Michael Moore’s new documentary, “Fahrenheit 11/9,” is mostly about how the nation ended up with Donald Trump as president and the ensuing political mess. But it also has three segments of significant length about education-related topics: student activism after the Parkland, Fla., shooting; this year’s teacher strikes and walkouts in several states; and the Flint, Mich., water crisis and its impact on children.
The title of the film, which opens Friday, is a play on Moore’s 2004 documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11,” with 11/9 referring to the early morning hours after election day on Nov. 8, 2016, when Trump emerged as the winner over Hillary Clinton. Moore shows the anguish taking hold of Clinton’s supporters at her election night party, as well as the surprise on the faces of Trump backers.
From there, the film is like many other of Moore’s documentaries: a bit disjointed, a bit over the top, but with some astute observations, some gleeful mischief, and some doom. (It also clocks in at about two hours, and could probably have been trimmed.)
While the Trump-focused scenes are reminiscent of Moore’s film on Bush, the examination of the Flint water crisis evokes 1989’s “Roger & Me,” and the scenes with the Parkland students draw on themes from 2002’s “Bowling for Columbine.”
In Flint, Moore’s hometown, the filmmaker vividly pieces together the crisis over the state-imposed 2014 switch of the city’s source of water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the cheaper Flint River. That change lead to contamination and lead poisoning of the city’s predominantly African-America residents, which as experts in the film describe, could have negative effects on children’s educational experiences for years to come.
When it comes to the teacher strikes of 2018, Moore focuses on West Virginia, and the statewide walkout from educators fed up not only with their pay (and an insurance program that required many to wear Fitbit-type devices, in Moore’s telling), but also their union leadership.
Moore shows how all 55 school systems in the state participated, and stayed strong when the state and the unions initially reached a deal that provided a pay raise to teachers but not to support personnel such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers.
The Parkland segment begins jarringly with the voice of the alleged shooter at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School plotting the violence in a cellphone video. It gets more violent as Moore elects to use snippets of some of the most vivid and violent student cellphone video as the shooting that killed 17 students and adults and injured 17 others unfolded.
Moore quickly turns to the Parkland student activists who have sought stronger gun control measures, lobbied flustered Florida lawmakers who were loath to acknowledge their National Rifle Association support, and prompted the wide student walkout. (“It’s going to take a lot” to effect change, one lawmaker is shown telling the students. “It’s going to be multifaceted bullet points coming in from all kinds of angles.”)
Moore shows himself being invited into the “secret headquarters” of the Parkland activists as they planned the March 24 “March for Our Lives” in Washington and elsewhere.
The march was being planned by “23 walking hormones,” or teenagers, well-known activist David Hogg says. Moore concludes that the students’ activism, as evidenced by the well-attended march, is just the kind of action needed to jolt the system, but he quickly returns to a gloomy outlook about the nation under Trump.
I half-expected Moore to take aim at U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, but she makes only a brief cameo in a news clip in the documentary and largely escapes his polemical wrath.
Moore’s recent films have reportedly struggled at the box office compared with his biggest hits, such as “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” One would think that the filmmaker’s distinctive take on the Trump era would find some kind of an audience.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.