Note. This review was originally published as part of our New York Film Festival 2015 coverage.
Just the mention of Michael Moore is enough to send some viewers into spasms of protest. The Oscar-winning documentarian has a history of provoking the right side of the political aisle with films like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine. Moore has incurred both derision and cheers by tackling subjects such as gun control, war, the health care system, unemployment, and poverty. His tactics can be somewhat questionable, even for those of us who share his views, but they mark him as a talented provocateur who skillfully pushes lots of buttons.
Moore’s latest film, Where to Invade Next, inspired numerous bouts of applause at its New York Film Festival premiere. Detractors will point out that this lefty audience was the perfect choir to be preached to, and I’d agree to a fault. But this film can’t be as easily written off as propaganda. For starters, it’s not at all the expose on military maneuvers its title suggests. The invasions alluded to are all figurative, non-violent visitations to other countries by the director. Additionally, this is a kinder, gentler Michael Moore, curiously optimistic and relatively subdued. Rather than point fingers, the film instead opts to explore potential solutions for the problems it discusses. For folks like me who love trouble, this is mildly disappointing. But by no means is Where to Invade Next a bad nor ineffective movie.
Moore’s primary conceit is admittedly a bit cutesy: He travels to other countries to investigate how they handle important issues like health care, incarceration, education, financial scandals, women’s rights, and workplace perks such as vacation and maternity leave. After a thorough explanation of the issue, Moore “claims” the idea as something to bring back to America to implement. He leaves American flags with the people he interviews, including the president of Slovenia (“not Slovakia”, Moore’s narration reminds us) and the former President of Iceland, who happened to be the first female President in Europe.
Moore’s journey takes him to France, where he compares their fancy, chef-cooked school lunches with the familiar sloppy joe and hot dogs American students are used to eating (or in my case, avoiding like the plague). In Italy, he looks at the perks workers are given, including 8 weeks of vacation, extended maternity leave, and long lunch hours. In Germany, he explores how the boards of companies like Volkswagen have regular workers on their boards in addition to the big shots. (Those regular workers at Volkswagen helped expose its current emission scandal.)
The most potentially controversial element of Moore’s film is the section on the prison system in Norway. Their maximum security prisons may seem a little too country club-like for some viewers’ comfort. The orientation video for prisoners provides the film’s biggest laugh by revealing an unexpected tie to Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson. The prison system’s focus on “rehabilitation rather than revenge” shows an unusual take on dealing with criminals; they have a much freer rein than even the most petty criminals here in America.
The key takeaway of Where to Invade Next is that, in places where women had equal rights and equal pay, society as a whole benefitted. The Icelandic portion of the film introduces several fascinating women who talk about how the female population obtained change by going on strike. Moore’s visit to Tunisia also shines a spotlight on women’s rights in that country.
The film’s narrow focus on one element per country initially gives it a “grass is always greener on the other side” vibe. It’s only in the closing moments that we realize that the international success stories Moore is “claiming” in his invasion have a surprising tie to America. Where to Invade Next is less about political blame and more about re-implementing ideas that were originally American. For a lecture, it’s pretty entertaining and informative.