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Toronto Review: Michael Moore’s Changes His Tune With ‘Where to Invade Next’

Toronto Review: Michael Moore's Changes His Tune With 'Where to Invade Next'

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“I’ve turned into this crazy optimist,” confesses Michael Moore in  “Where to Invade Next.” It’s a radical statement from America’s best-known cinematic polemicist in his least radical movie.

Having assailed American corporations, sitting presidents and bureaucrats for decades, Moore shifts direction for a freewheeling essay on how to improve American society. Five years after his rambling “Capitalism: A Love Story,” the filmmaker bounces back from one of his worst films with one of his best — a surprisingly endearing set of suggestions for a better tomorrow.

Among Moore’s various outings, “Where to Invade Next” bears the closest resemblance to 2007 health care exposé “Sicko,” which found the portly documentarian wandering around Europe showcasing alternatives to the American way of doing things. “Where to Invade Next” takes the form of another travelogue steeped in juxtapositions, but it features a much cleaner structural gimmick: Moore goes to a European country, unearths one way its citizens live better than Americans, and plants a flag in the hopes of bringing the concept back home.

Tackling everything from workforce regulations to prison reform and the education system, Moore compiles a laundry list of constructive items. One might poke holes in the rhetoric, but not the underlying idealism, as Moore changes his usual bombastic tune and instead invites viewers in.

Of course, he doesn’t hesitate to put on a grand show. With his usual zippy, cartoonish style, Moore introduces his mission in an over-the-top prologue in which he envisions being invited to meet joint chiefs of staff in the Situation Room to provide some advice.

“Michael, we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing,” comes the request, as Moore tells it. That simple broadside marks the only time when Moore takes a cheap shot at his country. Urging the American leaders to take a break from various overseas incursions, Moore announces his intentions — in an amusing montage that plays out like the start of a war movie — to mine other nations for their ideas. “We have problems no army could solve,” he asserts, and goes about finding a series of fixes.

From there, the nearly two hour “Where to Invade Next” settles into a straightforward progression: Moore singles out overseas examples, mostly in Europe, of institutional solutions to problems ailing American society. At each stop along the way, he plants an American flag, announcing intentions of bringing these healthy notions back home.

Moore’s targets range from Italy, where he explores the prospects of extensive paid vacation, to Slovenia, a country that has solved the problem of student debt by making its colleges free. He touches on the progressive education system in Finland, where students seem to enjoy classwork in lieu of homework and standardized tests, and shows how French children learn about the benefits of eating well. In Norway, he unearths shockingly humane prison systems that allow inmates their voting rights, and touches on Germany’s ability to teach its younger generations about the country’s dictatorial past. Each time out, Moore concludes with a contrast to America’s shortcomings, less to wag a finger than propose another remedy.

For instance, after showing how Germany maintains landmarks of anti-Semitic regulations to remind its citizens of their country’s past, he envisions U.S. streets doing the same thing to acknowledge its history of slavery. In Portugal, he finds that the decriminalization of drug use has led to plummeting figures in drug use, then briefly surveys the decades of America’s war on drugs that effectively led to an outsized persecution of African Americans. Italy’s generous policy of vacation days, Moore finds, stems from higher taxes that many rich Americans would rather do without.

Unlike his usual stunt routine, Moore never tricks his targets into showing their flaws. His reductive mode of address still registers somewhat thin, but that itself reflects his all-inclusive approach — it’s the closest he has ever come to an apolitical movie.

Of course, Moore’s argumentative technique suffers throughout from a fundamentally short-sighted approach: He barely acknowledges the struggles of countless non-U.S. regions coping with censorship, war and other forms of debilitating repression.  Still, “Where to Invade Next” isn’t meant to do much beyond suggest a handful of possibilities. Moore never presumes omniscience; if anything, the perspective he assumes is happily clueless but sincere.

Watching Moore in front of the camera, his age and gentler mannerisms on constant view, one gets the sense that his approach lacks the immediacy of his “Fahrenheit 9/11” days. In an era of rampant mainstream satire, where John Oliver’s long-form televised diatribes magnify sociopolitical failures every week, Moore’s cheeky approach registers somewhat thin. Whether sitting in an elementary school’s dining hall or hanging out with happy prisoners, his agenda never builds to any kind of grand takeaway. He skewers American exceptionalism by implication, letting his subjects do most of the work. But each case study offer plenty of engrossing details.

Of all the sunny examples of places that do it better, none can match the feminist leanings of his closing segment, which includes women bankers in Iceland who improved the country’s ailing economy. From there, he explores the early stirrings of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and the current liberating attitudes that country sustains. A canny propagandist, Moore obviously edits out the less flattering aspects of his settings, but this isn’t a movie that needs them. Instead, Moore encourages a global dialogue by engaging in it himself. 

Over the years, the filmmaker has been a symbol of liberal fury gone wild. With “Where to Invade Next?,” he attempts to reach across the aisle and speak to fellow citizens of all stripes. The innocent tenor of his narrative only underscores his sensitive, open-minded aspirations. Waving his American flag around the world, Moore embodies an attitude rather than relying on a series of blunt publicity stunts. Far from upstaging his subject, he merges with it.

Grade: B+

“Where to Invade Next?” premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

READ MORE: Michael Moore’s 13 Rules For Documentary Filmmaking

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