Michael Moore: Earth-Rattling Political Force No Longer?

With "Fahrenheit 11/9," the Oscar-winning documentarian is no longer setting the discussion but reacting to it.

Is a great documentarian basically down to stunts and stumbling and screaming?

The latest film by veteran rabble-rouser Michael Moore, Fahrenheit 11/9 (which opened in Australia last week), begins by invoking déjà vu. The shock-doc-jock presents images of political rallies on the evening prior to the 2016 US presidential election, as people prepare for the supposedly inevitable: the election of Hillary Clinton as US President. He then questions the very nature of reality. “Was it all a dream?” the documentarian asks, before moving on to contemplate the nightmare of Donald Trump. This is a sequel of sorts to his smash-hit 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, which begins the same way.

Maybe it was Moore who was dreaming: that he could make a follow-up film with as much impact as its predecessor; that he was still a political trailblazer with the power to shape national conversation.

He couldn’t and he isn’t. In its opening weekend, Moore’s new film collected $3.4 million at the North American box office, compared to $19 million taken in the same period by its predecessor. This is part of a pattern that has seen Moore’s films steadily declining in box office revenue. Following Fahrenheit 9/11’s total $222 million international haul in 2004, Sicko took $36 million in 2007, Capitalism: A Love Story took $17.4 million in 2009 and Where to Invade Next took $3.8 million in 2016.

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Love him or hate him, Moore’s influence and cachet is not what it used to be. The $64,000 question isn’t “In these noisy times, is Moore more or less relevant than ever?,” because the answer is obviously less. A better question is to ask why Moore is no longer an earth-rattling political force to be reckoned with; no longer a superstar and demigod of the left.

To put it simply, the world changed and he did not. For a long time Moore seemed like a rare beast: a funny, media-savvy, raising-Cain social-justice warrior and braggart who fought fire with fire, refusing to accept that his ideological components were the only parties “allowed” to play hard and fast with the truth. Again, love him or hate him, there is no question that Moore’s work has fudged and embellished facts to serve his own — usually admirable — agenda.

Now he is just one loud voice among countless others desperate for attention. One bit player attempting to stay in the spotlight, drowned out by a cacophony of talking (or screaming) heads. On the TV. On the radio. On social media. Online. Everywhere. So many of them, like him, attempting to invigorate the base, rally the troops, decry the innumerable political failures of our times. It all feels like white noise now.

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Moore is no longer setting the discussion but, like almost everybody else, reacting to it. These reactions are complicated nowadays by different interpretations of reality and the sensation that nothing feels real anymore. Trump is President. Brexit happened. Fascism is on the rise. The premise of The Matrix is now a popular if not credible theory. A multinational company is manipulating our moods. The robots are creating their own language.

We see the carnage but are powerless to stop it. We are shocked. Scared. Angry. Distressed. And science tells us we have good reason to be. We feel the ship sinking beneath us and our voices grow shriller. Moore’s core strategy has always been to be the loudest, shoutiest, most indignant person in the room. The problem is that somebody else can always come along, shouting louder and playing dirtier. A person in the White House (Donald someone-or-other) reminds us of this almost every day.

Moore’s core motivation has always been to win the argument, not to enlighten the world. If he told a few white lies in service of a noble cause, well, who cares? Even poorly educated people however could see that he was mingling truth with fiction; could sense the difference between arguing and intellect. They also saw Moore hailed as a hero. Draw huge adoring crowds. Win an Academy Award. Then somebody with a bigger platform and a more powerful microphone (Trump) came along to tell them that not only was Moore wrong, but the whole system was wrong — at least, all those people on the other side of politics.

The cringe-worthy term “fake news” — of which Trump is such a fan — is a way of sticking one’s fingers in their ears and screaming ‘I don’t like what you’re saying, therefore it isn’t true.’ Would you be surprised if an old video surfaced, revealing that Moore first used this term and Trump nicked it from him? You know you wouldn’t. In the way they treat the construction of media narratives, elements of Moore and Trump could be considered two sides of the same coin.

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Can the superstar documentarian bounce back? It seems unlikely. But — as that now slippery term “reality” continues to remind us — stranger things have happened.

Some parts of Fahrenheit 11/9 feel less problematic than childish, such as Moore spraying Flint water over a governor’s lawn and a segment devoted to Trump fondling his daughter, which stops just (just) shy of suggesting incest. The film also contains a terrifying stretch in which Moore suggests that America may be “one 9/11 away from losing our democracy.” It is convincingly argued by a man who is nothing if not a talented communicator. How sad, then — and yet, with the benefit of hindsight, how inevitable, given the way the world changed and the way he didn’t — that audiences appear to have stopped listening.

This article was first published on Daily Review, the CFR’s Australian partner. It has been lightly edited for style and clarity for our US audience.