“Fahrenheit 11/9,” the latest documentary from agent provocateur Michael Moore, attempts nothing short of a magic act: turning despair into hope.
That’s a tall order, in a film that starts out by posing a seemingly impossible question. After presenting, in its first few minutes, a brief recap of election night 2016, we watch as the evening of November 8 slowly fades into the morning of November 9 (the date referenced in the film’s title, which is also a play on Moore’s 2004 film, “Fahrenheit 9/11”). As ecstasy turns to horror for the Democratic voters who hoped to elect the first female president — and instead got a former reality TV star — Moore asks, “How the f--- did this happen?”
You were expecting maybe “fair and balanced”?
To be sure, there’s a whole cottage industry devoted to answering Moore’s question, with constant fresh takes on the forces that swept Donald Trump to power. (According to a new book, something called “racialized economics” contributed to the “diploma divide” — the gap between the way that less and better educated white people voted.)
In Moore’s film, which the director narrates with a mix of outrage and humor, there’s plenty of blame to go around: Vladimir Putin gets name-checked, as does James B. Comey — and Gwen Stefani. The filmmaker argues, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, that the announcement of Trump’s candidacy may have been a stunt to convince NBC brass that he deserved a raise for “The Apprentice,” after he learned that singer Stefani, a coach on NBC’s “The Voice,” made more money than he did.
Trump, Moore argues, was never serious about running.
But although Moore cracks wise, he’s dead serious about his central thesis, which presents Flint, Mich., as a microcosm of the country, using the city’s disillusionment with politics as usual — a direct result of the water crisis there — as an explanation for why Trump won. The filmmaker, who was born in Flint, and who has long argued that Trump should not be written off, has made what feels, in some ways, like a dispiriting I-told-you-so.
That’s apparently by design.
Moore goads us into experiencing the same emotions that citizens in Flint must have felt when President Barack Obama visited their blighted city in 2016 — and made a show of sipping the local water, in a PR stunt that some viewed as a callous act of betrayal by a leader once seen as someone who might send in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to eliminate the problem of lead in the water.
Yet it’s no more of a stunt than a scene of Moore dousing the Michigan governor’s mansion with a fire hose filled with what he says is Flint water. “Fahrenheit 11/9” stalls a bit during these sequences, and many viewers may start to think: Wait, I thought this movie was about the election, not water.
Be patient. It’s both.
If patience is what the movie demands, it’s not what Moore ultimately wants. Gradually, like an oil tanker changing direction, “Fahrenheit 11/9” painstakingly pivots, from a movie that seems to be working overtime to depress us to a movie that means to inspire us. By the second half, the film is presenting such political upstarts as New York’s congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who unseated a 10-term incumbent in this summer’s primary, and David Hogg, a survivor of the Parkland school shooting, as inspirations for other grass-roots activists who are impatient for change. “The America I want to save,” he says, “is the one we’ve never had.”
Those are hopeful words. But hope may be a commodity that’s in short supply by the time that “Fahrenheit 11/9” has finished painting its unsettling portrait of an America in crisis.
R. At area theaters. Contains crude language and some disturbing material and images. 125 minutes.