Before going to watch the pre-screening of left-winger documentarian Michael Moore’s latest doco I decided to have a wee look on IMDB to see what people were saying about the film. With a surprisingly low user rating of 5.8 I was intrigued to see the breakdown of votes. In classic political documentary style the film has an overwhelming number of ‘1/10’ scores.
Now for a film to be a ‘1/10’ it has to be appallingly made, technically disastrous and embarrassingly rubbish. Or it has to be a documentary with a political bias that means people who don’t agree with the general opinion of the doco go online and vote it down without even watching it. Knowing that the films of Michael Moore are generally pretty well made (regardless of if you agree with the message or not) I could tell this was not a fair representation of the quality of the film. These ‘1/10s’ were a protest towards the subject matter of the social media kind. How fitting.
Looking at the marketing material it seems the focus of Fahrenheit 11/9 is going to be an aggressive criticism of Trump and his presidency. The poster is a Trump-like figure, wearing a MAGA hat, amid a golf swing, while the White House explodes in a nuclear war mushroom cloud. The tagline reads “Tyrant. Liar. Racist. A hole in one.” The point isn’t a subtle one and such provocative and dividing marketing material means this is the type of film that is undoubtedly going to end up only being able to preach to the converted as it is only really appealing to those who want to hear their own opinion being backed up.
I don’t know of many people who willingly sit in a theatre for over two hours to be made to feel like morons. This is my first criticism of Fahrenheit 11/9 – it knows its audience and it preaches to it – but its audience is already on-side so the hope of it ever converting the ‘hard right’ is an impossible task from the outset. In fact this film’s marketing simply scares away those who are probably most in need of being changed by it’s message.
Being a massive left wing, socialist, conspiracy theorist myself, I forced myself to go in with a completely open mind and try and watch it as a reviewer instead of with the idea of having my opinions validated. I decided to be as impartial as possible. I’ve enjoyed Michael Moore’s films in the past – Bowling for Columbine in particular is an essential film that brilliantly highlights the gun control issues in the USA and manages to be (sadly) as relevant today as it was when it was made.
Fahrenheit 11/9 starts as one might expect – with a focus on the absurdity that is the Trump presidency. Political leaning aside – even Trump himself didn’t actually think he was going to become President. The first 15 minutes of the film focuses on this unexpected rise to power of the oddball reality TV star, the media’s involvement in making American voters complacent about the chances of him becoming the most powerful man in the country and the reactions from both Trump and his party when he did seize power. This is how I thought the film was going to go for its entirety. But I was wrong.
Shortly after this very Trump-focused introduction the film then moves between a variety of chaotic situations in America – the guilt of the Democratic party in putting Hillary forward instead of Sanders, the Flint water crisis, the number of sexual offenders in Trump’s immediate caucus, the fact that Obama was just the lesser of several evils but is still in fact part of a broken system and certainly did more than his fair share of evil doings. Like flashes in the pan we are bombarded with all the things that make America not-so-great. I was pleased that Michael Moore decided to attack the system rather than just the current President himself – after all, Trump is the result of systemic issues that America has been ignoring for many, many years, not a sudden shift in the status quo.
This is where I feel that the marketing behind the film failed as this movie talks about a political system gone awry for many years prior to Trump – both Democratic and Republican leaders to blame – but the marketing suggests this is all about Trump. In doing so Fahrenheit immediately alienates a very important audience from even watching the film which means it can only succeed in really telling people a little bit more about things they already believe. The audience who could most benefit from seeing the corruption (those who are blindly praising it) would never find the need to sit with an open mind and watch it. So in this aspect of filmmaking I think it fails greatly. A good documentary should endeavour to change minds not just pat them on the back for already sharing the same opinion.
In the film’s final quarter we jump back to Trump and some not so subtle comparisons are drawn between POTUS and Adolf Hitler (and by not so subtle I mean literally dubbing Trump’s voice over footage of Hitler). The Hitler comparison is a very risky one in that it is a go-to comparison for the common internet troll, so you risk people rolling their eyes and claiming ‘Godwin’s Law’ whenever it is mentioned. Although the comparisons between Trump’s rise to power is frighteningly similar to Hitler’s especially in the way they both treated the media, the rallies, they both said what they thought without fear of repercussions etc etc so this isn’t necessarily an incorrect comparison (and a bloody worrying one) but it is a lazy one that, again, appeals to the people who already share this opinion and doesn’t offer any opportunity for people to be converted to this realisation.
Michael Moore is hugely successful in all his films at combining comedic moments to provide relief and Fahrenheit 11/9 is no different. When he uses humour to outline the absurdity of the US political system and the frighteningly fleeting democracy it now provides its citizens, we pay attention. We feel less manipulated into understanding or agreeing with a point and when this is juxtaposed between the film’s more serious and depressing moments the film really flows and is at its peak. Moore is incredibly good at showing the humanity that suffers when the rich abuse their power and isn’t afraid to draw conclusions that are not only brave, but rare from someone with such a large reputation to put on the line.
When Moore is actively interviewing his subjects, we have something to connect with – this humanity, these faces and names that support the points being made and strengthens the arguments laid out by the film. These moments make the film feel more grounded in reality rather than just scare tactics and conspiracy theories and hyperbole. Having said that I found it quite easy to believe most of the points being made but when the film got lost in 20 minute montages of disaster footage, out of context interview quotes and the jumping between too many topics at a time, I felt like I wasn’t being allowed the time to reflect on anything and instead was being force fed with no room left for critical thinking. This jumping through so many topics also made the film’s narrative disjointed at times and the amount of information you were expected to process at any one time was almost overwhelming.
Overall Michael Moore delves into a very important topic with less of a one-sided bias than I expected and with the moments of humour, the strong revelations made about the injustice and inequality in America and the boldness in which he delves into these topics mean it is well worth the watch. However the film’s pacing and narrative jumps around so much that at times it feels like you are watching a Youtube playlist on ‘random’ and we are not given time to truly reflect on what is being presented and form our own opinions around it.
This IS an incredibly important documentary but sadly it is not as well made as it could have been which means it won’t reach the people it needs to reach and will instead appeal mainly to those who already agree with the points it makes before they even watch it. Whilst the frantic nature of the film and it’s pacing is a fitting representation of Moore’s desperation around the topics being covered and how we need to take immediate action, it often comes across as though it is desperately trying to overwhelm us rather than work with us.
– Ashton Brown