If you like to see your progressive values affirmed with a dash of cynical self-important humor, then you will love Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next. As a humanist, I have always sympathized with Moore’s stances. However, as a cinephile, his work is a bit dubious of what I want from a documentary filmmaker. Look, there is no documentary filmmaker without an agenda. It just depends on how heavy-handedly you want that agenda served up.
Of course it’s all done with a sense of humor. It’s labeled a comedy, after all. With a prankster style, Moore “invades” countries like France, Finland and even Tunisia to “steal” ideas of social programs that work in the respective countries and bring them back to the U.S. He interviews foreigners, government leaders and even some U.S. citizens who all cordially “submit” to Moore. He is Sacha Baron Cohen with a social agenda, and it all goes sweetly well … until it amounts to not much of anything.
Since his 1989 documentary Roger & Me, where Moore confronts GM’s CEO about the negative effects of downsizing the automobile company in Moore’s home town of Flint, Michigan, Moore has built his reputation as an idealistic liberal. God bless him for his efforts, but the fact that he has never shied away from inserting himself in his work, compromising his perspective with his own celebrity, taints his message with unfair bias that will always put off viewers and hardly ever affect real change. I do not see that his work has ever done anything more than preach to his choir of followers. After Bowling for Columbine (2002), we still have mass shootings, George W. Bush was still reelected after Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and the poverty divide in Flint, Michigan is as bad as it has ever been.
His latest product is therefore a bitter-sweet sort of movie. Who doesn’t want better public schools for the U.S.? Finland produces the best educated people in the world and kids don’t have homework and attend class for less than half the amount of time students in the U.S. spend in classrooms. They even get to pick their own curriculum. In Slovenia college students — even U.S. citizens — do not pay tuition. In Italy you get eight weeks standard paid vacation, even 15 days bonus when you leave work for your honeymoon (you don’t even want to know how much time they get for maternity and paternity leave — paid). There are some genuine moments that will punch you in the gut, like when a French school chef sees images of U.S. high school lunches and says, “the poor children.”
These are easy things to argue for, but it doesn’t take into account the size of the countries or the political systems that genuinely do not compare to the gridlocked nation of the United States. It’s this selective reporting that makes the film a bittersweet viewing experience. Moore admits early on that his task is not to present a negative image of the countries he visits while pointing out their best social policies, but he knows how to bury that fact. “Sure, Italy has its problems like everywhere else,” Moore says in voice over at the end of his first segment, as he smiles and chats with a young, happy Italian couple over glasses of wine. It’s an idyllic image where the following phrase is nearly lost: “But my job is to pick the flowers, not the weeds.”
To be fair, Moore does allow his talking heads to speak without interruption and without telltale signs of cutting and pasting footage. Still, there is much selective presentation going on, which is of course enhanced by a mood-swaying soundtrack featuring everything from classic pop songs to overwrought sections of classical pieces. Moore sets out to do one thing: leave an impression that favors his ideology. It’s become an old tired, gimmick. Despite all his sincerity, including ending on a personal note visiting with a friend at the remnants of the Berlin Wall to say that “anything can happen,” it’s all pablum. I want to hope the films of Michael Moore can make a difference beyond giving people the feels, but they never have, and this one never will, either. In the end, it’s just another popcorn movie for a particular audience, and it will matter little to the long view of our lives on this planet.
Where to Invade Next runs 119 minutes and is rated R. It opens in our South Florida area on Friday, Feb. 12, at the following theaters in the quad-county area, from south to north: