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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

“Where to Invade Next” sees a hopeful Michael Moore at top form

Eli Flesch (JAY GELVEZON / AGGIE)
Eli Flesch (JAY GELVEZON / AGGIE)

Michael Moore wittily tears into American exceptionalism in his latest documentary.

Watching Michael Moore’s timely new film, “Where to Invade Next,” you wouldn’t guess that the Oscar-winning filmmaker was angrier than ever. That’s what he told comedian Marc Maron in a recent podcast, but in this film, he presents an uncharacteristically optimistic vision of America’s future — without ever stepping foot in the country.

The title refers to Moore’s mission (fictitiously assigned to him by the Joint Chiefs of Staff) of “invading” various countries in an effort to steal their great ideas — including tuition-free college, nutritious school lunches and paid maternity leave — and bring them back to America. In pursuit of this goal, he gleefully romps through Europe, with stops in Italy, Slovenia, France, Germany, Finland, Iceland, Portugal and Norway, but also through Tunisia for a look at protest and religious tolerance. That’s a lot to handle, and without much of a plot outside of Moore’s stated intention, the film does drag a little. But that’s ultimately excused by Moore’s acerbic humor, which effectively makes the two hours of this film an absolute pleasure.

In an age when film has been criticized for adopting a TV aesthetic, “Where to Invade Next” stands out. Like most documentaries, it’s absent of heavily composed camera work, but that doesn’t mean you should watch it at home. The film deserves to be seen in theatres, where you’re liable to hear, as I did, a “those motherf***ers” from a total stranger sitting next to you. My neighbor was responding to a display of American police brutality, but he could just as well have been reacting to the perpetrators of the financial crisis walking scot-free or the thermal imaging feed of a drone about to strike its target. This film takes contention with American exceptionalism, making our nation seem like a sick patient compared to say, the Italians, whom Moore says always look “happily post-coital.”

As a whole, “Where to Invade Next” is the less curmudgeonly visual adaptation of a Bernie Sanders stump speech, complete with bracing statistics on our poor world standing and an uncompromising populist tone. It’s astonishing, when you consider that Moore has spent six years making this film, to see how well he anticipated and reacted to the country’s current political mood. It’s odd then, and refreshing, to see how optimistically he views America’s future.

So why does this film not suggest Moore’s outrage?

The central question that underpins “Where to Invade Next”— the one that probably fuels Moore’s anger — asks us why America can’t guarantee to its citizens the kind of social welfare enjoyed by other countries. The film doesn’t fully address this question. To do so would require an analysis of Washington politics and the erosion of our democratic institutions. But that’s not Moore’s aim. Early on, he makes it a point to say that he won’t be focusing on the problems of each country he visits. It’s a smart move that prevents the film from ballooning out, but it’s also a constant source of frustration to viewers accustomed to Moore tearing into hypocrisies and inequities.

Moore likes to claim that, if given the chance, his films would convince skeptical conservatives, but there’s little evidence for this in his latest effort. Humor is most effective when it’s rooted in truth and, according to current Republican orthodoxy, very little of what Moore puts forth is actually true. Even on prison reform, lately a bipartisan concern, Moore touts one Norwegian model of literally letting convicted murderers bicycle freely around a well-landscaped greenery (which also sidelines as a prison yard). Unless you’re already sympathetic to Moore’s worldview, it’s going to be hard to reconcile this model with America’s prison-industrial complex.

Moore’s sarcasm doesn’t always have its intended effect. He supercuts a montage of Slovenian students successfully protesting a proposed tuition-hike for their free universities. How do American students react to our tuition-hikes? Moore gives us a nice still of students studying quietly on the quad. As with any joke, generalizations must be made, and Moore surely doesn’t think that American students are completely apathetic. But UC Davis students will remember the 2011 pepper-spray incident that resulted from an Occupy movement responding, in part, to an increase in tuition.

Ultimately, Moore’s criticisms amount to an act of love. And it’s hard not to want to hug the shlump for what he’s done with “Where to Invade Next.” The incredulity on his face when listening to how many work weeks Italians get for paid vacation (it’s six) proves that he’s determined as ever to make an America that works for everyone. A true call to action, this film will undoubtedly move people to demand the same from themselves and their leaders.

You can reach ELI FLESCH at ekflesch@ucdavis.edu or on Twitter @eliflesch.

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