The title of Michael Moore’s new film suggests an angry screed against US foreign policy, but the Michigan provocateur confounds expectations, offering instead an essay that’s more of a genial prod on domestic policy. The kinder, gentler Moore might not please his followers as well as something stronger might have done, but “Where To Invade Next” might actually appeal to a broader segment of the audience—if their predispositions about him don’t keep them away.
After an almost perfunctory nod to the US propensity to intervene militarily around the world, Moore holds a supposed audience with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and brandishing an American flag, announces a different sort of invasion. He’ll go to other countries to claim good ideas that are practiced there and bring them home to America, the spoils of his campaigns. And so, with his impishly rumpled manner intact, he proceeds to various locales to “discover” policies that have been successfully implemented there that might just answer to social, political and economic problems back home.
In Italy, his initial stop, he visits a couple that works in a cycle factory, where they enjoy a month of paid vacation each year—not including regular holidays—as well as a full five months’ paid maternity leave or two weeks honeymoon vacation. They’re understandably happy with the arrangement, but so are their employers, who testify to increased productivity and profits connected with high worker morale.
Moore next proceeds to France, where he visits what looks like a fine restaurant but turns out to be a school cafeteria, where nutritious and delicious meals are served by a staff that takes their culinary efforts very seriously indeed. The children are no less enthusiastic, appalled by photos of typical school lunches in the US and unhappy when offered a soda in lieu of their customary beverages. The educational motif continues in Finland, where he’s introduced to a system that eschews homework and standardized tests to focus on allowing students to develop their individual talents in an atmosphere encouraging initiative and social development—a process that has resulted in some of the best-educated graduates in the world. And it is taken further on a visit to Slovenia, where college education is free, even for foreign students (including Americans).
Germany, the next stop, merges the two themes Moore has already raised in Italy, France and Slovenia. He first visits a pencil factory whose workers not only have a shortened work week but can go to company-funded spas on retreat and have the right not to be contacted by their bosses when they’re off the clock—another instance in which high productivity and high morale go hand-in-hand. He then turns to the German schools, where acknowledgement of the horrors of the Hitler years are taught and acknowledged as a national shame. Naturally he contrasts that with our general unwillingness to honestly confront the treatment of Native Americans and African slaves—and their descendants—in American history.
The next stop is Portugal, where the decriminalization of drugs and the practice of emphasizing treatment over punishment are contrasted with the US “War on Drugs” that has put so many—and a disproportionate number of minorities—behind bars. That segues into the next segment, in Norway, where the penal system emphasizes more humane treatment—incarceration that many in this country would decry as a country-club atmosphere. One of the most touching moments comes in an interview with a father who lost his son in the infamous 2011 assault by a politically-motivated fanatic on youngsters attending an island summer camp. Though lacking all remorse, the perpetrator was sentenced to the maximum of 21 years in prison, and the father has come to terms with that, setting aside the bitter thoughts of revenge that might prevail here.
The film’s final segment turns to female empowerment, first visiting Tunisia, where after the Arab Spring women’s rights are progressing even under an Islamist government, and Iceland, where women have won leading roles in political affairs, finance and business. A coda about the sudden collapse of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall offers the optimistic hope that change can happen, even when it seems terribly unlikely.
One could raise all sorts of objections to Moore’s film. It’s hardly an objective view: in its rambling, selective fashion it obviously overlooks problems that exist in the countries it spotlights in areas other than the ones on which it chooses to focus, while its assumptions about American failings are evident, and not always fairly presented. Moreover, Moore’s use of his usual stylistic tropes—the montages of inflammatory images, the chirpy but sometimes hectoring narration, the insistent music score that underlines every point—has gotten rather old. But to some extent his film mitigates its own shortcomings by pointing out that many of the elements it finds so praiseworthy in other societies were actually first proposed in the United States and then exported elsewhere, so that their return to these shores would amount to a kind of homecoming.
More importantly, the film’s generally modest, avuncular tone is likely to scare off fewer viewers than some of Moore’s previous efforts have. Of course, his past track record might make them unwilling even to sample what he has to say here. That would be unfortunate, since “Where To Invade Next,” while undoubtedly very opinionated, is quite an enjoyable trek through some hospitable, and perhaps instructive, foreign climes.