Michael Moore has established himself in the U.S. as America’s severest critic, his half serious, half comic documentaries taking on his country’s approach to issues such as gun control (Bowling for Columbine), the Iraq war (Fahrenheit 911), corporate policy (Roger and Me), and health care (Sicko), to name a few. The rumpled, overweight figure in the ever-present baseball cap, now as easily recognized in the US as any genuine movie star, is as admired by his fans as he is despised by those who disagree with him, and he is as often called a traitor as a patriot in his deeply divided home nation.
In fact, it can be difficult to separate genuine criticism of his movies from rejection of the ideas he presents. While Moore’s brand of satire can be a little blunt, it is probably fair to say that anyone who accepts, or is willing to consider, his premises will probably enjoy his films. This applies to international audiences as well. While Moore’s documentaries are critiques of the United States, and clearly intended for an American audience, they have been enjoyed around the world for their playful sarcasm, as well as for the fairly universal pleasure of seeing the US ridiculed.
After a six year break from film making, Moore chose to produce a documentary which was a little more lighthearted and positive than his previous work – especially his last major project, Captialism: A Love Story, which had a darker and more pessimistic tone than Moore had previously taken. He also wanted to make a film which was more accessible to older children and teens, as well as adults. The result was Where To Invade Next.
The film is not quite a straightforward documentary, in that it uses a partly fictional format. The film’s prologue begins with the farcical premise that the US military have recognized that their efforts at worldwide domination had been unsuccessful in improving their own country, and have jointly requested the assistance of Michael Moore. Moore assures them that he will do what he can, and his supposed efforts make up the actual content of the film.Moore’s imaginary mission is to perform a one-man ‘invasion’ of carefully chosen sites around the world, “take what we need from them, and bring it all back home to the United States of America.” The things being taken are not valuables, in this case, but ideas: social concepts and solutions to problems which have been dealt with more successfully than in the US, “for,” Moore says as he sets out, “we have problems no army can solve.”
The problems which require solving are quickly outlined in a series of brief news clips, played over the opening credits, which demonstrate the United States’ more pressing troubles. From there, we cut to Moore beginning his world tour, dramatically transported on board an aircraft carrier. Holding to the comic premise that he is single-handedly invading various nations and taking their ideas as the spoils of war, Moore arrives in Europe carrying an enormous American flag, which he plants triumphantly on each ‘conquered’ nation when he discovers ideas and approaches which can benefit his homeland.
Anticipating the criticism that Where To Invade Next shows only the positive side of the foreign nations it visits, Moore acknowledges that every country has problems, but that the film was not meant to provide a balanced critique, only to highlight noteworthy successes. “I’m here to pick the flowers, not the weeds,” he comments early in the film.
Moore chooses each destination for its success in solving one or two specific difficulties which the US is currently coping with, ranging from education to crime to public health.
His first stop is Italy, where he examines their approach to labour, and is amazed at the comparatively short hours, long vacations, generous sick leave and maternity leave, and comfortable workplaces. Using his usual combination of interviews and on-screen information, Moore makes the point that this approach leads not only to healthier and more productive workers, but no significant loss of profits. It is a good choice for first chapter, in terms of capturing the attention of American audiences, who have heard for years that workers’ needs are always in conflict with those of the company which employs them.Moore also visits France, to compare their healthy, freshly made school lunches, served in a civilized setting with the goal of instilling table manners, with the abominable food offered to American schoolchildren; and also to take in the French approach to school sex education programmes, very much at odds with the American ‘abstinence only’ classes.
In Finland, Moore examines the Finnish approach to primary education, which he finds not only kinder than the American system, and more sensitive to children’s needs, but far more effective academically as well. The different approach to funding public schools – which, in the US, results in some poor neighbourhoods having schools with literally no resources, not even glass in the windows, while wealthier neighbourhoods have more than adequate public schools – is also examined.
Slovenia is visited for its dedication to free university education for all; Germany for its success in sustaining a solid middle class, and for its current openness about past crimes against humanity, in contrast to the popular denial in the US; Portugal for its approach to drug abuse; Norway for its penal system; Tunisia and Iceland for their progress in the area of women’s issues.
Each nation is represented on camera by teachers, labourers, and government officials who are willing to play along with Moore’s imaginary invasion as well as his banter, and defend their solution to these various issues, particularly as opposed to the standard American approach. Moore and his film crew are given access to people and institutions who can provide realistic insight into how their systems work. He is even granted a 45 minute consultation with the President of Slovenia, although their private discussion is not permitted to take place on camera – by Moore’s tongue-in-cheek explanation, in order to avoid the humiliation of having his official surrender caught on film.While allowing the local representatives to do most of the talking, Michael Moore does provide his own commentary, sometimes verbal, more often in the form of American news reports or creatively chosen historical footage. His conversations with local inhabitants are comfortable, and range from serious and heartfelt to absurd. Moore’s attempts at humour occasionally fall flat, as when he tries to entertain French schoolchildren and seems to frighten more than amuse them, but the awkwardness of some encounters gives them a feeling of genuine spontaneity, which a few of the more polished interviews tend to lack.
While the film remains a comedy, the subject matter is not taken lightly, and on one or two occasions, Moore relinquishes any attempt at humour when referring to a particularly aggravating question. While discussing the decriminalization of drug use in Portugal, he inserts a long but arguably very relevant digression into the suspiciously race-related history of America’s own drug laws, and the even more race-related results of their enforcement. In another scene, coverage of Germany’s efforts to overcome denial of shameful episodes in their own history leads Moore to despair over America’s resolute refusal to confront similar chapters in its past. The filmmaker’s comedy does not completely overshadow his anger over perceived injustices.
The intention of keeping this film approachable by younger viewers has made Where To Invade Next just a little more simplistic than some of Michael Moore’s earlier work; yet it is not a failure by any means. The information he wants to present is made available without lapsing too far into moralizing, and the approach keeps things lively and entertaining. In contrast to many of his earlier documentaries, Moore succeeds in keeping the film’s tone positive, in spite of his all too obvious frustration with America’s perceived inflexibility. He maintains a sense of humour throughout, and unexpectedly ends the film on a distinctly optimistic note, one that offers proud Americans a way to simultaneously accept the film’s message, and retain their belief in their country’s natural superiority – not an easy task under the circumstances.