In his previous documentaries, Michael Moore has tackled singular subjects: the departing of Michigan’s auto industry from Flint in Roger & Me; gun violence in Bowling for Columbine; the September 11th attacks in Fahrenheit 9/11; and the financial crisis in Capitalism: A Love Story. His latest documentary, Where to Invade Next, is more expansive in scope, addressing multiple socio-economic issues that are all related to restoring Moore’s version of the American dream.
There’s no doubt where Moore falls on the political spectrum, so it should be no surprise that the film is anything but fair and balanced—but it doesn’t have to be. As in his previous works, the filmmaker has a point to make and isn’t afraid to insert himself into the discussion (albeit a little too much). While it’s frustrating to watch Moore examine education, incarceration, women’s rights and other topics on such a myopic micro-level, the film does ask thought-provoking questions about American society. If nothing else, Where to Invade Next should start a conversation about real ways to make America great again.
The film’s title, its accompanying poster (Moore in front of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and the first five minutes are a bit misleading. Moore opens with flyover shots of Washington, D.C., perusing its monuments with a military march playing in the background. After he reminds us that America hasn’t won a war outright since WWII, disparate images, text and voiceovers follow. George W. Bush talks about “freedom,” while Eric Garner tells police holding him down, “I can’t breathe.” President Barack Obama promises to hunt down terrorists while onscreen a 5- or 6-year-old girl gets a pat-down at an airport.
We assume Where to Invade Next will be a critique about the funding and training of the military or police in America, but the intro is a McGuffin. It’s a hokey setup that allows Moore to explain and inject himself into the film’s storyline: He’s going into mostly European countries for a one-man invasion—claiming those ideas that work in other countries to bring back to the U.S.
In Italy, he playfully comments how everyone looks like they’ve just had sex, and wants to know the secret to the relaxed Italian lifestyle. He interviews a couple—a policeman and a fashion buyer—about their job benefits, particularly their six weeks of paid time off. The conversation is interspersed with the pair’s vacation photos from around the world. They’re shocked to learn that working Americans aren’t guaranteed time off. Moore visits other Italian companies, including motorcycle manufacturer Ducati, and speaks to CEOs who believe in a work-life balance, good benefits and two-hour lunches. Life is good for all Italians, Moore posits, because of more sex and vacation—except that he fails to mention anything about the state of the Italian economy. The country’s unemployment rate hit 11.4 percent in December—which, it’s worth noting, is a three-year low, and that’s compared to America’s unemployment rate around that time, which was a solid 5%.
The rest of the film follows suit, with Moore “invading” countries, planting American flags and cherry-picking the best ideas from each country. In France he dines with public school children for lunch—a multi-course affair that includes plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, seafood, lamb, cheese plates and water (the only beverage served at most schools). It’s both horrifying and hilarious to watch the French school kids react to photos of unidentifiable American school lunches. In Finland, Moore speaks with teachers about the highly successful Finnish education system, which advocates for more recess and less homework, focusing on learning rather than training to pass standardized tests.
In Slovenia, Moore extols the virtues of free college education; in Norway (with its low murder and recidivism rate) he visits a prison that seems more like a dormitory, with private bathrooms, TVs and no uniforms. Women’s rights issues take center stage in his visits to Tunisia, a Muslim country, where abortions are government subsidized, and in Iceland, which elected the world’s first woman president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, in 1980.
Moore’s not subtle about shifting the conversation to suit his needs, using a faux-incredulous tone, one imagines, to prompt subjects to say what he wants them to say or to offer a puzzled look for the camera. In a particularly insensitive interview, Moore repeatedly asks a father who lost his son in a 2011 massacre in Norway, whether he’d kill the man responsible. The father says no, but that doesn’t stop Moore from asking again and again to demonstrate the Norwegian’s attitude toward crime, punishment and forgiveness.
Where to Invade Next begins to feel repetitive toward the end of the film, and Moore could have cut several unnecessary scenes to tighten it. In the Icelandic segment, a slow montage of various Norwegian women looking pensively into the camera feels patronizing. Another scene: Moore’s trip to the Berlin Wall, where he and a friend recall how they helped chip away at it just before its fall. The wall was meant to divide Berlin forever, the filmmaker says, but it only lasted 30-odd years. It’s a call to action for the American public, but with Moore putting himself into the center of the scene, the message loses some of its power.
On one level, Where to Invade Next works as a travel piece, but for much of the film, Moore’s tunnel vision only illustrates how broken American society and values really are. The film’s snide humor can’t lift the veil of melancholy that pervades it, nor can Moore repeatedly placing himself in front of the camera to explain the most obvious ideas already on display. Sometimes, less Moore is more.
Director: Michael Moore
Starring: Michael Moore
Release Date: February 12, 2016
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.