Absolutely wonderful hour and fifty minutes. I laughed, I cried, I cringed, I despaired. I did everything filmmaker Michael Moore no doubt intended when he made Where to Invade Next. Preaching to the choir! Beating a dead horse and making you cheer all the while. It’s Michael Moore at his very best.
Moore goes off first to Italy, then France, Finland, Slovenia, Germany, Tunisia, Portugal and Iceland, and looks at the way they educate their children, especially about sex, provide their workers with six weeks of vacation, assure equal rights for women and make prison a place not for revenge but for reintegration into society – in large part by not spending half their GDP on weapons but mostly by summoning the will to act collectively for the welfare of all instead of just one or another king of the mountain. And by treating drug use as something other than a crime and the death penalty as unworthy of a civilized state.
It’s not a fair picture, and Moore admits from the start that he is cherry-picking the good parts of European cultural practices and setting them against the worst of American ways – “I went to pick the flowers, not the weeds.” But this is not America-bashing. It’s constructive criticism, for those with the eyes to see it that way. Despite the title and the silly device of carrying the American flag around with him and planting it in Italian living rooms, German factory lunch rooms and Finnish faculty meetings, he’s not really “invading” these places so much as he is discovering American inventions that Europeans have improved upon and Americans have allowed to decay. It’s time, he declares, to bring these ideas back home, and admit we have much to learn from others.
His reputation has been built up over the years by previous successful investigative documentaries. He started with Roger and Me, in 1989, about how General Motors had beggared Flint, Michigan by firing everybody in Flint and moving their factories to Mexico for its lower wages. Then came a short (23-minute) documentary titled Pets or Meat (1992) and his only non-documentary film, Canadian Bacon, in 1995, in which he satirizes the notion of declaring war on international terrorism. Then The Big One, in 1997, in which he singles out Nike as an example of a corporation – but hardly the only one - that puts profits ahead of the interest of workers, a theme which he revisits in Where to Invade Next. Then came the major hit, Bowling for Columbine, in 2002, about guns and violence in the U.S., a film many consider one the best documentaries of all time. He then broke his own record with his next film, Fahrenheit 9/11, in 2005, the highest-grossing documentary of all time, about the links between the Bush administration and the bin Ladens. (He takes on the Bush family in Dude, Where’s My Country? one of the eight books he has to his name, as well.) Two years later, in 2007, he came out with Sicko, about the American health care system. He took on both the managed care industry and the pharmaceutical industry and pushed the envelope by taking 9/11 rescue care workers to Cuba to get health care unavailable to them in the U.S. He followed those with two more, one on capitalism and democracy. (Capitalism: A Love Story) and one on the politics of college students (Captain Mike Across America). Where to Invade Next is his first new film in six years. This time the focus is not on any one particular outrage, but on how many good ideas there are out there we might take to heart.
Obviously Moore’s reputation preceded him and gave him entrée onto the factory floor of the Ducati motorcycle plant in Italy, the Faber-Castell pencil factory in Germany, and into a school lunch room in France. At one point, he even presuades Borut Pahor, the president of Slovenia, to grant him an interview. And Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the former president of Iceland, the first woman ever elected as head of state in a national election.
To know the work of Michael Moore is to know subtlety is not his game. He’ll take a sledge hammer over a scalpel any day, as when he puts Norwegian prisoners with access to knives and the keys to their own prison apartments up against what he calls the re-enslavement of the American black man in U.S. prisons, complete with regular floggings. Or when he shows a child being frisked at an airport. And yet, there is method in his ability to get you to guffaw at his outrageous satire at the same time you are shaking your head in disbelief.
There are wonderful moments in Where to Invade Next. My favorites are the sessions with the French school children who get a four-course meal served to them on real plates and drink out of breakable glasses, who turn up their noses at Coca-Cola and express a preference for Camembert over other cheeses, one of which is served at every school lunch. And the interviews with Icelandic women, in which he gives them plenty of time and space to declare that the problems of the world can and will be solved by women, as soon as the world can get its act together and let them have equal access to power. Another favorite moment is when he appears at the Berlin Wall, announces that nobody thought it would ever come down, just as nobody thought a few years ago that gays and lesbians would have the rights they have today. The world, he concludes, can and does change, if we just get in there and make it happen.
Only an idealist could take on the miseries created by human incompetence and greed which Moore has dealt with over the years. A cynic would have folded long ago. I always liked that about him. Until Where to Invade Next, though, I never realized he was such an optimist.