Last Friday, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 opened in 1,719 theaters across the country – the biggest opening for any of his films – but only made $3.1 million. Although it had the highest opening for a documentary in 2018, it was a letdown compared to the famous weekend in June 2004 when Fahrenheit 9/11 opened at number one, becoming the highest-grossing documentary of all time. This week, pundits have argued over why the movie bombed the way it did, but none have directly gone after the film’s biggest problem: the misleading and irresponsible ways it blames the Democratic Party for the rise of Donald Trump.
Moore who grew up in the working-class town of Flint, Michigan, has never made any bones about his populist political beliefs, and this extends to his films. With his 1989 debut, Roger & Me, he liberated documentary filmmaking from pure objectivity by making himself a character (something his predecessors never did), and remind you that what you're watching is specifically from his point of view. However, if that point of view misleads the audience into believing half-baked lies that have already been debunked, as well as statements presented as fact that can’t be backed up (like the charge that Gwen Stefani caused Trump’s candidacy) then it damages the causes he champions.
For example, in building his case against the Democrats, Moore argues they stymied Bernie Sanders out of the 2016 nomination. As evidence, he presents the West Virginia primary, where Sanders won all 55 counties, but at the convention, Hillary received 19 delegates during the roll call – exactly one more than Sanders, at 18. This “proves” that the corrupt establishment ignored the needs of their base to foist their appointed candidate on the country. “This just tells people to stay home?” he asks a West Virginia voter. “I think so,” they reply.
To make this case, Moore omits several revealing facts. For one, West Virginia has an open primary system, allowing Republicans to vote for Democrats and vice-versa, leaving it open to meddling. For another, the West Virginia Democratic Party is one of the most conservative of any in the country. 62% of Sanders supporters there wanted a president less liberal than Barack Obama – a far cry from Moore, Mark Ruffalo, and Sanders’ other high profile surrogates – and 44% said they would vote for Trump that November, even if Sanders were the nominee. The superdelegates who voted for Clinton at the DNC did so because Sanders endorsed her beforehand. Sanders’ biggest acolytes still cling to the West Virginia primary as evidence that his populism can take off in even the most conservative parts of the country, but the data doesn’t support their claim.
Some of the best parts of the film involve Moore’s profiling of new Democratic activists, like the Parkland kids, and the new crop of left-leaning candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, but he does them a disservice by painting them all as anti-establishment. Although he uses Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer as symbols of a greedy, corporate-friendly hierarchy, in this instance he cites Democratic campaign aide Mark Penn and former Senator Joe Lieberman as venerated party elders who slam the doors on these young upstarts.
The problem with this is simple: Democrats have no use for either Mark Penn or Joe Lieberman. Penn, who botched Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary campaign, now leans conservative and has denounced the Mueller investigation. Joe Lieberman endorsed his friend John McCain for President and is responsible for killing the ACA’s public option. Does Moore even know who the Democratic establishment is?
Moore’s lack of objectivity comes through most in the sections focusing on Flint, a town which has been ravaged for the past four years by a water crisis that has rendered it uninhabitable. Governor Rick Snyder, elected with the first wave of Tea Party candidates in 2010, is one of the major villains of the film, and Moore accuses him of a “slow-moving ethnic cleansing” for damaging the bodies of black and brown children by exposing them to water with such high levels of lead. It is hard not to be moved by the plight of its ordinary citizens, like the woman who would like to move but knows she can’t sell her house, and the images of its ravaged streets make this once-thriving, working-class suburb look like postwar Dresden.
While Moore’s passion for his hometown is admirable, his blaming of President Obama for not doing more to help out appears disingenuous. Of particular consequence is Obama’s 2016 visit to Flint, where he drank a glass of water before its citizens, and once again during a press conference. Moore derided Obama for this at the time, calling it “such a disappointing thing to see." The activists he interviews say that his actions demoralized them since it meant he didn’t take their cause seriously. This ties into Moore's larger theme: that Democrats have only themselves to blame for the rise of Donald Trump (although Flint voted for Clinton in both the primary and the general.)
But to make this argument, Moore omits a key detail that lays waste to his thesis: Obama drank the water not to tell citizens it was safe on its own, but rather, to tell citizens that by using proper filters, the water would be drinkable. He also forgets to mention that at the end of his administration, Obama signed a $10 billion infrastructure bill directed towards Flint and other communities that had lead-filled water. And most crucially of all, not once in the film – either in relation to Michigan, or to any other part of the country – does Moore engage with the consequences of Shelby v. Holder, the case in which the Supreme Court left our nation without a functioning Voting Rights Act, which affected the Michigan vote, just as it did Wisconsin, the state Moore implies Clinton lost because she “never visited it.”
This cuts to the heart of why Fahrenheit 11/9 bombed: the Democratic Party no longer consists of people like Michael Moore. The working class is growing less white, and America is growing more ethnically diverse– two facts Moore does not sufficiently engage with. If he had made a film with a broader focus on the new Democratic coalition, and not meddled with facts, he might have made a higher-grossing film, or at least, a more honest one. But the new generation of Democratic activists and media titans have left him behind – and it doesn’t look like he's going to catch up any time soon.