Remember when Michael Moore was a great filmmaker? No jokes, please. Whatever his faults, the director-provocateur could once combine the activism of a revolutionary, the doggedness of a journalist, the irreverence of a humorist, and the Olympian vision of an essayist. At their best, his films were funny, fast, revelatory, incendiary … but they also had an overarching, almost cosmic perspective. Bowling for Columbine wasn’t just a movie about guns and gun culture, it also explored something intangible about America — the fear that seemed built into our very history, and the spiritual contagion of violence that reached beyond the mere issue of guns and infected our broader cultural discourse.
Where to Invade Next shows Moore at his cheapest, while also affording glimpses of the filmmaker he once was. The ridiculously cumbersome idea behind the title is that we’ve already invaded every place else and lost every war since WWII, so now Michael Moore is going to head over to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (in an embarrassingly staged little montage) and recommend new places for us to invade — not so we can conquer them, mind you, but so we can steal their ideas. Got that? Put another way: This is basically a movie about places that are better off than the U.S.
The connective tissue might as well be nonexistent, but the film starts off promisingly, with Moore traveling to Italy to learn about their work-life balance and their almost sacred preservation of leisure time. We learn that the Italians get 30 days of paid vacation a year, with five months of mandatory maternity leave; the days off that they don’t use in any given year roll over to the next. Moore interviews executives at an Italian clothing company to learn about why it’s important to pay their workers well and make sure they’re satisfied, happy, and comfortable. He watches as workers at a Bugatti factory head off for a two-hour lunch, many of them going home for a leisurely home-cooked meal with their families.
The segment, like many of the others in this film, is compelling, if thin. Moore legitimately makes you want to move to Italy. But he doesn’t give us (or himself, frankly) the chance to dig deeper into the story — to engage with the concepts he’s discussing. What about Italy’s seriously troubled economy, which has come close to running aground the last couple of years and still hasn’t fully recovered? The problem isn’t so much that this is a flaw in Moore’s argument; it’s that by not exploring his subject in any kind of detail he leaves himself vulnerable to pretty much any and all attacks. The average Daily Show remote probably has more back-and-forth on a given subject than Moore allows for here.
This process replicates itself throughout the film, to varying degrees. Moore visits France to look into their school lunch program, and discovers that even the most troubled schools in the poorest areas have way better food — healthier, better-tasting, diverse — than American ones. He visits Slovenia to learn about its free universities. He visits Finland to study the benefits of an education system that avoids homework and asks students to attend school just several hours a day, and is now ranked among the highest in the world (after being in the dumps alongside the U.S. for many years). He goes to Norway to find out about their prison system, where even murderers are treated humanely and sentences are capped at 21 years — leading to startlingly low crime rates.
It’s all reasonably interesting, but presented in a shallow, at times even glib manner. I’d love to see Moore tackle each of these concepts in individual films — to show us how these countries got there and to confront the forces here at home preventing any real reform of our schools, our prisons, our police forces, our workplaces. But here, presented as a menu of mix-and-match progressive offerings, the ideas gradually lose their power. They become little more than smug sound-bites.
Moore’s overarching thesis is an important one. He’s on to something when he argues, as he did in a recent op-ed, that America’s problems with guns and violence in general are directly related to our inability to take care of our own people: “What separates us from everyone else,” he writes, “is the way we force the members of our society to live in a constant state of fear: fear of going broke, fear of losing your job, fear of getting sick, fear of getting old and being without.”
To his credit, this a theme he has been exploring for some years. The most stirring parts of the agitprop health-care documentary Sicko had to do with the way American society has decayed over the years — from a culture that took care of one another to a bloated, overpriced, runaway, every-man-for-himself cluster-fuck. And full disclosure: If a presidential candidate came around advocating for the policies Moore argues for here, he or she would have my vote in a heartbeat. So he has our attention, but he fails to engage us on any deeper level. What good is preaching to the choir if even the choir has serious questions about your argument?