TAKEDOWN DOC: Michael Moore's Trump doc is unquestionably a downer, but with some notable points of light from its grassroots characters.

It’s late in the second hour of “Fahrenheit 11/9” that Michael Moore hits upon the first truly fresh premise in his scattershot all-purpose takedown documentary on the present political moment. After his broadsides on Hillary Clinton’s tone-deaf campaign; Bill Clinton’s Republican-in-Democrat’s-clothing presidency; Michigan governor Rick Snyder’s possibly criminal handling of Flint’s poisoned water; Barack Obama’s aloof condescension; Donald Trump’s perpetual dog-licking-himself-in-front-of-the-TV-while-the-game-is-on selfishness; and news networks’ shameful slide into propaganda mouthpieces during the 2016 election — after all that, during which you can’t help but worry that everything’s going more or less to hell, here comes a sit-down with a Yale professor named Timothy Snyder (no relation).

He’s the author of a slim volume called “On Tyranny” that for some reason people have been snapping up since Trump was elected. When Moore asks the professor whether we’re losing democracy, Snyder replies, with urgency in his voice, that you could only have called the United States a democracy since 1970 or so. A country that systematically disenfranchised black voters could not, after all, be considered a democracy; ditto a country that denied women the franchise. Snyder offers as a premise that in fact what we’re losing now, as Trump tries to dismantle our fundamental institutions, is the chance to become the democracy we’ve been working toward for a couple of hundred years now. In other words: It’s always been a mess here, and there’s not much point in pretending otherwise.


This is a tremendous downer, alas, yet for much of “Fahrenheit 11/9” the mood is decidedly more upbeat. Aside from the time we spend in Moore’s hometown of Flint — desperately poor and beleaguered even before Snyder’s crony-capitalism water project spiked lead levels in the tap water — the grassroots characters we find tend to be getting results. The teen survivors of the Parkland, Fla., massacre are shockingly well-organized and effective in rallying to oppose guns; they’re also ferocious. The underpaid teachers of West Virginia hit their breaking point and set off a series of statewide strikes among public school educators; they’re admirably unified. The sheer number of first-time women candidates stepping up to run for office promise a time when old, rich, sclerotic capitalists can’t count on permanent incumbency. Hope! It’s not just for presidential candidates who accept massive Goldman Sachs contributions!

That’s certainly not the note Moore leaves you with, however. His raconteur notes — spraying the governor’s mansion lawn with Flint water, for instance — feel less provocative in an age of smartphone ubiquity than when he was camera-ambushing General Motors execs 30 years ago. Everything Moore is documenting now, journalists have been covering with skill and rigor (aside, maybe, from some truly insane war games the army set in Flint). So what’s a documentarian for?


I’m not sure Moore himself knows now. Too many things are burning; try as he might, with his tanker of lead-tainted water, Moore can’t spray everything. There’s a sense of catharsis in setting audio of a Trump rally speech to film of Hitler leading a Nuremberg rally, but if you haven’t already noticed the echoes of Nazism wafting from this White House, you must be just now returning from a 30-month submarine mission.

The news you may be able to use from “Fahrenheit 11/9,” the freshest takeaway, is that Americans actually support, in greater numbers than we realize, lefty policies for health care, education, gun control, environmental protection, and other basic ingredients for a successful civilization. And that the (few) Democrats in power are too clubby and cozy to affect much change. That leaves you to do something about it. America, ever the work in progress, will never be complete — but nor is it yet finished off.