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Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review: Where To Invade Next?

Where To Invade Next? (2014): Directed and narrated by Michael Moore, produced by Michael Moore, Carl Deal, and Tia Lessin.  Running Time: 110 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            I owe something of a personal debt to Michael Moore, as it’s thanks to him that I am as politically attuned as I am today.  It was his book Stupid White People and film Fahrenheit 9/11 (both of which came out right around the height of his popular fame and notoriety) that first opened my eyes to the importance of paying attention to and participating in the political system and the larger world regardless what walk of life you hail from, and of not just accepting what you’re told wholesale.  While I can certainly understand why many disagree with his stances, or find his style a bit too one-sided or too crass to do his arguments justice, there’s no doubt that the man knows how to throw his punches for maximum effect, and that the best of his films have earned their place in the pantheon of great American documentaries. 

            It’s been awhile since the heady days of the Bush administration though, and that plus the fact that he hasn’t come out with anything new in 6 years has somewhat pushed him onto the backburner of popular conversation.  Sadly, since it isn’t nearly as openly provocative as his takedown of the Bush administration, Where To Invade Next? is unlikely to change that.  Which is a shame, because Moore’s latest film is proof that his ability to challenge contemporary wisdom using sharp and timely wit remains undiminished.  That, and he can still make harsh, whiplash-inducing montages with the best of them. 

            Beginning with an imaginary meeting with the heads of all branches of the US armed forces, Michael Moore decides to undertake a mission as a one-man army to “invade” various countries around the world and “conquer” them in the name of taking their best social, economic, and political policies and bringing them back so that they can be used to better the United States.  From there he travels through Italy, Slovenia, France, Portugal, Tunisia, Germany, Finland, Norway, and Iceland, literally clad in the American flag, and the differences in happiness, productivity, and gender equality he finds will come as a true shock to many American viewers.  Indeed, one can’t help but get the same impression Michael Moore does by the end of the film that “the American dream seemed to be alive and well everywhere but America.”   

            In Italy, laws that provide Italians with lots of extra vacation time (4 weeks’ minimum, but usually a lot more) leave everyone, from shop floor workers to CEOs, feeling happy, relaxed, and always looking “like they just had sex.”  In France, school lunches are seen as a chance to teach children how to eat properly and healthy, with cheese, vegetables, and fruit provided every day, and French fries are only served twice a year.  Finland has done away with homework almost entirely (some students get stuck with about 20 minutes’ worth a night), and now has the best-rated school system in the world.  University students in Slovenia, even foreign students, pay no tuition fees, and student debt is completely unheard-of.  Portugal experienced a huge drop in drug-use and drug-related crimes after decriminalizing possession and providing better health service for those who seek treatment.  Norway’s prisons, even high-security ones, are designed to rehabilitate and not to punish.  And not only does Iceland have some of the best gender-equality practices in the world, when many of their banks took part in the shenanigans that led to economic collapse nearly a decade ago, the top executives and ill-doers were actually tried, convicted, and punished. 

            One segment I found particularly powerful takes in place in Germany, where he comments on the similarities in the histories of both countries- while Germany has worked deliberately to openly acknowledge and atone for past mistakes, specifically the Holocaust, there is just as much carnage and oppression in American history, but it has always been comparatively ignored.  After showing some memorial signs in place in Berlin to commemorate particular Nazi crimes, Moore wonders aloud what would be on similar signs put up in American cities.  His examples make for one of the best food-for-though moments in the entire film. 

            While many of his examples of American absurdity compared with more humane policies in European countries speak for themselves, there are some points that could have used more detailed elaboration.  Most critiques of policies like those he advocates are entirely cost-focused, as in, “We can’t provide all this free stuff because it would be so expensive!”  This is not the case, and there are plenty of economic arguments disproving that, but he doesn’t do too much to elaborate on how such systems could be set up on the other side of the Atlantic.  That doesn’t make him wrong, but it does mean people already convinced such ideas can’t work in the US won’t walk away convinced otherwise. 

            Despite that, this is easily one of the most thoughtful and even optimistic films Moore has ever produced.  Its style is less in-your-face than some might expect, as Moore focuses more on the people he interviews this time around, and injects himself and his oft-derided antics into the scene far less often (one brilliant exception is when he sits down for lunch with a class of young French children, providing a visual contrast worth a thousand laughs).  Its focus on gender equality and power of women to affect change is also one of the most moving and inspiring segments in a documentary I’ve seen in years- his visit to Tunisia in particular should be enough to dissuade many of the wrongheaded notion that Islamic politics is incompatible with greater rights for women (and that, in fact, the US could learn a thing or two from the Tunisian government in this regard). 

            Ultimately, Where to Invade Next? is a hopeful film about our constant and often sudden and surprising capacity for change.  The power to make a better world resides within all of us, at all times, just waiting for us to realize it’s there.  No, things won’t ever be totally perfect, and all of the countries and cultures Moore raids for ideas have their own problems and difficulties.  But that can’t be an excuse for American insularity, and we do indeed stand to gain much by looking to the rest of the world to pick the flowers, and not gather the weeds. 

-Noah Franc 

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