Michael Moore, back from an extended holiday — six long years since “Capitalism: A Love Story” — returns with a movie geared more for whimsy than hardcore harangues. Not that it doesn’t have a political agenda. But its approach is comedic rather than angry.
“Where to Invade Next” is in itself a curious title. You naturally expect a critique of the militaristic turn the U.S. has taken in the past two decades but, no, this is a set-up for a different kind of invasion by the bad boy of propaganda/documentary films.
Using manipulated archival footage and a modicum of sleight of hand, Moore begins the film by insisting he was summoned before the Joint Chiefs of Staff for advice. Having lost every war since WWII, they are at wit’s end about how to better strategize their invasions.
(Of course, that statement is highly misleading: Korea was at least a “tie,” one that has yet to be resolved. Meanwhile how could the Chiefs have forgotten Grenada? That was a clear “win.”)
Moore decides he will personally take over invasions from now on and do better by producing not only surrenders but helpful spoils of war. For America faces problems, he declares, “no army can solve.” Perhaps the people and countries Moore conquers can offer good ideas.
This sets the table for the rotund filmmaker/provocateur, draped in an American flag no less, to “invade” mostly European countries, interviewing ordinary people (and the occasional head of state) to seek out particular advantages of foreign life that might benefit the good, old U.S. of A.
As you might guess, his ‘invasions” have highly selective objectives allowing him to highlight the successes of certain foreign institutions, educational opportunities, labor laws and penal systems as opposed to the near abject failure of similar systems in America.
In Italy, in interviews with a working couple, he expresses astonishment at the 30 to 35 days of paid vacation each year for Italian workers not including the standard five months of paid maternity leave. Or the 15 paid days for honeymoons.
While good wages and paid holidays may create healthier employees, he grills the heads of family-run business about what this does to their profit margins. Not only do they claim such benefits increase profits — no proof is offered — but one woman even declares that even if it does cut into family profits, “what’s the point of being richer?” That would be heresy in the U.S.
Then it’s off to France where he visits a gourmet kitchen — only it’s a school cafeteria where yummy food is served hot daily. Moore searches fruitlessly for a vending machine. When he shows the school kids downloaded photos of American school lunches, their faces blanch: Who would eat that gunk?
The kicker is that French school meals costs less than the American. He then sits in on a sex education class that would have the religious right frothing at the mouth.
And so it goes. Finland, once at the bottom of world scholastics along with the U.S., rose to the top by eliminating homework, cutting class hours and shunning the constant national testing that has plagued the American system.
Slovenia, along with many other countries, offers free university education — even to foreigners such as American students who study there since they can’t afford for-profit American institutions. Workers in a German pencil factory don’t have to work second jobs to make ends meet and can retreat to a free spa to relax whenever stressed.
In Portugal the government gave up its war on drugs years ago only to see drug usage drop. Norway has prisons that look like holiday camps while many Icelandic CEOs are women.
Moore never fully investigates any claims, you understand. Nor does the economic stagnation or worse in Italy or France ever get mentioned. No one who opposes these programs or approaches in these foreign nations gets interviews. And comparisons between, say, a prison system of country with tiny populations to that in the U.S. is not really very useful.
For all his feigned wide-eyed wonder at other peoples’ systems of labor, government and education, you wonder how much research he actually did into the systems he contrasts with Americans’.
Moore also could be accused of ignoring differences of history, culture, traditions, geography and economics when comparing these apples to those oranges.
I well remember at Cannes a few years ago, the man who made “Roger and Me” marched in solidarity with demonstrating French actors and theatrical workers. I was never certain if he realized that these self-employed French show business technicians were protesting cuts in generous welfare benefits no American stage worker would ever have, and were actually demanding to work less.
It was a complicated issue and his grasp of national differences in labor laws was tenuous at best. And threatening to sabotage the world’s most important film festival, as these groups had done to summer arts festivals across France the previous year, hardly speaks to any love of art or film.
However, Moore’s point in this film is that other countries have ideas worth considering given the abject failure of, say, our war on drugs or the crippling debts facing American university grads. He even insists that most of these ideas, these “spoils of war” he puts it, are actually American ideas.
Many of those interviewed say they took aspects of American ideals going back to our Constitution as the inspiration of their systems and social welfare approaches. We somehow forgot our own ideals, Moore insists.
While he doesn’t wind up humming the song, you can’t help hear ringing in your head the Leonard Cohen lyric, “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.”
Opens: December 23, 2015 Los Angeles, New York (Tom Quinn/Jason Janego/Tim League)
North End Films presentation in association with IMG Films of a Dog Eat Dog production.
Director/screenwriter: Michael Moore
Producers: Michael Moore, Tia Lessin, Carl Deal
Executive producers: Mark Shapiro, Will Staeger, Rod Birleson
Directors of photography: Richard Rowley, Jayme Roy
Editors: Pablo Proenza, T. Woody Richman, Tyler H. Walk
R rating, 115 minutes