It would be easy to describe this as Michael Moore’s least angry film, but it is perhaps not that at all. This film is too searching, and his positive tone masks, or hints at, a much deeper bitterness. Moore is so amazed at the state of things, so frustrated with where his country has gone, that Where To Invade Next is a gasp of exasperation, a grimacing joke of a film. I suspect that Moore is most comfortable when he has a solid base from which to preach. He, and I for that matter, cannot believe that this film even needs to be made, and perhaps it doesn’t. It could be that the very existence of this film is further proof of the failure of propaganda, even when it is well meaning, to achieve any real goals. However, while WTIN may fail as a catalyst for change, it is on the other hand his most engaging and interesting work since Roger and Me.
Where To Invade Next is a tongue in cheek exploration of the policies and ideas of other nations which might warrant our “invading” and “stealing” those ideas. Moore is, of course, starting with the often repeated truism that America is the greatest country on earth. Anyone familiar with his work since the Bush presidency has heard him harp on this before. Of course, for some this will immediately send up the red flag. Moore has a long history of critiquing this nation and, for some, thinking of him doing it again is like a dog whistle. Honestly, let me be up front so you know how I engage this idea: America is demonstrably, factually a mess. There are inspiring and wonderful things about this country, but the facts on the ground past and present have been horrifying. Not that we are the worst, but we have ignored both the oppression and the ineffectiveness of our systems for a long time. America has been too unjust and too mediocre for our own rhetoric, and while you can always find some place worse, we are condemned by both our hopes and our arrogance. So Moore goes to a variety of nations and does a short examination of way in which that country deals with a problem we are facing in the United States. In each example he finds an interesting idea worth using. The payoff though, for those for whom criticism of this country is for some strange reason annoying, is that in every case the innovators and practitioners Moore talks to credit the US for originating the policy they are enacting. In the end, as with many of Moore’s works, within his criticism lies a deep pride in the multi-valiant history of this very nation.
Of course, as is his style, Moore presents deep simplifications of the complicated issues and policies he explores. Take Portugal for example: Moore wants us to know that they decriminalized drug possession, and that this move was only possible because of their unique health care system. Of course, this seems like a bit of nuance if one leaves it there. Moore has not just shown us that decriminalization works, but that it only works because they have public healthcare. Win/win for him, point made. However, pieces like this one at Vice show that the issue is more complicated than Moore presents. Of course, his overall point holds up here and in all of the other segments in the film, but he is careful never to present anything too damaging to his ideas. This is part of Moore being a controversial figure.
In fact, from what I can tell, Moore haters have two major criticisms of him. The most common one is related to this Portugal point. That is, Moore is not an honest documentarian, but actually a creator of propaganda. Of course, this claim is made with more or less rationality. Some would look at his failure to provide nuance in many of his films as simply poor technique, and others accuse him of “being a liar” or some other insanity. Having seen all of his films, I think accusations related to his lack of artful balance are not unwarranted. They are though, to me, more aesthetic arguments than people are willing to admit. That is, Moore is not a journalist. He is in fact, to me, not even a documentarian. I think all documentaries have an agenda in the way that all factual interpretation does, but Moore goes way beyond that. Moore makes political films, agenda films, and often those films are also charming and fun, but they are designed to convince you. I would even be willing to call them propaganda if that word was not so negatively loaded for people. The question is, how much artifice does Moore employ in convincing. Does he mislead? Does he in fact ignore reality, or does he simply focus on his point and expect the audience to make up their minds. I think each of his films fails or succeeds on this question: how willing is he to let the audience decide for themselves?
Of course, the other reason Moore is controversial is because people think he is immoral or at the very least a jerk. This criticism has for me the most weight, but is also the least concerning to me. It also applies to Where to Invade Next the least as this film represents Moore’s least “gotcha” film to date. Moore is trying to not just be a truth teller, like the way documentarians are supposed to be. Moore is trying to be prophetic, not in the Nostradamus way, but in the Biblical sense. Not that I think Moore’s films are trying to be religious, what they are trying to do is tell a liberative truth, ie: they are meant to confront injustice. That confrontation with injustice overrides both their balance and, at times, their entertainment value. Moore is still a showman, but the show is only successful for him in as much it challenges the place where he sees that something has gone wrong.
