Monday, October 1, 2018

Fahrenheit 11/9

Michael Moore with Donald Trump Jr. at the release of Sicko, 2007

Richard Ojeda running for Congress in West Virginia

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez running for Congress from Queens
Rashida Tlaib from Michigan with no opposition, expected to be the first Muslim-American woman to be elected to Congress

Moore with Parkland survivor David Hogg

Parkland survivors

Emma González at the student-led March for Our Lives rally in Washington

Michael Moore

FAHRENHEIT 11/9              B+                  
USA  (128 mi)  2018  d:  Michael Moore

Actually much better than advertised, reflective of the somber mood in the country at the moment, Moore has created a cautionary essay on democracy that is clear and easy to digest, and is not an excoriation of Trump, as some may have been lead to believe, but views him as a symptom of a larger problem that was decades in the making, where the largest political party in America are those who don’t care enough to vote (currently 100 million).  So instead of lampooning Trump and going right after him with unrelenting satire, as he did with Bush in FAHRENHEIT 9/11, which proved ultimately unsuccessful as Bush won re-election anyway, much of it due to a wave of Republican resentment “against” writer/director Michael Moore himself, who was viewed at the time as the last bastion of the progressive left in the United States, this film offers a sober analysis of what went wrong in America.  Moore has lost much of his influence with the public, including much of his audience since all the praise heaped upon that earlier film, which was wildly entertaining and overwhelmingly profitable, made for just $6 million dollars, yet earning well over $200 million dollars.   This film pales in comparison in terms of public interest and doesn’t have the “Wow” factor of the earlier film, yet it does a much better job explaining how something like this could have happened, contending the rise of Trump is not an anomaly or even that much of a surprise, as despite overwhelming Russian interference and a last minute decision by FBI director James Comey to re-open an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s personal emails just days before the election, the real contributor to Trump’s election victory were some questionable decisions made within the Democratic Party itself, including a baffling superdelegate system of appointed party officials in the primary elections that stacked the deck in favor of one candidate, Clinton, at the expense of actual democratic votes, allowing Clinton to claim victory in states where a majority of voters actually voted for Bernie Sanders, including West Virginia where all 55 counties voted for Sanders, yet Clinton won a majority of delegates, which had a huge effect in suppressing the wave of newly energized Sanders supporters, who were turned off by the crass hypocrisy on display where votes didn’t count.  The other, perhaps even more inexplicable act was carried out by a tone-deaf President Obama who turned a blind eye to the Flint water crisis, all but guaranteeing that the Republican officials who orchestrated a mass poisoning of a large black urban community in America would not be held accountable, which had a similar effect of suppressing the black vote.  By letting the real culprits off the hook, many of the most fervently enthused Democratic supporters stayed at home on Election Day, as the Democratic Party simply allowed a no-name group of Republicans to fill the void.

The film opens with a wave of pre-election euphoria, as Hillary Clinton and her supporters were all lead to believe she would be anointed into the Presidency on Election Day, as nearly all political prognosticators (including Fox News) were in unanimous agreement that Clinton would win in a landslide, booking a modern era hotel with actual glass ceilings for her victory celebration, which was packed with supporters, while down the street there were few Trump hopefuls in a less than enthusiastic crowd, where a grim atmosphere greeted the victory with few smiles or any hint of celebration, as they were thoroughly unprepared for what happened.  All the Hollywood royalty, one by one, were caught laughing on camera while declaring “Trump would never be President,” as if it could not happen here, all totally dumbfounded with the results.  In typical Michael Moore fashion, this is all prefaced with a wistful query, “Was it all a dream?”  And once reality drops like a ton of bricks, he asks more earnestly, “What the fuck happened?”  The rest of the film pretty much answers that question.  As Trump dispatches each of his Republican rivals, basically bullying them off the stage with ferocious insults, we see glee in the eyes of CBS CEO Les Moonves declaring the country may be in crisis, but the networks ultimately win with Trump in power, turning him into a media darling, willingly offering him free air time, as he’s like a performance magnet holding a TV audience, where people are riveted to the screens to see what monstrosity will happen next, as he’s literally an accident waiting to happen, running his campaign like a demolition derby, forcefully assaulting anyone who gets in his path.  In Trump’s view, this is simply good business, continually surrounding himself with all the accoutrements of wealth, where it’s only natural that people serve him, not the other way around which is how the Constitution envisioned it.  But Democrats didn’t play fair with the Constitution either, so what example did they set?  Who are they to cry foul?  Moore actually traces the beginnings back to President Bill Clinton, which began the strange and twisted journey of centrist Democrats being more Republican than the Republicans, outflanking Senator Robert Dole to the right in his re-election bid, introducing harsher drug penalties, incarcerating blacks in record numbers, aligning themselves with Wall Street and Big Business, and then signing a Welfare Reform bill that didn’t contain a single Democratic legislator’s signature, that allowed each state to determine their own provisions, effectively returning States’ Rights to prominence, perhaps the centerpiece of the Reagan era vision of New Federalism.  Obama continued these same policies with his Auto industry and Wall Street bailouts, claiming some banks and businesses were simply too big to fail, lending them Federal money, quickly making recoveries while individuals permanently lost their homes, pension benefits, or health care plans during the economic crisis, with many never recovering afterwards, blaming the Democrats for their neglect. 

