Michael Moore and Donald Trump have something in common. No, seriously. They want to make America great again. In Where to Invade Next, Moore pretends he’s been sent by the Pentagon to invade other countries. His mission: to steal their ideas about education, tuition, employee benefits, the prison system, drug policy, and gender equality in order to fix problems in the United States.
The US could use the help. As wages stagnate, the middle class shrinks, infrastructure crumbles, and American students fall behind the rest of the first world and developing world, there needs to be a serious reorientation of the direction of the country rather than staying the course.
Where to Invade Next is my second favorite Michael Moore movie, and there are times that the film reminded me of Moore’s work throughout the 80s and 90s (i.e., Roger and Me, TV Nation, The Awful Truth). But the movie’s also got a lot of problems, even for a total lefty like me, and they’re problems that demonstrate Moore’s limitations as a filmmaker as well as a dime-store historian/political commentator.
[This review was originally published as part of our 2015 New York Film Festival coverage. It’s been reposted to coincide with the film’s limited theatrical release.]
Where to Invade Next
Director: Michael Moore
Release Date: December 23, 2015 (NY/LA); February 12, 2016 (wide)
We start the invasion in Italy. Moore sits down with a couple in their living room to discuss what their paid vacation situation is like in the country. They get more than a month off, not including national and local holidays, and any unused vacation time rolls over into the next year. Moore’s mouth is agog most of the time–he was genuinely learning all of this for the first time. But there’s more. The wages tend to be better, the lunches are longer, and employees tend to be more productive on the job because they are so relaxed.
Moore’s invasion continues through Europe, with stops in France, Germany, Finland, Slovenia, Norway, and Portugal, continuing over the Mediterranean to Tunisia, then across the sea to Iceland. Each time, there’s a novel innovation, and each time Moore seems surprised and inspired. He focuses on one thing each country seems to be doing right. In Slovenia, for instance, all college is free, even for students who’ve come from abroad. In Finland, they’ve abolished homework.
Moore admits that these countries have their own problems and he’s mostly accentuating the positive. My job is picking the flowers and not the weeds, he says. He’s also picking cherries, but that’s not the biggest problem with Where to Invade Next, which, when it works, offers a fine rebuke of the “Fuck you, I got mine” mentality that pervades much of American culture.
Moore’s generally at his best when he’s a deadpan observer rather than a fiery polemicist. Roger and Me is still his finest film (even though he did fudge the timeline of events) since it’s mostly Moore as a citizen journalist documenting others. While framed around Moore trying to get an audience with General Motors CEO Roger Smith, the movie is driven by people who get to tell their own stories about the painful decline of Flint, Michigan. As Moore’s clout grew, he became a more prominent figure in his films, and in turn his movies were more about Michael Moore’s opinions on a subject rather than the subject itself.
Moore develops a feel-good thesis in Where to Invade Next. These innovations in other countries could make America a better place, and they all have a shared origin. But Moore oversteps his skills as a documentary essayist through sloppy thinking and oversimplification. He walks past part of an old section of the Berlin Wall with a friend, and they reminisce about being there as it came down. Hammering and chiseling–the solution was so simple, they say.
Well, no. History doesn’t work that way. The Berlin Wall didn’t come down just because some people in West Germany began chipping away at it for a few nights. There were decades of global history that culminated in that moment, and none of it was easy. While Moore smartly identifies the systemic racism underlying the US drug war, he dumbs down cause and effect in other parts of the film to suggest that the catalyst for change is something really simple. By that logic, the Arab Spring was easy as pie: all it took was for someone to self-immolate. No problemo.
The systems themselves are simple and elegant, and yet the implementation of these solutions–free college, prison reform, education reform, greater gender representation in government–would have to be accomplished through legislative action and, even more difficult, a fundamental ideological shift in American attitudes regarding the bullshit of global capitalism and antiquated gender roles. These aren’t so simple, they’ll take time. But they’re worth fighting for, which is why there’s an oddly ennobling aspect to Where to Invade Next even for its flaws. In my head during each slip up, all I could think was, “Your argument is facile, but yeah, I agree, Michael.”
Moore’s rhetorical missteps in Where to Invade Next come from a genuine place of concern. It’s like a bad college essay. The larger point is good, but it’s articulated and argued inartfully, whether through selective anecdotes rather than facts, or through emotional appeals rather than reason. The pat close of the movie is mushy and inspirational at the same time. Moore references a well-known fairy tale that takes place in the Midwest, and in the process made me think of another work (a book by Thomas Frank) about the contradictory relationship between political ideology and voting against your best interests in the Midwest.
When film critic Stephen Whitty reviewed Fahrenheit 9/11 back in 2004, he wrote that Moore tends to worry liberals about as much as he infuriates conservatives. “They’re people who agree with what Michael Moore says–but refuse to defend to the death the way he insists on saying it,” he wrote.
Some things don’t change.