuriating clip Moore spools up here may actually be the one of Obama drinking a glass of tap water in Flint, Michigan—a photo op that implied that the city’s contamination crisis had somehow been resolved, contrary to what experts were saying about how toxic the water supply still was. Perhaps not surprisingly, Fahrenheit 11/9 devotes an entire chapter to the water-poisoning scandal in Moore’s hometown—an urgent, inspired film-within-the-film that condemns the disaster in Flint as a monstrous crime of corporate greed, and which calls back to the director’s first (and still best) movie, Roger & Me. This almost self-contained passage is so clear-eyed in its compassion and righteous anger that it’s disappointing to see Moore close it with one of his hack-y “Jaywalking” stunts, this time showing up at Rick Snyder’s office to make a citizen’s arrest, before dousing the Michigan governor’s mansion in gallons of Flint water.
At times, Fahrenheit 11/9 is barely about Trump at all. The wannabe dictator’s occasional absence feeds into a larger point: In ways both scary and heartening, our particular cultural moment is bigger than the man in the White House. Moore recognizes Trump’s appeal as an alternative to Washington dynasties, while also identifying him as just another self-serving politician on a continuum that reaches back decades. At the same time, Moore also spotlights an emerging resistance, building a portion of his film around the hearts-and-minds crusade being waged by the Parkland survivors. Fahrenheit 11/9 argues that we’re at a crucial turning point, teetering on the edge of fascist rule even as—Moore insists—an overwhelming majority of the country believes in essentially socialist ideals. Democracy, he claims, is aspirational, and his film makes the case that defeating Trumpism in all its forms will require more than voting—it will demand an overhaul of the broken system that put him in power. Whether that’s a stirring call to action or a utopian fantasy may depend on how the choir to which Moore is preaching takes it.
Intentionally or not, Fahrenheit 11/9 often feels as scattered as the current political discourse. Moore, for all the tools at his disposal, is just doing what his target audience does every single day: processing an endless flow of new information, trying to reconcile mounting despair with flickers of optimism inspired by the sight of mass organized protest or the promising results of special elections. But can he really compete with the nonfiction film unfolding on Twitter at any given moment? Whatever its failings, Fahrenheit 9/11 felt like it was capturing history in the making; it was a rabble-rousing rallying cry from the very frontlines of the culture. In an age when the news cycles move much faster, thanks to both social media and the filter-free pathological liar driving them, Fahrenheit 11/9 can’t help but seem behind the times. Hook Moore up to a live feed tonight and his monologue, no matter how pointed, would be outdated by tomorrow.