Michael Moore has spent his career as an op-ed documentarian cataloging America’s problems. Outsourcing, gun violence, inequality, political corruption, and more have been justifiable sources of anger and confusion. Some of his films are great. His Flint-set 1989 debut, Roger & Me, is his best and most personal, quick-witted and sharply edited. His 2004 anti-Bush Fahrenheit 9/11 was a fiery cathartic polemic then, and has aged into a fine time capsule of mid-aughts outrage. But elsewhere his work tends to suffer from slippery details, overextended arguments that grow fuzzy in the center, and a prankish sense of humor that often dilutes otherwise serious points. And yet I always admire his intentions, even if I quibble with his approach. His latest, Where to Invade Next, attacks the same national problems with a change of focus: a movie entirely about solutions for our country’s ills. It’s supposed to be more optimistic, and it sometimes is, but it also left me frustrated.
The title might lead you to assume it’s a documentary about the military-industrial complex, a rich topic and one suited for his style. Nope. Its premise has Moore – in his usual Tiger’s baseball cap and man-of-the-people gait – going around the world looking for ideas, places where other countries have solved troubles plaguing the U.S. He smirks about being a one-man invading force looting foreign lands of their good solutions. He makes jokes about it to some of his interview subjects, and ends each segment leaving an American flag behind. It’s not nearly as funny as he thinks it is. But the trip around the world takes him to some interesting stops, where generally happy people sit around loving life and getting shocked when they hear that Americans have it worse than them in some ways. Take the nice Italian couple who are flabbergasted that U.S. workers aren’t legally granted vacation days. Bless their hearts.
Moore goes to a French elementary school where a professional chef works with a dietician to make fresh gourmet meals for the students. He talks to Slovenian students who go to school debt free, Italian factory workers who enjoy their two-hour lunches, and Portuguese law enforcement officials who explain they decriminalized illegal substances, increased funding for addiction treatment, and saw drug-related problems drop. Everywhere Moore goes he finds people are living lives free of some particular trauma we Americans must confront. He finds strong health care, strict corporate regulations, compassionate prisons, free women’s health clinics, and comprehensive and open-minded sex-ed programs. He shows us schools without standardized tests, legal systems with no death penalty, companies with policies for increasing gender parity and decreasing income inequality. All along his argument is that if we tried out some of these ideas in America, we, too, could live longer, happier, healthier, more productive lives.
He finds wonderful places, locations in the world that look like terrific spots to move if this whole election year goes bad. But there’s the problem. I never once felt the fervor of possibility he tries to express. He says we could make America a great progressive place, moving past seemingly immovable obstacles as easily as a hammer and chisel can knock down a wall. But would America ever really go for any of these solutions? His footage from the homeland – common sights of police brutality, economic injustice, and other woes – is far more discouraging than the better examples overseas are encouraging. Sure, we have the power to make a positive change. Yet when we’re staring down the barrel of a broken two-party system, half of which has left all logic and reason behind and is hell bent on obstructing government of any kind in any way, shape, or form (let alone movement on important issues), it’s hard to have hope.
But that’s my problem, not the film’s. What does rankle is his reductive jokey premise, deployed to breeze past specifics on his way to the next idyllic locale. For all I learned about these fascinating success stories and the attitudes that brought them about, I was left wanting more. When did these social programs go into place? Who fought for them? How are they maintained? Are there any downsides or dissent? I certainly don’t know after two hours with this movie, maybe because specificity in these areas would dampen the positive thinking Moore is trying out. He’s a good enough filmmaker to keep it moving right along, hopping from one vignette to the next, each of which could’ve been an entire film in and of itself. Its tour of appealing surfaces is encouraging in showing that not every country has given up on supporting the common good. It’s the ultimate expression of patriotism: to love America so much that one wishes it were better.