Actually, in this film, Trump is a secondary figure, though there is a rather queasy segment where he fixates on his daughter’s beauty and sexual prowess, claiming he would be dating her if she wasn’t his daughter, which is simply too creepy to watch.  Easily the strongest section is about the Flint water crisis, demonstrating astute journalistic acumen in a documentary film, suggesting this may have been the initial subject of the film, as Moore outlines exactly how the Republican Party, led by Governor Rick Snyder, a business executive and former CEO of Gateway Computers, shamefully implemented a cheaper plan in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, to stop using clean water from nearby Lake Huron and instead use the polluted water from the Flint River that actually flows through town, a move that was designed to save millions, but at what expense?  In a criminal cover-up, Snyder’s officials continually pronounced the water safe, even as they knowingly failed to filter out the lead from the older water pipes, resulting in scientific readings that were consistently elevated above acceptable levels.  By ignoring the facts, however, and in some cases cooking the books and altering the measurements, the Republicans devised a strategy of lying publicly to an overwhelmingly impoverished black community, offering no alternative but to drink poisoned water for a year and a half until finally acknowledging a mistake, but only after 12 died when the lead poisoning caused an outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease, resulting in four resignations, four firings, five suspensions, and fifteen criminal indictments, currently providing residents with bottled water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing.  This moral outrage is heartbreakingly rendered, using black people and especially their children as pawns, saving the auto industry, as the polluted water was ruining their machinery, quickly switching them back to clean water from Lake Huron, but left a community in crisis to suffer the consequences. When President Obama arrived to announce the system would be fixed under his watch, and wrongdoers would be held accountable, just the opposite happened, with Obama foolishly staging a drink of water as proof everything was all right (it wasn’t and still isn’t, as the lead-filled pipes won’t be fully replaced until 2020), leaving the citizens utterly demoralized afterwards, turning them off to any idea that government actually works for them, basically leaving them to live with the consequences for the rest of their lives, as lead never leaves the system, and without ever holding Michigan Governor Rick Snyder accountable.  Significantly (though underreported), the Democratic primary in Flint had a much larger turnout in 2016 than the general election held just a few months later, where the obvious conclusion is that Obama’s visit had the effect of suppressing the Democratic vote.  To one local community leader, he told Moore, “When President Obama came here, he was my President.  When he left, he wasn’t.”  In a surreal follow-up, the U.S. Army used the abandoned buildings of Flint, Michigan to stage military assault maneuvers WITHOUT warning local residents, who literally freaked out over what was happening.

