Michael Moore doesn’t always make it easy to admire his films. He’s a social commentator of legitimate passion and scorching wit; he’s also a documentarian whose work can be sloppy at best and misleading at worst. The criticisms (from naysayers on both the left and right, though mostly on the right) that have greeted his previous films will certainly be back for an encore upon the release of his latest, Where to Invade Next: sketchy stats, deceptive edits, anecdotal evidence, borderline dishonest selectivity in his presentation of other cultures.
If anything, with his choice of topic this time around — “invading” foreign nations to steal their good ideas and bring them back to the US of A — he almost seems to be leaning into that last critique; you can all but write the Bill O’Reilly condemnation of his “socialist European propaganda” yourself. Where to Invade Next is scattershot, reductive, and irritating; it’s also smart, funny, heartfelt, and moving. It is, in other words, a Michael Moore movie.
He visits several countries, selecting in each an area or two of public policy where we’re coming up short: Italy, which offers paid vacations, bonuses, and maternity leave; France, which offers students healthy, gourmet lunches and straightforward sex education; Finland, which has found success in education by giving students no homework, shorter days, and shorter school years; Slovenia, which offers native and international students free college educations; Germany, which acknowledges and educates citizens about the most shameful chapter of its history; Portugal, which has decriminalized drugs and amped up treatment; Norway, whose rehabilitative, humanistic prison system has sharply reduced recidivism; Tunisia, which offers free government-funded women’s clinics across the country; and Iceland, which has placed women in key positions of power in politics and business.
That’s a laundry list of suggestions that’d give any Fox viewer an aneurysm, and you gotta give Moore this much: he is unapologetic for that. And as his journey progresses, it becomes clear that his “invasion” notion is neither a serious framework nor a mere comic gimmick; it’s a prism through which he can comment on contemporary American culture and politics, via comparison. He said as much at the press conference that followed Friday’s media screening for the New York Film Festival, the film’s second festival engagement following its debut in Toronto last month.
“In Toronto I read some things about the film,” Moore told us, “’The difference between this and the other films is it’s not so angry, Mike’s happy…’ I’m more angry than ever! But I think that maybe I came up with a little bit more subversive way to deal with that anger about the condition of this country.”
And though the film’s structure is sound, it results in a feature that’s a bit more episodic and vignette-based than even his loose norm; in terms of approach and tone, it feels closer to his television series TV Nation and The Awful Truth than his other films, with each trip a segment that could easily break out on its own. This is, in many ways, a good thing — Moore feels free to veer from serious to satire, and lands some big laughs, often at his hosts’ expense (“As usual, the French offered little resistance”).
Festival director Kent Jones and Michael Moore at the New York Film Festival.Photo credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire
But because it’s such a glancing look at these countries, the structure also allows Moore to partake of troubling tendency toward reductive simplification. He attempts to address this in his narration — “Sure, Italy has its problems, like all countries, but my job is to pick the flowers, not the weeds” — and went into greater detail at the press conference, telling a Finnish journalist, “Every country has a lot of problems, and I didn’t go there to make a film about your country. You need Finnish documentary filmmakers to do that, or other people — you don’t need Americans telling you what to do.” Fair point! But the film often falls flattest when Moore tries to position himself as that kind of serious documentarian. The most egregious example: he attempts to preempt the inevitable American (conservative) response that such policies would cause taxes to skyrocket, complete with a montage of Fox talking heads making that claim, with an onscreen graphic comparing French and U.S. tax rates. Problem? There’s not a single number on it. He just uses bars, with no indications of whether the difference between them is $10/person or $1000/person. That’s not how making an argument works.
And yet. There are scenes of real power here, in which Moore puts America’s history under the microscope (he explains how Germany puts up, as historical markers, the signs posted in shops and buildings during the reign of the Third Reich, and asks “What would our signs look like?”), and stacks our failures and fears up against not only our own notions of our better selves (a stirring opening montage juxtaposes presidential rhetoric with American reality) but the endless possibilities that we’ve all but given up on shooting for (the remarkable closing passage explains how so many of these great notions were ours to begin with). These scenes are stirring and inspiring and, dare I say, idealistic. Maybe a more traditional non-fiction filmmaker wouldn’t make some of the mistakes Moore makes — but they also might not achieve the emotional immediacy of his best work.
I’ve heard Moore’s defenders define him as less a documentarian than a satirist, less reporter than op-ed columnist. At this point in his career, it’s probably most accurate to define him as an editorial cartoonist—at least in terms of the simplicity of his heroes and villains. But sometimes, an editorial cartoon can say more (and say it more effectively) than a thousand words of tightly constructed prose.
Where to Invade Next made its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival last weekend. Its theatrical release has not yet been announced.