More than a decade after helming Fahrenheit 9/11 – still the highest grossing documentary in the U.S. in history – and six plus years since the unfocused Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore has returned with yet another controversial look at America and the myriad ways in which she has gone tragically astray. What sets this new film apart from the last two decades of his filmography is largely a matter of tone: Where to Invade Next feels like the most optimistic film Moore has ever made. The twist, such as it is, is that Moore’s film spends practically no time in America, instead flying to various countries throughout the world in order to find what’s working in those nations compared to the increasingly dysfunctional American way. The result is a film that feels more like an inspiring call for collective action than a doom-and-gloom examination of our current predicament(s).
Opening with a thoroughly necessary framing device involving Moore being summoned by the Joint Chiefs in order to find solutions to the problems they haven’t been able to bomb out of existence, Where to Invade Next takes some time to find its footing. These early Moore-centric scenes are certainly in keeping with his general “schtick” as a showman who puts himself front and center, but here more than usual it’s an unnecessary (and mostly unfunny) intrusion, as though Moore feels he has to play to the cheap seats to drive his point home. Moore and his camera travel to Spain, Finland, Italy, and Portugal (among others), finding examples of progressive, populist policies that have improved the lives of citizens living in those countries. He visits a prison in Norway where the focus is much more on rehabilitation and making the incarcerated into better, more productive individuals rather than the punitive impulse that has resulted in the nightmare that is the American prison system. He travels to France and looks at their healthy school lunch program. In Germany he reflects on how the nation has reflected upon its Nazi heritage, learning from these historical atrocities in a manner that belies how America still turns a blind eye to the systematic racism and legalized discrimination that has been an inextricable part of its legacy.
All of this is accomplished with the usual Moore light touch. The film is Moore’s most genuinely funny work since Bowling For Columbine, and the spot-on editing and comedic timing makes Where to Invade Next hugely entertaining even though, underneath the mirth, the film is deadly serious about the problems that we as a nation are facing. To those who would argue that the film is overly simplistic or naive, Moore has an answer in the film: these are not perfect solutions. He states at the outset that he wanted to find the things that do work in these countries; these are cherry-picked examples. But taken altogether these examples make a pretty compelling case that, even though things will never be perfect, they could at least be a whole lot better if we oriented our priorities towards things that would truly raise our standard of living.
Moore is such a politicized filmmaker that it’s easy to assume that he makes films that only preach to the choir, too dismissive and mocking of his political foes to speak to those not already in tune with his politics. While I’ll admit that I’m largely in agreement with Moore’s politics, I’ve still felt that his work often suffered from a lack of nuance as he embraced the character of “Michael Moore,” the folksy documentarian who acted as a representative of “the little guy.” Even the monumentally successful Fahrenheit 9/11 rubbed me the wrong way – like “This is the best material you’ve got against the Bush administration for crying out loud?” But Where to Invade Next strikes just the right tone – again, with the exception of the dismal opening scene. He wisely lets the material speak for itself (mostly) and is semi-successful at avoiding any of the cutesy “ain’t I a stinker?” moments that have plagued earlier works.
Where to Invade Next arrives in the heat of primary season as Americans are being bombarded with the spectacle and bombast of presidential campaigns. Moore’s film, then, feels like a breath of fresh air, a film that grabs you and reminds you what’s truly at stake in this (and any other) election. That Moore seems optimistic about America’s future by the film’s end is oddly refreshing; chances are audiences will feel the same way.