The Bolsheviks coined the term agitprop, agitation meets propaganda, though the concept has a much longer history. Thomas Paine’s Revolutionary War tract “Common Sense” was agitprop, and without it we might still have English accents. Abraham Lincoln famously credited Harriet Beecher Stowe and her “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — the novel as agitprop — with helping start the Civil War.
Michael Moore is in that tradition. He’s yet to rescue a revolution or start a war, but he has won an Oscar for best feature documentary (“Bowling for Columbine,” 2002), and his furious assault on the Bush administration’s Global War on Terrorism, “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004), won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It remains the highest-grossing documentary in film history.
Agitprop is different from propaganda, per se. Its aim isn’t just to persuade (or trick) but to enflame and inspire action. The great challenge it faces is getting beyond preaching just to the converted — which is to say, enflaming the already enflamed. It’s not a challenge Michael Moore much cares about. He hasn’t done crossover in a long time. You can call that integrity. You can call it arrogance. But call it something, since it’s as much a defining principle of what he does as are wearing a baseball cap and pushing (no, tearing up) the adversarial envelope.
“Fahrenheit 11/9,” as the title suggests, is a bid to return to his glory days. Moore has made several documentaries in the meantime, most notably “Sicko” (2007), on the US health care system, but none has exactly moved many needles.
The title plays on the fact that Nov. 9, 2016, is when Donald Trump declared victory over Hillary Clinton. The film is about Trump and much else besides: the Flint, Mich., water crisis, the Parkland shootings, a post-Bernie Sanders Democratic Party, the Reichstag fire, the successful strike earlier this year by West Virginia public school teachers, the shortcomings of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the kitchen sink. All right, one of those doesn’t belong, but the rest of the list gives a sense of how all over the map Moore’s movie is.
“Fahrenheit 11/9” may be pretty awful, which it is. But as polemical documentaries go, Moore remains the master. If you doubt that, try sitting through a Dinesh D’Souza movie.
The documentary begins with Hillary Clinton on election eve, a nicely indirect start, and quickly moves on to Trump. Moore, who frequently appears onscreen, provides the voice-over. “It looked like a perp walk,” he says of the Trump clan as it arrived at the New York Hilton on Election Night. Say this for the man, he can be funny. He also knows how to assemble footage (there are lots and lots and lots of news clips), and much of the movie is edited like gangbusters. That’s not necessarily a plus. The movie’s a dynamic mess, and the dynamism makes the messiness feel that much messier.
Along with the news clips, there are lots and lots of scenes with Moore making puppy eyes at people he admires, like Sanders or, quite justifiably, Parkland High students. He also does his standard agent-provocateur shtick. He sprays the grounds of the Michigan governor’s mansion with water from Flint. He stalks into the statehouse in Lansing to make a citizen’s arrest of the chief executive. Take that, all you malefactors of great wealth and hiders behind the curtain of simple courtesy. When the time comes for a Moore box set, “Cringe Factor” might be a good title.
There’s so much about Flint (Moore was born there and grew up nearby) one wonders if that wasn’t the documentary he started out to make. He mostly abandons Trump about a quarter of the way into the documentary, though not before making the astute observation that “He’s always committed his crimes in plain sight.”
By the end of “Fahrenheit” Moore is in rant mode. “The America I want to save is the America we never had” (huh?) and “We have to get rid of the whole rotten system that gave us Donald Trump.” That basically means any part of the Democratic Party to the right of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom we briefly glimpse in a news clip.
The most incendiary moment in “Fahrenheit,” and it’s a movie full of them, comes earlier. It’s also the most jaw-dropping. Moore shows newsreel footage of Hitler delivering a speech. Only it’s not Hitler’s voice we hear. It’s Trump’s. Get it? Sure you do, and as you do the documentary slips the surly bonds of sanity — even of agitprop — to enter a realm of its own polemical making. Words cannot do justice to such an editorial decision. Well, maybe five can: intellectually null and morally contemptible. Though maybe Moore is making a subtler point, since those words apply to an agitprop-made-flesh president, too.
Written, directed by, and starring Michael Moore. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 123 min. R (language and truly terrifying footage of the Parkland shootings)Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.