Moore takes us to West Virginia where we meet Richard Ojeda, a physically fit Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran running for Congress, who’s tired of conditions in his town that leave one out of four homes in a dilapidated state, telling Moore, “I can take you five minutes from here and show you where our kids have it worse than the kids I saw in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  These conditions are not brand new, but have been lingering for decades, made worse by the opioid crisis which was ignored by both political parties.  While Michigan and West Virginia have two Republican Governors, their accomplices are lined with Democrats, with Ojeda claiming this is how people lose faith in their government, as neither party actually works to improve their lives.  Among the more inspirational voices are West Virginia teachers, who are more than classroom instructors, as they’re also social workers and mothers, with one teacher claiming she had 8 students in her class that listed her as “Mom” on their cellphones, as those children had no real mothers.  While the teachers grapple with the idea of what to do, as many are paid so little they end up on Food Stamps, they receive little help from their teacher’s union, urged not to strike, as they may lose their jobs.  But their conditions are so dire they felt they had no other choice, first going out in one county, another the next day, eventually combining all their forces and going on a work stoppage, which they were told was illegal, holding boisterous rallies on the steps of the State capitol, where after a week their union generated an offer, but only for the teachers, not the accompanying bus drivers, janitors and kitchen staff, so they held out some more until everyone was on board.  It was a thrilling display of solidarity because it had a happy ending.  There are thousands of stories that don’t end so well.  But this wildcat strike led to more in Kentucky and Oklahoma, bringing attention to the plight of underpaid teachers.  This stark contrast between an overwhelmingly black population in Flint, Michigan and a decimated, almost exclusively white community in West Virginia suggests they have more in common than they’d like to believe, as both live in misery and deprivation, repressive conditions that have existed for so long that residents have simply given up on voting or believing they’ll ever receive help from their government.  It is to Moore’s credit that he doesn’t shy away from matters of race and class in America, as indifference and neglect are the same everywhere, as is disappointment, suggesting these conditions are inextricably intertwined.   

Easily the weakest and most controversial segment is when Moore outlines similarities with Trump and Hitler, with Republicans and the Nazi Party, mimicking archival footage of a Hitler speech with Trump’s words.  While this is somewhat cringeworthy, it knocks the film off the rails with exaggerated overkill, as Nazi comparisons are extremely odious and far off the mark, though it is meant to be a warning shot across the bow, suggesting this could happen in America.  Trump’s fascination with growing autocratic power around the globe is no secret, where we can easily imagine him having his Charlie Chaplin moment bouncing an inflated globe off his feet in THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940), The Great Dictator - complete globe scene YouTube (3:44), and Trump is a specialist in creating false illusions, where he could easily invent a national emergency scenario, suspending the Constitution and all future elections, but we’re not at that point yet, and it’s not in the foreseeable future unless some catastrophe happens, though doomsday thoughts of this nature may cross the minds of many Americans, suggesting we live in more fearful times.  Moore even resurrects the legitimate fears of 99-year old Benjamin Berell Ferencz, the last living Nuremberg prosecutor, claiming he’s seen conditions like these before, suggesting all it takes is a spark, creating anxiety and panic, allowing the power mongers to take over.  Before people realize what’s happened, it’s too late, as they’ve been caught off-guard.  While this comes across as idle speculation, the central thread of the film is that you can’t trust the system, which exists for the elite and powerful, who make their own rules, while everybody else is just a pawn in their game.  In direct response, Moore singles out a new breed of politician, including the previously mentioned Ojeda, but also Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive socialist that we see going door-to-door in her Queens neighborhood of New York, defeating the Chair of the Democratic House Caucus, certainly offering a change from what we’re used to, who may run into a brick wall of resentment and distrust, but she may surprise us as well with her enthusiasm.  Rashida Tlaib from Moore’s home state of Michigan will be the first Muslim-American woman elected to Congress, as she’s running unopposed, succeeding John Conyer’s seat, where she’s also connected to socialist grass roots, but demonstrates an infectious enthusiasm in working for her constituents.  Moore seems much more fascinated by passing the torch to the younger generation, including the Parkland survivors who are still too young to vote, but mobilized millions in a student-led March for Our Lives rally in Washington and around the world protesting our gun laws, with Emma González offering positively riveting testimony (timed to match the exact amount of time it took for the shooting at her high school, which closes the film, cue Bob Dylan to sing an orchestral version of “With God On Our Side” over the credits).  These are feel-good stories that offer a more powerful glimpse of the future, as if it’s in good hands, as kids today are aware of so much more, with one Parkland student acknowledging that her maturity comes from being raised by social media. They offer a different kind of savvy and know-how than what we’re used to, but their presence offers a sign of something better to come.  It’s a challenging and provocative film that speaks to our better angels and our most nightmarish fears, at times infuriating, yet offering an incisive analytical view of what led us here, while offering hope as our roadmap to the future.  

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