TORONTO — On the eve of a critical election in 2004, Michael Moore released “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a hand-grenade of a movie that made many liberals giddy and many conservatives apoplectic.
Here we go again.
At the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, Moore unveiled “Fahrenheit 11/9,” a spiritual follow-up to his George W. Bush-era bombshell, which remains the highest-grossing documentary in history. The new film, which The Washington Post was given an early look at, has similar techniques as its predecessor: using its director’s colorfully incredulous voice to expose the complicity of the political system and maybe sway an election in the process.
But unlike in that film, a Republican president is only one of Moore's targets. As many shots as he takes at President Trump, the provocateur filmmaker is also eager to expose a Democratic establishment he says has not done enough to push back against the White House or advance a progressive agenda.
“One of the reasons I made this movie is that I’ve come to the conclusion that the old guard of the Democratic Party is a greater roadblock to social progress than Trump is,” Moore said in an interview. “Because they’re taking half-measures, because they’re beholden to the same money and interests.”
Moore was in a Toronto hotel suite just hours before “Fahrenheit” was set to screen at the festival, giving one of his first interviews of what will certainly be many at the annual Hollywood gathering. The director has premiered many of his efforts at Toronto in Septembers past, including “Where to Invade Next,” his 2015 travelogue of countries with innovative social policies. But it’s unlikely many of them will land with anywhere near the impact of “11/9,” which comes at a more charged time in America — and with a far more charged message.
The film, which will be released in 1,500 theaters Sept. 21, tackles a simple if sprawling question: “How the … did we get here?” as his early voice-over says. The film that follows can be a bit of a hodgepodge of America’s problems and potential solutions. But it seeks to make up in energy what it lacks in thematic uniformity, and by the time it's over it has made a case many are likely to find alarming and provocative. Depending on your politics, you may find it inspiring.
Moore moves among topics such as Trump; outsider progressive politicians like congressional candidates Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Richard Ojeda and Rashida Tlaib; the West Virginia teachers' strike; the gun-control activism of teenagers affected by the Parkland, Fla., school shooting; the missteps of the Democratic establishment; and the history of tyrants (and the future potential for same, especially in the United States).
Closest to his heart is the water crisis in Flint, Mich., his hometown. “When you have the highest water bill in the nation in the poorest city in the nation, who has time to protest? You need to feed your family,” says one citizen, outlining one of several challenges faced by the city after its water supply became contaminated.
In one of the newsier bits, April Cook-Hawkins, who worked for Michigan’s Genesee County, says she was told by superiors to change medical data to make the water seem safe. Moore believes it should occasion an investigation, all the way up to Michigan's Republican governor, Rick Snyder. Cook-Hawkins told The Post after the screening that she lost her job when she blew the whistle and is still waging a legal battle against county executives over the incident. “I just want to shine a light on what happened there,” she said of her decision to come forward. “Because we still don't have clean water, but no one seems to notice."
The tie binding all these topics is what Moore suggests is a crisis born of politics as usual — a desire not to address problems so much as paper them over, often in the service of large corporate interests. Indeed, Moore argues that Trump was the wrong solution to the right problem. The real solution, he says, lies in the grass-roots progressivism of Ocasio-Cortez and Ojeda.
In fact, Moore saves some of his most unexpected criticism for traditional Democrats, underlining, via 2016 Democratic National Convention footage, how Hillary Clinton won the nomination by superdelegates from many states where rival Bernie Sanders had won the primary.
And he has strong words for Trump’s predecessor.
“The worst thing that President Obama did was pave the way for President Trump,” Moore says in a voice-over in the film, citing the “imprison[ment] of whistleblowers,” "drone strikes and bombing of civilian populations” and “deporting a record number of immigrants and separating them from their children.” He shows a scene of Obama sipping water in Flint, noting that it was a performative gesture that set the city back years because it suggested the problem had been resolved. Moore also takes aim at Obama for accepting donations from Wall Street entities like Goldman Sachs.
