In his new documentary, “Fahrenheit 11/9,” auteur and provocateur Michael Moore tackles the Trump age. Moore calls this film a sequel to his Palme d’Or winning “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which harshly criticized the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq. Shortly after “Fahrenheit 9/11” was released, the actor Sean Penn referred to Moore as “the Bobby Knight of the left.” Penn wrote that in making “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Moore “inspired Democrats with a workingman’s toughness they have lacked for some time.”
Yet, “Fahrenheit 11/9” feels less like an inspirational pep talk and more like a fire-and-brimstone sermon. Moore is still addressing Democrats and he still possesses “workingman’s toughness.” He musters his considerable chutzpah to deliver this tough message: Democrats are responsible for the rise of Donald Trump. Moore asserts that Democrats have ceased to care about people in the Rust Belt. He’s not only talking about the industrial workers, but also the citizens of his hometown, Flint, Michigan. When the Democrats deserted these individuals, they either chose not to vote or supported Donald Trump. Now that he holds the reins of power, Trump will wreak havoc on our institutions. Moore suggests that it is the responsibility of liberals to take decisive action now. Energetic candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the shooting survivors in Parkland, Florida should serve as role models to the rest of progressive America. Moore’s argument is carefully considered and compelling. Yet, the film struck me as uniquely un-cinematic. If Moore’s ideas are complex, his mise-en-scene is not.
Ancient Greek rhetoricians theorized that there were four modes of persuasion — kairos, ethos, logos and pathos. An argument possesses kairos if it is timely, and Moore’s documentary certainly arrives at an opportune moment. As the midterms approach and crises unfold in Congress, liberals long to understand the Trump phenomenon. The philosopher George Santayana famously stated that “those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it,” and Moore’s Democratic audience does not want to repeat the disappointments of the 2016 election. Furthermore, Moore has the ethos, or credibility, to undertake such an analysis. Not only have his earlier efforts garnered praise, but Moore has also become something of a clairvoyant. When he appeared on Bill Maher’s talk show in July 2016, Moore declared that he was “sorry to be the buzzkill here so early on, but [he thought] Trump [was] gonna win.” Five months later, Moore’s prediction was borne out. “Fahrenheit 11/9” promises to explain to its viewers why Moore had that prescient insight.
Moore not only relies on his own ethos, but also suffuses the documentary with familiar faces. The presence of Senator Bernie Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez and the Parkland activists lend credence to Moore’s argument. These interviewees all have substantive comments to make. Sanders expounds on the elitism of the Democratic Party, Ocasio-Cortez explains why she was inspired to run for Congress and the Parkland students describe how they responded to a monumental tragedy. These familiar faces are interspersed with people who are sadly unknown — the community activists working to solve the water crisis in Flint, a Yale professor who draws an intriguing comparison between Trump and Hitler and a Democratic firebrand who believes he can make West Virginia blue again. The information these individuals present bolsters the logos, or logic, of Moore’s case. Moore presents some cold facts and hard data in voiceover throughout the film. The experts he quotes and the polls he cites rebut any claim that his argument is fabricated.
Moore does employ pathos, but his attempts at emotional appeal are less effective and sophisticated than his use of the other three rhetorical modes. Throughout the film, Moore is outraged. He chastises his viewers for underestimating Trump, berates them for remaining blind to injustice and purveys grim visions of an apocalyptic America.
Outrage, however, gets old fast. The most moving moment in the film develops not because of something Moore says, but because of an image Moore presents. To showcase the extraordinary human toll of the crisis in Flint, Moore includes an image of a child, cradled in someone’s arms, wailing. I was reminded of the anguished, twisted faces Picasso paints in “Guernica.” It’s a shot that evokes an instant emotional response. To quote the old adage, this picture speaks a thousand words.
Frequently, however, Moore does not present powerful pictures — he just speaks a thousand words instead. Moore displays stock photos or clips from cable news as he delivers his thoughtful commentary, but these images add little to his argument. While the interviewers make intriguing remarks, Moore can focus on them for so long that they just become talking heads. Watching “Fahrenheit 11/9,” I wished that I was not in a movie theater, but in the car on Pacific Route 1, with Moore’s narration serving as audio accompaniment.
At one point in the film, while comparing Trump to Hitler, Moore juxtaposes video from Trump’s rallies with footage from the Nuremberg rallies. This footage comes from Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” one of the most infamous and effective propaganda films ever made. Riefenstahl’s work is still banned in Germany, and its power derives from Riefenstahl’s majestic mise-en-scene. Every shot is aesthetically captivating. Every edit is calculated to elicit a reaction. Every scene builds to an impassioned climax.
In making “Triumph of the Will,” Riefenstahl furthered the Nazis’ abominable project. She had very little ethos and no logos at all. Yet, as I compared the theatricality of her filmmaking to the plainness of Moore’s, I wondered if her work was more compelling. Films are motion pictures, and Moore’s pictures simply aren’t as outstanding as Riefenstahl’s, even if his reasoning is much more sound. The media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously asserted that “the medium is the message.” By illustrating his message with such lackluster images and relying exclusively on spoken narration, Moore has underutilized the medium of cinema, and therefore, the message isn’t as persuasive as it could be.
Contact Amir Abou-Jaoude at amir2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.