Thursday, September 20, 2018

Michael Moore is back in action

Fahrenheit 11/9 fires at many targets, but scores a direct hit on the subject of Flint's tainted water supply.
Michael Moore leaves few stones unturned in his latest movie, Fahrenheit 11/9.

Under Moore's sardonic gaze: the Trump presidency, the water crisis in Flint, Mich., the Democratic party's treatment of Bernie Sanders, and the inability of what Moore views as the country's liberal majority to assert its will.

Put another way: Fahrenheit 11/9 stands as a catalog of current "progressive" laments, as well as a call to action.

Bolstered by a too-brief interview with Yale historian Timothy Snyder, Moore says that our democracy is under siege. No constitutional guarantees will save us from tyranny once it arrives and we may be closer to ruin than we think.

Much of 11/9 will be familiar to those who read the newspapers or watch any cable news channel other than FOX, but the movie includes at least one explanatory observation about the ascendance of Donald Trump that I haven't already heard.

Moore says that Trump decided to run for president in a fit of pique after hearing that NBC was paying Gwen Stafani (The Voice) more than he earned as host of The Apprentice. Make America Great Again was preceded by Make My Deal Better -- at least that's how Moore sees it.

Fahrenheit 11/9 qualifies as several films in one, all loosely related and all pointing to the terrible state in which a deeply polarized country now finds itself.

The strongest section of Fahrenheit 11/9 focuses on the water crisis in Moore's hometown, Flint, Mich. It’s not difficult to feel empathy for and outrage in behalf of Flint’s beleaguered residents who were victimized by their state government and by a Federal bureaucracy that didn’t respond adequately to their problems.

After some ill-advised tinkering created the issue, Rick Snyder, Michigan's Republican governor, refused to alleviate Flint's suffering. He could have switched the source of Flint's water from the polluted Flint River to its previous point of origin, Lake Huron. The result: Too many of Flint's children were subjected to unhealthy amounts of lead. Moore sees this as an assault on the town's mostly black population, a form of ethnic cleansing.

I won’t recount the details of everything that happened and still is happening in Flint, but this portion of the film is enough to justify its existence, and I'm grateful to Moore for putting Flint's story in one accessible place. Moore allows the residents of Flint to tell their stories, keeping his editorializing to a minimum ... well ... almost.

Moore repeats one of his familiar ploys; he visits the state capital in an attempt to make a citizen's arrest of Snyder. He also sprays the grounds of Michigan's governor's mansion with Flint water, hauled to the governor's home in a tanker truck.

In a lengthy film (a little longer than two hours), such prankish gestures seem even more superfluous than usual. Same goes for a montage about Trump's supposed prurient fascination with his daughter Ivanka.

Republicans may not like Moore’s film (certainly Trump fans won’t), but Democrats may be upset as well. Moore makes a point of noting that former President Obama, a politician he admires, visited Flint but didn’t bring the salvation that residents expected — and deserved.

Moore also takes aim at the "Repubicanization" (my word) of the Democratic party under a wily Clinton and an overly cautious Obama. He assigns a share of blame for our current situation to comprising Democrats who have failed to fight for the traditions of the party even though a majority of the country believes in a women's right to choose and affordable health care.

The strong section on Flint is surrounded by satellite stories that touch lots of hot-button issues -- not all convincingly. Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who endured a terrible school shooting last February, launched a national campaign against guns: Moore clearly loves their activism and perhaps overestimates their impact.

A segment on the already well-covered West Virginia teachers strike deserved a film of its own.

Moore pushes the idea of an approaching American fascism when he compares Trump to Hitler, using Trump's voice over images of Hitler speaking at one of his rallies. The danger of authoritarianism in the US may be real and comparisons between the US today and Weimar Germany of the 1930s can be instructive, but using Trump's voice over a gesticulating Hitler struck me as a stunt.

Early on, I mentioned that Moore's interview with Timothy Snyder, the author of The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America and On Tyranny; Twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century, was too brief.

I say this because those familiar with Snyder's work know that he worries about the future of American democracy as much as Moore but is far more thorough and thought-provoking than a lot of what you'll see in Fahrenheit 11/9.
Moore might defend his approach by asserting that today's dangers are so obvious, so much on the surface, that there's no need to over-analyze. He'd have a point. Besides, he's calling his audience to action, asking viewers to channel their "mad-as-hell" attitudes into political activism; he wants more involvement and more voting.

I'd say that's basic civics dished out in a form that many will find entertaining and provocative; whether Moore's audience will do anything beyond seeing 11/9 and nodding their agreement remains to be seen.

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