The media, including The Post, do not escape criticism, either, particularly via a Sanders interview in which he says large news organizations are interested mainly in furthering wealthy interests. Moore also unearths a clip in which embattled CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, speaking of the Trump ascent during the 2016 campaign, says, “It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS."
The film's power appears to lie in how much Moore lets others be the hero. “One of the interesting things about this film is that Michael Moore is not front and center as he is in some of his other work,” Thom Powers, who runs documentary programming at the Toronto International Film Festival, said in an interview. “He's letting other people be the agents of change."
“11/9” (the title refers to the day after Trump’s election) is meant to display a battle between optimism and pessimism about this country — a fight Moore waged internally while making it.
“The film acts as a warning siren, and it also functions as ‘The Matrix,’ ” Powers said. “We’re looking for the portal out.”
In what will almost certainly be one of its most controversial segments, the film spends a chunk of time drawing parallels between Trump and Adolf Hitler, including a scene in which Moore pairs audio from a Trump speech with video of the Nazi leader at a rally.
Asked whether he really believes the comparison, Moore said, “Trump’s already on the path to Nazism,” then added, “Trump is not Hitler and Hitler is not Trump. But then, you can’t say that fascism doesn’t teach us lessons, that there aren't parallels we can draw.” Moore noted that 1930s Germany, like the modern-day United States, was an educated democracy, but when pressed further he did not offer more specifics on the comparison. The movie uses clever editing to suggest the Nazis' war against the press, tightened grip on power and demonization of the opposition have echoes in Trump's Republican Party.
“But I think we have to embrace Trump,” Moore said in the interview. “People reading this will say, ‘What do you mean? Embrace Trump?’ But we have to embrace him. We have to listen to him. He’s telling lies, and he’s telling the truth at the same time. You look at the goals of ... what he wanted to accomplish. And he’s done [many] of them. He’s quite successful at leaning into his flaws, and we laugh more and become more outraged and don't notice how much he and Betsy DeVos and the guy from the Interior are doing to rip things up from the inside. You have to act like he’s going to be reelected in 2020, because there’s an excellent chance he will be. You have to act like Patton acted with Rommel — he studied him. Because Patton beat Rommel.”
As for the movie’s brazen juxtapositions of Trump and Hitler, Moore laughed. “I’m a satirist. I just couldn’t help it.”
(Asked what he thought about the anonymously written op-ed in the New York Times from inside the Trump White House, Moore said he thought there was a good possibility Trump had himself commissioned someone to write it; after all, the filmmaker noted, Trump had a history of leaking to the press, sometimes even as his own public-relations man. “There’s a key line in there, at the end, about adults in the room. And isn’t that what he wants out there? He knows what we want to hear, and he’s giving it to us.”)
Whether "11/9" will reach beyond a progressive audience — or even mobilize those already in that tent — remains to be seen. The premiere brought long standing ovations for Moore and the subjects on stage, including Cook-Hawkins and several of the Parkland teens. But theatrical documentaries had fallen a long way since 2004, and even with the resurgence this summer, thanks to docs like “RBG,” it’s an open question whether consumers will want to pay money for what amounts to another political journalist-pundit in a sea of them.
Still, Moore said he made the movie because he believe it could generate an impact. “Twice in 16 years our side won the popular vote and didn’t go into the White House,” he said in the interview. “We need to take over the Democratic Party. Not start a third party. Do you know how long people would argue? We’d spend three months arguing over the logo. No, it’s about just taking it over.”
A little bit later, at the screening, Moore took the stage and dubbed today's teens “the Mass-Shooting Generation."
"The Generation of Hope!” yelled a filmgoer from the audience.
"No. I'm against hope,” called back Moore. “Hope was back then with Obama. I'm for a generation of action."
Correction: An earlier version of this story characterized The Washington Post as part of the “left-leaning” media criticized in the Michael Moore movie. The Post is an independent newspaper.