Michael Moore has earned himself quite a reputation over the years, even amongst those who lean heavily on his side of the political spectrum. He’s brash, outspoken, and at times far too simplistic in his approach, though some might argue he’s a key voice when it comes to pointing out how the deck is stacked. At the New York premiere for his latest, Moore claimed his films play both at the Film Forum – or “The Church of the Left” as he calls it – as well as your average mall in Kentucky, meaning that no matter his specific outlook, people from all walks of life tend to take an interest in what he’s talking about, regardless of what he has to say about it. Personally, I hope that holds true for what could conceivably be called his most challenging endeavor till date, because Where To Invade Next is a thorough examination of modern America, and absolutely none of it was filmed here.
The conceit is quite simple, almost too simple at first. Using a post-Iraq comedic framing device, Michael Moore ‘invades’ various countries around the world, interviews their citizens and leaders about some aspects of their social, political or economic systems that function almost perfectly, plants an American flag there, and ‘steals’ their ideas. He sets the stage by spending time with a middle aged couple in Italy, discussing the country’s 6 weeks of paid vacation, five months of maternity leave, and two hour lunches at factories that often involve a trip home and a cooked meal. While American audiences might be surprised at some of the mandates, as well as the reasons behind them – factory owners and CEOs cite health & happiness of the worker as their primary concern – there’s an equal amount of surprise on behalf of the Italians when they’re told that the United States, land of the free and self-proclaimed greatest country in the world, doesn’t have these things.
If you were thinking Where To Invade Next comes off as somewhat condescending, you’d be partially right. There’s no way around saying some necessary things without it seeming like finger-wagging, but there seems to be just as much surprise on Moore’s behalf as he sits down for a school lunch in France, where the children learn healthy eating over five courses as determined monthly by a chef and a school health board. They’re served water with their meals, and they learn to serve each other at their restaurant-like tables. Where Borat attempted to scrutinize the idiosyncrasies of American society by placing a foreigner in its midst, Moore here does so by doing the opposite, playing the role of a loud, obnoxious American in Europe, teaching kids to bang their silverware on the table, and offering up a Coke that not a single one of them wants - with good reason, as a young girl who obliges him is hit with a caffeine rush almost instantly.
Americans and those of us raised on American media (and by proxy, American values) have an outlook that isn’t often challenged when it comes to the fundamental building blocks of society, no matter how progressive we might consider ourselves. While changing up how children eat isn’t a far fetched idea – an idea that seems necessary when the chef takes one look at an American school lunch and deems it “quite frankly, not food” – Moore explores elements of other societies that might be a little harder to digest for some at first glance. Norway’s prisons, where the maximum sentence is 21 years, might not seem like prisons at all to those of us who have a strict view of what a prison is. While isolated from society, either behind walls or on an island, prisoners have the keys to their own cells, which aren’t so much cells as small apartments with kitchens and televisions, where they spend their time reading or playing video games when they aren’t roaming the lush grounds. Where’s the punishment in that? Well, it would appear the challenge here is to look outside the retributive model of justice we’ve grown accustomed to, focusing on prison as a center for rehabilitation before re-entry to society. That’s a thought that has the potential for disconnect and cognitive dissonance, but the film doesn’t fail to mention that the country’s rate of repeat offenses is one of the lowest in the world.
Of course, one can’t simply implement an entirely new prison system when there are other problems in society that would prevent it from working, but one of the things stopping American institutions from even thinking about it is the sheer level of cheap labour that private prisons tend to exploit. Moore doesn’t shy away from this reality, nor does he keep the focus solely on the individuals going in and out of jail. As funny as the film is, often drawing from second-hand embarrassment due to Moore’s ignorance that’s sometimes feigned but often genuine, it’s unafraid to get as serious as a conversation about firearms and fair trials with the father of one of the victims of Anders Breivik, a terrorist who shot and killed 70 or so children at a summer camp in 2011.
The light-hearted nature of the documentary takes a further turn in Germany, going from discussing the happiness of pencil factory workers and prescriptions for spa treatments, to how German society deals with the Nazi holocaust. Roads are paved with the names of Jewish victims, houses with the names of the owners from whom they were snatched, and anti-Jewish signs from the era are hung on streetlights as if they were famous quotes, their author being the years they were used, as if they were a fixture of time itself. When I talked about The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s second documentary about the Indonesian Genocide and how its Government’s lack of accountability has fostered a dangerous environment, I mentioned that recognition of complicity is the first step to reconciliation, and if the German schools Moore visited are any indication, this seems to be the right way to do it. The events of the Nazi Holocaust aren’t ignored or watered down in schools, and even a Middle Eastern student whose parents immigrated to the country accepts this dark part of German history as a part of his own identity, because without accepting collective responsibility, the root of the problem still exists. In contrast, America’s first museum dedicated entirely to slavery was opened just last December.
Moore’s depiction of Germany certainly isn’t immune to criticism. Is all of the country like this, and does each and every citizen share the same sympathies? Likely not, owing to the presence of smaller far-right factions, but I digress. The question isn’t whether or not his portrayal of the nations he visited is honest (this would be hard to dispute coming from the people themselves), but rather how much of it is a white lie, and furthermore, is that white lie justified? Moore claims that were he a non-American making a documentary about the ingenuity of Apple or Silicon Valley, there’s little chance that they’d talk about America’s numerous mass shootings.