So yes, he can be relentless and rude and even awful at times. Famously, in Bowling for Columbine, Moore confronts Charlton Heston unexpectedly, and Heston seems lost and disoriented. It turned out that Heston may have been dealing with Alzheimer’s of some kind, and thus Moore seems to be attacking a delusional old man and for what? What point is proven by this action? I would agree that this was a low point for Moore. Of course, Heston was a huge supporter of the NRA and during his lifetime went out of his way to back all kinds of gross crypto-fascist causes. This is the issue though, and I feel sympathy for both sides. On one hand, not only was what Moore did kind of cruel, it was also ineffectual. Not much was accomplished by it. However, if Moore had the opportunity to be just as rude and inconsiderate, and by that action actually effected real change, would that be worth it? Here is too often the issue of our times, weighing compassion and kindness, even towards the opposition, against actual change, against liberation. The problem is in a way the other kind of prophecy, that is, we cannot know if our breach of conduct will affect anything anyway. I am not afraid to bruise white feelings, or cause male tears, or have someone hurt me in order to create justice. Lives and dignity matter more than my emotions… Yet, how often do we act harshly or rashly with no idea of what may happen? If Moore’s films had enacted the changes he envisioned, would we care so much that sometimes he was a real dick about it?
It is perhaps this reality that leads to Where To Invade Next. Regardless of his methods or his artfulness, Moore wants change and it is difficult to say whether he has ever gotten it. Roger and Me would be his strongest argument, but what did a film like Capitalism: A Love Story accomplish. This may be the worry that keeps Moore awake at night, or it may be that he has come to terms with his art and the work he can do. Where To Invade Next is unlike many of his other films because it focuses on those positive things happening around the world. Moore wants his US audience to be inspired by these stories, to imagine change here, in this context. It seems on its surface to be his most positive, least angry work. Yet not only did I sense a deep anger to the film, but Moore himself described it this way. On his appearance on WTF, he described it as maybe his most angry film, and I believe him. Moore has given up his attacks, his diatribes, his didactic manner. This seems to some, who found this manner disturbing or upsetting, to be a peaceful movie. But it is not serenity that Moore is giving in to, but rather bitterness.
That is not to say this film lacks hope. However, it is a desperate hope, a hope that is trying new things because simply yelling about crises doesn’t seem to be working. In other words, Moore is trying a new method because he is so amazed and disheartened that the world is STILL the way it is, especially our own country. There is also a lack of urgency, which I think lessens some of the shrill tone that so enrages many of his critics. The issues he is exploring have been going wrong for DECADES, generations of injustice and ineptitude in this country, and often in the ones he is exploring as well. He is focusing more often than not on new ideas, ideas which developed despite a history of opposition. In a way, this may be his most effective angle because it is so desperate. Moore seems to think that if we can see how other nations changed their ways, even if we don’t follow suit, we may at very least believe that change is possible.
This is why I think this film is Moore’s best work since Roger and Me, an intensely personal masterwork that still resonates today. Where To Invade Next admits that people don’t just need to be convinced that something is unjust, or inept, or simply bad. People in this country and around the world need more and more examples demonstrating that times change. This is the best aspect of Moore’s final point. Moore ends by showing the American roots of many of these radical policies, even if in this country they were never enacted. This reminds us that no place, no system, no nation is actually just the way it is. We have been and always are in flux, and change is always possible. Too often we are torn between things will never change OR things are not that bad, or some sickening combination of the two. Moore reminds us that things are in fact worse then we even realize, BUT things can change. The question with all of his films though is, will it convince us that things should change and that we should be a part of that change? This is where I am not sure what to make of Where To Invade Next. It is funny and effective, if a little over long. Is it effective as a tool for change? I am not sure that it is.