The lightheartedness of the writing and Michael Moore’s unkempt look are sometimes jarring, but the film effectively delivers lessons about progressive policies.
Where to Invade Next, directed by Michael Moore. At Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and other movie houses around New England.
By Tim Jackson
He’s taken on Detroit, Gun Control, Perpetual War and the Patriot Act, Health Care, and Corporate Corruption. Now filmmaker Michael Moore has wisely pulled back from his usual confrontational, agitprop approach to documentaries with Where To Invade Next. In his new movie he travels around the world — in countries as far flung as Italy, Slovenia, France, Portugal, Tunisia, and Iceland — to appropriate best practices in work and leisure, education and school lunches, crime and incarceration, the empowerment of women, and corporate justice. The premise provides plenty of delicious comic provocation. In each country he plants an American Flag and declares: I will invade countries with names I can mostly pronounce, take the things we need from them, and bring it all back home to the United States of America, for we have problems no army can solve. The first five minutes of the film snaps us to attention in classic Moore fashion: images of American social injustice provide a stinging contrast to speeches and news stories about America’s pledge to bring peace and promote justice: “We will not hesitate to use our military might to defend our allies and our way of life,” declares Obama. Then we watch heavily armored men and vehicles descend on Ferguson, Missouri.
Even those who find Moore to be an irritating gadfly may be surprised by some of the workable solutions to social and work life issues he uncovers in countries about which we know little. Granted many of these places are far less heterogeneous and much smaller than the U.S., but this movie does not claim to be a work of non-fiction. Where to Invade Next is more of travelogue with a point of view; this is a work of commentary that often makes use of comedy to make its sardonic point. The evidence is damning: we have a lot of work to do to transform the world’s most powerful nation into the most civilized.
What is it that Moore discovers? He begins in Italy by asking: “Ever notice that Italians always look like they just had sex?” The answer may have nothing to do with the amount of vacation time they receive, but it certainly helps that they have 8 weeks of fully paid for their vacations, paid time for honeymoons, and 5 months paid maternity leave, all of which carries over if unused. And this Italian policy is not so different from that of other nations. Regarding the need to give workers time to relax, the owners of the successful Lardini Clothing manufacturing firm explain: “It’s their right and our pleasure.” And this is in addition to the daily two-hour lunch! Ducati Motorcycle CEO Claudio Domenicali explains (and Moore is careful to repeat): “There is no clash between the profit of the company and the well being of the people.” If one can’t head home for lunch break, a lunchroom filled with quality foods.
Moore moves to the French school cafeteria. The daughter of crewmember Jenn Jennings sends pictures of her lunch at an American school; Moore shows them to the French children, who are dining (for a full hour) on shellfish with creamed curry, lamb skewers, and cheeses: “This is what American schoolchildren eat for lunch,” he proclaims. “Is that bread?” “A bizarre sauce” “That’s not healthy” respond the children. The school chef has the final word: “Frankly, that’s not food.” The cost of the French feast? Less than Americans’ spend. From that Moore jumps to a delightful contrast in approaches to sex education.
The inquiries get deeper and more surprising. He looks at Finnish schools, recreation, and homework. Moore discusses the Free Universities in Slovenia; he is invited into the office of the country’s President. He looks at how German children learn about their recent history and compares that with American schools and our own flawed attempts to deal with a conflicted past. In Norway, rehabilitation rather than punishment is the goal for incarceration. In Portugal they have eliminated penalties for drug use by turning it into a health-care issue. These are in stark contrast to America’s overstuffed and privatized prisons.
The lightheartedness of the writing and Moore’s unkempt look are sometimes jarring, but the film effectively delivers lessons about progressive policies. We hear about the prosecution of corporate leaders in Iceland, whose economy was nearly destroyed by horrendously mismanaged banks and risky trading. Iceland’s former Director of the Chamber of Commerce, Halla Tomasdottir asks: “I had to question whether this growth journey we had been on was really a successful business strategy. I had somehow missed this approach to business when I got my MBA education. Is it a relentless pursuit in order to get big? Or is this just a great big penis competition?” She has delivered TED talks on how women’s values were key when it came to solving Iceland’s economic crisis.
Where To Invade Next has many more inspiring examples of problem-solving, all delivered with a spoonful of sugar and clever use of music. Moore would like to claim each of these good ideas for America. He isn’t out to rankle audiences, but tickle them into thought, helped by a well-crafted script and a colorful range of testimony. This time around, instead of scolding, Moore delivers a fine civics lesson. In fact, it is quite moving when he points out that many of these bright, can-do notions were America’s to begin with. The film is a very welcome blast of cool, medicinal air during these fetid days of jingoist rhetoric and Trump-ian braggadocio.
Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, is about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.