The Year Of The Documentary In The Time Of Fake News

It’s with no irony that in the year of fake news so too comes the year of the documentary. 2018 has brought us some of the most poignant, touching and successful documentaries in recent years. RGB, Three Identical Strangers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and Minding the Gap are just a few of the most acclaimed. Farenheit 11/9 is perhaps the least of these films in terms of originality, but perhaps the most important and (intentionally) timely.

It’s no coincidence that with the rise of Donald Trump came the rise of Bernie Sanders, with the fall of Hillary Clinton came the fall of 16 establishment Republican candidates for President. Such is one of many highlights in Michael Moore’s Farenheit 11/9, a film that serves both as a recap of the last two years of American political life as well as a call to political arms, needed he proclaims, to save American Democracy.

Long time fans and critics of Michael Moore may grow weary of the style of the film, which implores many of the same motifs he has used since his 1989 debut, Roger and Me: implementing stock footage and home videos, using both classic rock and classical as the soundtrack to moments of modernity, confronting (stalking) corporate interest businessman and politicians, and deploying comical stunts to make a political point. The later of which he uses sparingly in the film, the one time (spraying Flint water over the Governor of Michigan’s mansion) is the film’s most tired and out of place moment. For the most part, he sticks to combining propaganda cinematic techniques with genuine interviews and touching human-interest stories. And make no mistake, much like his previous films, especially the namesake Farenheit 9/11, this is a propaganda film. Moore pulls no punches and his heavy-handed left-wing politics are felt throughout. Conservative critics will likely point to this as the fatal flaw of the film just as champions of the left will point to these same tactics as evidence of the film’s brilliance. I guess it all depends on which side of the aisle your politics fall. And this has always been a criticism of Moore—that his films only preach to the choir.

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Let me offer another perspective. Michael Moore has always been a champion of the working class, of middle class American values, of the American Dream his father (like so many others) embraced and embodies after World War II. He has always seen corporate greed at the expense of the American worker as his primary adversary, perhaps the primary adversary of the American people. Farenheit 9/11, for example, for all the shots it takes at George W. Bush, is really an exposition on how a war was started to feed corporate greed at the expense of American lives. This is not red or blue politics. This is populism, which is not, or should not, be categorized as conservative or Liberal. Donald Trump road to the presidency on a populist campaign just as Bernie Sanders nearly did the same. Moore tries hard in his new film to champion these values, through the needs and lens of all working Americans, as he always has. And in many respects, he does this well.

The film is all over the place in the topics it explores and is at its strongest when he lets real people tell the story of America today. And while it may have worked as a stronger single piece of filmmaking if he had narrowed it down to just one human-interest topic (say the Flint water crisis or the nationwide fight for better teacher pay), the chaos of film reflects the politics of today and the media circus covering them all too well. How can we understand and solve just one issue when we’re constantly being tossed back in forth between dozens, the next seemingly just as important as the last? This is not a question he specifically poses, but one the film raises none-the-less.

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Michael Moore is pushing 65 and looks it. And his style often feels it. But one of the primary successes of Farenheit 11/9 is that he makes the attempt to step aside and use his, perhaps tired, voice to lift up those whom he believes to be the future of this country: women and young people who will save America from the mostly white, mostly male, corporate interests that have let so many people down for decades. Whether you like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and their democratic-socialist positions or not, they are championing poor and middle class Americans, of all creeds and colors, over the uber wealthy. Like the politics of the teenagers that came out of the Parkland, Florida school shootings or not, they are leading a political revolution not seen in this country since the 1960s. The time of old white men leading American politics is coming to an end, so proclaims, or so hopes Michael Moore. And why not? For the majority of Americans, conservative, white politics have not helped them. And according to polls sited in the film, most American favor: Medicare for all, free public college, legalized abortion, common sense gun control, decriminalized marijuana, and many other supposedly liberal policies. Moore claims America is and has always been a liberal country; it’s the corporate minority that has bought and held power that limits this country from making meaningful changes that will benefit the masses, benefits that most people want.

Moore does not simply spend 120 minutes attacking Trump and the Republican Party as I’m sure many conservatives and even many liberals suspect. Thankfully, he only focuses on Trump for about twenty minutes of the film and only takes a few dated shots at George W. Bush. He takes the time to show how the Clinton administration’s policies contributed to the corporate takeover of American politics and how Obama fell short in many areas of governing and policy, including his response to the Flint water crisis. Moore rehashes the Bernie vs. Hillary conflict, for better or worse, but in doing so, pleads for the Democratic Party to be better than they once were. Like it or not, we live in a two party system, and if one party is morally bankrupt and the other is, at best, in the pocket of big business, that makes it all the more easy for 100 million Americans to stay home on election day, because which party is really serving the interest of working class people?

While the film may fall short of branching out of Moore’s somewhat dated style, it does work well as a time capsule of where America is politically as well as an emotional pleading that now is the time to harness the powers of the people to save this country and to finally try something new, something we have not seen in a generation. And even if it is mostly the liberal choir that sees his film and hears Moore’s call, the truth is that all of us in the left, liberal, democratic bubble, don’t actually live in a bubble. We all know people from across the aisle and more importantly, people from the 100 million eligible non-voters. This is the hope of Farenheit 11/9, that Michael Moore’s choir will be inspired to champion, not only his cause, but the cause of the Parkland students, of the West Virginia coal miners, of underpaid school teachers across America, of the poisoned people of Flint, Michigan, and so many others that have been left behind and ignored by corporate politicians from both major parties.

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The constitution protects both conservative and liberal politics, but it’s only a piece of paper. It takes the united voice of millions of Americans to really stand up to billions of dollars in corporate interest. A piece of paper is not going to do that.

And so, at a time when fewer and fewer people trust the media and its more and more difficult to know where to get unbiased news, generally empathetic filmmakers like Moore are becoming more and more important, and perhaps more necessary than ever. Fred Rogers was a man who championed the need for empathy as much as he did the need for public arts and education funding. Isn’t empathy and the ability to put oneself in the shoes of the other what’s missing most from the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court? Watching RGB, no matter your political affiliation, and comparing Justice Ginsberg to the two white men most recently appointed to the supreme court, who. clearly serve corporate interests and lack empathy for women’s issues, is depressing and seems so obviously out of place. And in a summer of blockbuster films that include a vast majority of films that are either comic book movies, sequels or remakes, the rise of non-fiction in theaters is such a refreshing respite. And the political, supposedly leftist hand wringing of a supposedly washed-up old filmmaker, is no exception. 

As television and streaming acquire more and more of the public’s attention, where does that leave the American movie theater…a question to be tackled in a future post, no doubt. But for the time being, theaters still hold a special cachet in the minds of many Americans, a significance that straight-to-streaming films do not. With this comes recognition, amplifying the megaphone of the filmmakers and the important issues they tackle, the poignant stories they tell.

In the meantime, vote. Vote with your dollar. And that means in the films you see and where you watch them as well.

Michael Harrington