Where to Invade Next adopts an anthology approach to solving America’s problems. Michael Moore's solutions are simplistic, but the underlying malaise they highlight is disturbing.
Running 12-19 November, DOC NYC 2015 offers an exciting array of subject matters, filmmakers, and boundary-pushing styles. The program includes panels and discussions, as well as documentaries identified by themes such as activism, animals, Asian American, education, environment, health, human rights, journalism, music, the Middle East, New York, outsiders, women, and women directors.
The schedule features films already in theaters, like Amy (screening on 12 November), Best of Enemies, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution, Cartel Land, The Hunting Ground, The Look of Silence, What Happened, Miss Simone?, and The Wolfpack. It also showcase films from earlier decades in a section called Docs Redux, including Sisters in Law.
PopMatters will be covering the Festival through next week. Michael Moore's Where to Invade Next screens on opening day, November 12.
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Organization has never been Michael Moore’s strong suit. Rarely one for building a slow and steady argument via a lattice of damning and interlocking factual revelations, he more often goes for the shotgun approach: let it fly and hope something sticks. That's true in the rambling Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11. Sicko is more methodical, flaying America’s stubborn insistence on a for-profit healthcare system.
The serio-comic conceit behind Where to Invade Next wouldn’t seem to augur well. The title makes you think Moore is taking on American military adventurism. The gag is that Moore is tasked by the Pentagon to fix America by finding out what other developed nations do best. Moore says that this means, “I will invade countries inhabited by Caucasians,” steal their best ideas and bring them home. In practice, that means Moore goes from one European country to the next, asking variations of “Why are you so awesome?”, planting an American flag, and announcing that he is stealing this concept for America while Europeans look on with bemused half grins.
Moore starts in Italy. There, hanging out with a pair of serious vacationers, he does a good job of making just about every employed American in the audience sick with envy by pointing out the weeks and weeks of paid leave the average Italian gets just by dint of being Italian. The look of disbelief on the Italian man’s face when Moore tells him how many weeks of legally paid vacation for Americans (“None”) is so profound it is as though he has been told Americans still believe that the world is flat.
From Italy, Moore takes a tour of Europe that shines an indirect light on the more critical flaws he sees in current American society. In Finland, he talks to teachers to find out how their country’s education system became the envy of the world (no homework, shorter school hours, less testing, and a holistic focus on the students’ happiness). France shows him that even schools in the poorest neighborhoods make a point of serving grade school kids multi-course meals (couscous, lamb skewers, the inevitable cheese course) and doing it for less money than American schools pay to throw a few chicken nuggets onto a paper plate.
Germany illustrates how to create an economy that can produce both profits and humane workplaces by insisting that workers’ representatives be included on every corporate board. In Slovenia he finds American students who moved there to get free college degrees (paid for by the government, even for non-citizens). A quick jaunt from Europe to Tunisia delivers a primer on street democracy and how a primarily Muslim North African country whose GDP is less than a tenth of America’s still provides free women’s health clinics and government-funded abortions.
Much of this material has a slight edge to it, but is frequently mined for a throwaway gag: “You know you’re in trouble when the French pity you;” “Have you ever noticed that Italians look like they just had sex?”
More affecting are the segments where Moore’s interviewees speak directly about their opinions on America. Police in Portugal, where most drug possession and usage have been legalized for years, beg their American counterparts to stop the ineffectual, expensive, and punitive war on drugs. Moore champions Iceland as a paradise that solves many dilemmas by bringing more women into positions of power (an investment firm run by women is one of the only survivors of the country’s financial meltdown caused in large part by piratical male-run firms). One of the female executives he interviews talks about American bullying and arrogance, saying, in short, it’s not a place she’d want to live in or even next to.
Moore interviews a mix of everyday people and experts, honing all their answers into a few easy bullet points that don’t do the issues justice. That’s not saying he needs to develop a white paper on everything he’s talking about here. But ignoring major questions -- drugs aren’t completely legal in Portugal and Finland’s education revolution might have more to do with improving teacher training than cutting out homework -- leaves his case open to easy sniping from exactly the Americans he’s trying to win over. His reductive approach also works against an otherwise stinging critique of US intellectual lassitude, the self-celebration that limits the nation’s ability to be inspired by useful concepts from beyond its borders.
By drawing such a wide bead, Moore leaves himself plenty of material to cover. There’s not one issue that Moore raises here, from a piratical financial system to multiple-choice schooling, that isn’t critical to some degree. Hop-scotching from one spot to the next obscures Moore’s rambling. Well before he’s exhausted one issue, the film is off to another country and another problem.
The primary problem for the film is the same as it ever is. Moore’s host persona has never been half as amusing as his director side seems to imagine it to be. Time after time, the film has just started to get into something interesting, like Norway’s shockingly gentle prison system, when Moore intervenes like an insecure talk show host to toss a gag grenade. If he could just have more confidence in his material and audience, films like Where to Invade Next could maybe have the impact that their hair-raising subject matter deserves.