Moore also invades Iceland, the country with the first ever nationally elected female head of state, where their recent financial collapse saw the country bounce back stronger than ever after a female majority Government made sure the banks were persecuted. He invades Finland, the country ranked first in education. Where schools aren’t privatized and students only study 3 to 4 hours a day, with little to no homework, giving their minds enough time to rest. He invades Slovenia, where students attend college for free, including foreigners. Where some Americans find themselves because college in the United States was too expensive. Where students collapsed the entire Government when the idea of paying for education was introduced. Where a couple of the people Moore interviewed were puzzled at the very concept of debt. On May Day he invades Portugal, where people celebrate the rights of the workers and police no longer arrest people for drug offenses. He even switches gears and invades Tunisia, a Muslim-majority country in North African with full access to birth control, where equal rights for women have been constitutionally mandated thanks to the power of protest. At the end of each invasion, he plants an American flag before moving on to the next leg of his journey.
Is it necessarily fair to hold these countries up in such high regard without so much as mentioning the issues they might have? Perhaps not, though Moore plants more than just the star spangled banner at the end of his interviews. Towards the very end of the film, he stands at the Berlin wall with an old friend of his, as he reminds Moore that they both went to college almost for free. It’s here that Moore begins to re-enforce a bit of the context of his interviews that might’ve been lost in all the excitement. The Norwegian and Portuguese prison and police systems were based on America’s own Eighth Amendment (“cruel and unusual punishment [shall not be] inflicted”) and Portugal’s May Day celebrations wouldn’t have been possible without Labor Day from the Central Labor Union of New York. In order to take action against its banks, Iceland hired an American lawyer with experience in similar areas, and women’s rights movement in Tunisia and Iceland were each preceded by second-wave feminism in America.
Like Moore planting his flag after each stop, the best of American ideas represented by it have clearly permeated societies around the globe. The idea of America, land of opportunity and freedom, is an ideal that most countries would do well to strive towards, but the question brought up in Where To Invade Next is a tough one for America to face. How far apart are the idea and the reality in 2015? It’s no secret that people elsewhere don’t often look at the United States kindly, and while some would rather chalk it up to jealousy or “They hate our freedom” or what have you, Moore ends each segment by asking his interviewees what messages they might have for America and Americans, and while these segments might be hard to digest, they might just be the most important lessons to be learned. An Icelandic leader says she’d never want to live in America because the culture is selfish and inward looking, with systems that allow people to screw each other over. A Tunisian activist mentions that she’s been consuming American media and history for decades but wonders what Americans know about her country, before welcoming Americans to travel there and experience it for themselves. Finally, another Icelandic leader vocalizes the implicit common thread between the answers, and between the segments of film, asking America to stop only looking inward in order to solve its problems, because claiming to be ‘the best’ is irrelevant if your people aren’t happy.
It’s tough to listen to outsiders criticizing one’s nation, but perhaps there are lessons to be learned and re-learned here. These are things I had heard about America long before I moved here, and if I have any retort whatsoever, it’s only about the exceptions to those rules. Maybe that’s what American exceptionalism really means today. Then again, who am I to criticize this country? I wasn’t born here, and I don’t have the ability to vote, but does that necessarily mean I have no useful perspective to offer? I’ll leave that for others to decide. For now, I’ll return to Michael Moore of Michigan, the first American state to abolish the death penalty, something that no country had officially done yet.
While at the Berlin Wall, Moore and his friend mention being in Berlin the day it fell. Moore recalled seeing a couple of individuals with hammers and chisels chipping away at the foundation, bit by bit. As others joined it, the wall eventually fell. According to Moore, that’s what it takes for change. Just one person to start chipping away at a system with a hammer and chisel before others take notice and follow suit. And while Moore’s own methods outside of his filmmaking can be rather strange (I’m not sure his “We are all Muslim” campaign is entirely productive), he’s right about the individual responsibility we have to change, and to help each other for the common good. Just as the musical Hamilton explores the ideals that gave birth to the United States, recontextualizing the American Dream to fit a modern outlook, Where To Invade Next demands an introspection of this dream and what it means in the 21st century. It’s a broken dream according to Moore. His own filmography, from Bowling for Columbine to Fahrenheit 9/11 to Sicko to Capitalism: A Love Story are all reflections of its shards, but its pieces have been absorbed by replicas across the globe. Reflections that can act as a blueprint to rebuild.
It’s no surprise that the film played well at its premiere amongst a largely left-leaning audience in Brooklyn, with laughs and applause breaks and silent reflections galore, but perhaps the most inspiring response came after it was over. A circle of people including Moore stood inside the theatre discussing the upcoming election for about forty-five minutes. Just outside the doors, groups of people stood around discussing America’s school system. Even in the men’s bathroom, complete strangers were engaged in a conversation about mass incarceration. Whether or not you agree with Moore’s approach, this is a vital film that’s going to start the right conversations.
Where to Invade Next begins its limited release today, and opens across America on February 12th. Make you sure stick around after the credits.