Moore’s the Pity: The Failure of Fahrenheit 11/9

I guess this is what you call losing the popular vote:

Fahrenheit 11/9 limped to an eighth-place finish in North America with $3.1 million from 1,719 theaters. Pre-release tracking had suggested at least $5 million-$6 million. Moore’s satirical, anti-Trump film marks the first release from Tom Ortenberg’s new company, Briarcliff. (Ortenberg worked with Moore on Fahrenheit 9/11 while stationed at Lionsgate.)

“We’re optimistic,” says Briarcliff distribution head Steve Bunnell, noting the film’s A CinemaScore and strong PostTrak exit scores. “The idea was to have the movie play everywhere before the midterm elections.”

In 2004, Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 debuted to a record-breaking $23.9 million from 868 locations. Otherwise, his films, similar to other political or specialized docs, have launched first in select theaters before expanding their footprint in order to capitalize on word of mouth. While it’s true Fahrenheit 11/9 posted one of the biggest debuts ever for a political doc, it is only the fourth political doc to launch nationwide, making comparisons tough.

One of those four is Death of a Nation, from conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza. This summer, the film debuted to $2.4 million from 1,005 locations before topping out at $5.9 million domestically, the worst showing of D’Souza’s directorial career despite an overall doc boom at the box office, including such summer hits as Won’t You Be My Neighbor? ($22.6 million), RBG ($14 million) and Three Identical Strangers ($12.1 million).

The underperformance of Fahrenheit 11/9 comes as a shock to those who expected that Moore would once again capture the anti-GOP cultural zeitgeist. However, Owen Gleiberman argues that the 11/9’s box-office pounding shouldn’t be all that shocking:

Fahrenheit 11/9, his scathing riff on the administration of Donald J. Trump, will be lucky to gross one-tenth of what Fahrenheit 9/11 did. That’s more than just a staggering comedown. It symbolizes a couple of things at once: how different the two eras are, but also how Michael Moore’s audience — there’s no other way to put it — has gradually drifted away. It symbolizes that Moore is no longer defining the dialogue. A Trump-era conservative would probably say, “It’s about time! Michael Moore has lied so much that it’s all finally caught up with him.” A Trump-era liberal would probably say, “I still agree with him, but I’ve seen enough Michael Moore movies. I know his message already.”

There are elements to be heeded in both those statements (even as a Moore believer, I’ve been troubled, on occasion, by his willingness to bend the truth to make a larger point). But the question of why Moore’s films are no longer connecting with the public in a major way has a meaning beyond the standard left/right dialectics. It’s about a problem that Moore may be able to solve, but if so, he’s going to have to rethink what he does. Not the content but the execution. Because as much as I remain a fan of Moore’s (I thought the cumulative effect of Fahrenheit 11/9 was chilling), what he’s doing now is not, in the fullest sense, working. He needs to decide if he wants to rectify that…

Ever since [2009’s Capitalism: A Love Story], Moore’s films haven’t been compellingly focused documentary essays, like Bowling for Columbine or Sicko, so much as free-form didactic rambles. Fahrenheit 11/9 is a good example. I remain one of its admirers, yet even in my mostly positive review I had to acknowledge that the film was all over the place: thumbing its nose at Trump, detouring into a dead-serious exposé of the Flint poison-water scandal, then building to a revelation of how the Trump administration is threatening to trash democracy even more than many liberals think. If you stay with the movie, it all adds up, but for long stretches you have to indulge its stream-of-opinionizing form. That makes it feel like something less than a bull’s-eye. And the point of this weekend’s box-office numbers is that people can’t stay with something they aren’t even bothering to see.

Gleiberman provides various reasons for 11/9’s failure: the Internet supplanting documentaries as the most popular vehicle for providing progressive perspectives on news, the aging of Moore’s core audience, exhaustion with all things Trump. There may be one more reason: the anti-Trump resistance is simply looking for new voices to make the case against the avarice and amorality of this administration. Moore may just be the progressive voice of yesterday. The only question is: who will be the progressive voices of tomorrow?

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.