During Michael Moore’s introduction to the world premiere screening of his “Where To Invade Next,” the man who’s probably the best-known documentarian in the United States—if not the world—explained that he made this movie in secret, not because of any explosive content, but because he and his team wanted to take the time to “quietly focus on our art.” That was an odd thing for him to say, given that even Moore’s biggest supporters rarely tout him as a great artist. He’s a champion rabble-rouser, and has made a handful of docs that are among the most powerful and popular of the past 25 years. But is Moore thought of as a superior visual stylist or master storyteller? Mostly not.
With “Where To Invade Next,” though, Moore has made his best film in over a decade, and one that clarifies exactly what his strengths are. if nothing else, watching it helps explain why his clunkier movies (like 2009’s “Capitalism: A Love Story”) fall so flat.
The key to “Where To Invade Next” is its structure. Moore begins with a tongue-in-cheek premise, pretending that he’s been called to Washington by the Joint Chiefs Of Staff to give advice on countries they could successfully conquer and pillage (to make up for America’s long post-WWII losing streak). Instead, Moore offers to be a one-man invasion force, jetting around Europe to steal the best ideas from countries who routinely out-rank the U.S. in key quality-of-life metrics. He goes to Italy—land of “Jesus, Don Corleone, and Super Mario”—and swipes their government-mandated weeks of paid vacation. Moore takes gourmet school lunches and frank sex education from France, free university tuition from Slovenia, the decriminalization of drug use from Portugal, and rehabilitative prisons from Norway. Then he forges onward, dropping by one relatively well-off, well-adjusted nation after another, meaning to debunk the myth that generous, humane public services break the bank and raise the crime rate.
Several of Moore’s recent films, even in their best moments, have played like one long, shapeless episode of his 1990s TV series “TV Nation” and “The Awful Truth.” If nothing else, the “plunder” motif makes “Where To Invade Next” more organized and purposeful. It doesn’t keep the movie from feeling too long, though. Concluding segments on women’s rights in both Tunisia (the lone non-European country that Moore storms) and Iceland make points as valuable as any other here, but by the time they appear, “Where To Invade Next” has crossed the 90-minute threshold and is on its way to a nearly two-hour running-time; Moore’s gimmick has begun to have diminishing returns. Still, compared to his usual “here are a bunch of loosely connected outrageous news items I found” approach, this film has a welcomed sense of focus.
It also continues what’s been Moore’s stealth mission since his debut feature “Roger & Me”—which is to preserve aspects of American life often ignored by history books. Like Peter Davis’s landmark 1974 collage-doc “Hearts & Minds,” Moore’s filmography is strewn with slices of gung-ho Americana, set side-by-side with images of poverty and degradation. In “Where To Invade Next,” the scenes of beaming Europeans are broken up occasionally by footage of police brutality and bank foreclosures in the U.S., offering Moore’s own not-so-pleasant portrait of what it means to be an American in the 21st century.
As always with Moore, “Where To Invade Next” plays suspiciously loose with facts and figures, and is highly selective with what it shows and tells about the other countries. Because he’s cherry-picking what he considers to be the best ideas from Germany, Finland, and the like, he doesn’t feel the need to talk about what might be wrong over there—which is a defensible way for him to go. But when he says that France spends less per student for their amazing meals, or that the French don’t pay significantly more in taxes than Americans do, it’d be nice if he had some hard numbers to back that up. The people he meets around the world are highly persuasive (especially when they express incredulity that the United States doesn’t share their progressive attitudes toward things like worker leave). But anecdotes aren’t evidence, and for anyone not inclined to be on Moore’s side, his lack of data makes him too easily dismissible.
Then again, Moore’s never been averse to being painted as a propagandist, and with “Where To Invade Next” he’s come up with something that’s persistently stirring. The main point of the film is that all of these forward-thinking initiatives in Europe were originated by Americans, and that all it would take are a few sustained acts of national will for the U.S. to reclaim them. Moore may be too rosy—or too disingenuous—but he conjures an attractive fantasy with this documentary, visiting a series of wonderlands where everyone is well-rested, well-fed, and well-educated. And the way he picks the prettiest locations as the backdrops for his interviews? Well, there’s no better way to describe those choices than “cinematic.” Which means, maybe there’s some real artistry behind Moore’s button-pushing after all. [B]