In Fahrenheit 11/9, a woman facetiously asks director/showman Michael Moore if he'd like to buy her home in Flint, Mich.
It's a rhetorical question, aimed not at Moore but at people who say that folks in failing cities should just move. It's a question that Moore should take seriously, though – Flint brings out the best in him.
The most engaging passages in the scattershot Fahrenheit 11/9 address the water scandal in Flint, a city that was also the memorable setting of his debut documentary, Roger & Me. That film will turn 30 next year, and remains astonishingly prescient about outsourced manufacturing and the awful consequences for Flint and similar cities.
The Roger & Me scenario repeated itself in factory towns all over the country — a deflationary spiral of declining jobs, plummeting home prices, a shrinking tax base, depleted infrastructure. It continued unmitigated for three decades in the Rust Belt, leading to a revolt against both major political parties that played a significant role in the election of President Trump – the event that opens Fahrenheit 11/9 (the first images are of Philadelphia, and Hillary Clinton's election-eve rally).
Moore uses archival footage to recapture the giddy mood of overconfident Democrats, their devastation at defeat, and the opening rehash – even with Moore's wisecracks — is a dispiriting reminder of our ugly national mood. One that Moore shares. He's angry, and throws haymakers at Trump, but also a few at centrist Democrats and the Clintons — lambasting Bill for cutting welfare, expanding the industrial prison complex, deregulating Wall Street, and signing NAFTA. That latter move, in Moore's eyes, doomed Hillary Clinton in places like Michigan.
Moore talks to West Virginia voters who shed tears when recounting how candidate Bernie Sanders won every single county in the state's Democratic primary, only to have their votes overruled by superdelegate party procedures that assigned the state to Clinton.
So far, so depressing. And borderline stale. Yet the movie rouses itself when Moore returns to Flint, where Moore remembers that he's not just another media figure with a grievance and a forum, but a surrogate for workers and a truth-to-power burr in the saddle to powerful people like GM Chairman Roger Smith, or Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who used emergency power provisions to take over the administration of Flint, and tried to cut city water bills with a scheme that ended up sending corrosive Flint River water into city homes, leading to severe lead contamination and a shameful cover-up.
This is an outrage worthy of Moore's famous dudgeon, and though he overplays his hand with stunts, he also shows us the simple testimony of Flint residents, and it's deeply affecting. As is the example of Flint citizens who mobilize, demanding and achieving a measure of change and accountability (investigations are ongoing). Moore then links this activist surge to the West Virginia teacher strikes, a movement that itself spread to other red states. His film also stops in Florida, where students who survived the Parkland school shooting demand gun-law changes in the Florida legislature.
It's an inspiring look at the effectiveness of civic engagement. So it's jarring when Moore closes his movie with a dirge, a warning about a neo-Nazi takeover, and solemn pronouncement that our democracy is broken.
He's already shown us it isn't. It's eminently possible, if not easy, to build a vibrant and broad coalition around issues like safe water, safe schools, decent pay for teachers. One theme emerges strongly — the rank and file have a drive sometimes missing from cautious party and labor leadership. How much drive? That's hard to measure. We'll know more 11/10.
Fahrenheit 11-9. Directed by Michael Moore.
Running time: 120 minutes
Parents guide: R (language)