In the beginning of his new documentary Where to Invade Next, a jaunty Michael Moore uses vintage film clips to make the point that since World War II, despite expenditures of up to 59% of its federal budget, the much-vaunted U.S. armed forces have failed to outright win most conflicts.
Moore is “summoned” to the Pentagon by the Joint Chiefs of Staff who, realizing their imperialist invasions have mostly flopped, ask the longhaired Moore for help. Moore departs on a mission to “invade” countries around the world to discover what they do best and to bring their ideas back to the U.S. to improve life here.
Instead of sending in the Marines, it's a flag-draped Moore sending up the pseudo-patriotic notion that “We’re number one!” Jabbing a pin into the balloon of American exceptionalism, Moore’s excursions expose how many countries are far ahead of the U.S. in numerous key indicators. Throughout much of the film Moore is in mock befuddlement when encountering how much better things are overseas. As he nation-hops he does acknowledge that other countries do indeed have problems, but that Invade is “about the flowers and not the weeds.”
Invade picks up where Moore left off with Capitalism: A Love Story, a 2009 lampooning of the not-so-free enterprise system, and Sicko, his critique of U.S. healthcare (or lack of) via a comparison with Cuba. The dissident documentarian has previously tackled GM’s CEO in 1989’s Roger & Me; taken aim at gun violence in 2002’s Bowling for Columbine; and denounced President Bush in 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11.
The “invaders” first beachhead is Italy, where Moore’s jaw drops as blue-collar workers nonchalantly discuss their working conditions and benefits—eight weeks paid vacation per year and five months paid maternity leave. An incredulous Moore notes that only two countries don’t provide paid paternal leave: Papua New Guinea and the U.S.
At an Italian industrial plant Moore interviews employers who express gratitude towards their employees and the notion that happy workers are more productive. Referring to Motors’ head honcho Roger Smith (whom Moore famously stalked in Roger & Me), the son of an auto assembly line worker quips this is “the first time I’m met with a CEO on a factory floor.”
In France, Moore marvels at public schools’ healthy cuisine. After he listens in on a surprisingly explicit sex education class for teenagers, the instructor tells him that, “abstinence is not really for us a form of birth control.”
In Finland the filmmaker explores its highly rated educational system, learning to his disbelief that Finland has discarded standardized tests, assigns little or no homework, and has a shorter school year and day.
Moore’s travels to Nuremberg are accompanied by clips of Nazis holding mass rallies including goose-stepping spectacles from Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Hitler 1935 Triumph of the Will. Detailing how contemporary Germany teaches about Nazism and the Holocaust in its schools, museums, and monuments, Moore proposes Germany as a model for how America might improve its treatment of historical sins such as slavery and indigenous genocide.
In Portugal Moore attends a May Day demonstration, singing “The Internationale.” Here, our would-be Phileas Fogg is simply agog at Portugal’s decriminalizing of drugs. He compares this to America’s “drug war”, which he emphasizes, has led to the imprisonment of millions of people of color who face stiffer sentences than whites convicted of similar offenses.
Moore then “invades” Norway, where there’s no death penalty and conditions at maximum-security prisons are surprisingly lax, humane and comfortable, causing him to reflect on the virtues of forgiveness, mercy, and rehabilitation.
But no kneejerk bleeding heart he—Moore believes some criminals deserve a hard time. In Iceland he’s delighted that dozens of financial sector white collar criminals who caused Reykjavik’s banking debacle are now behind bars.
Moore also makes one of the most stirring, women’s rights statements I’ve ever seen in a male-directed U.S. documentary. Starting with Iceland, he shares images of the female heads of government of many countries, including the Muslim nations Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. (Missing from this ever-growing list is the U.S. Is it time to send a woman to the White House?) He extols women’s liberation in Tunisia, the lone non-European nation of his odyssey. Contrary to Islamophobic stereotyping of Muslims as anti-woman, Moore finds inspiration for women’s emancipation in Tunisia.
Towards Invade’s end Moore returns to Germany and recounts watching the Berlin Wall come down, using this as a rallying cry for the belief that anything’s possible. Moore muses that much of the enlightened policies he’s learned about abroad were actually made in the U.S.A. After having earlier excoriated U.S. history’s reactionary side, he extols America’s progressive heritage, reminding us for instance that May Day originated in Chicago in 1886 during the eight-hour-day struggle.
Tip: don’t leave the theater until the end of the final credits.
AFI Fest presents a Gala screening of Where to Invade Next with Michael Moore in person 7:30 p.m., Nov. 7 at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd, L.A. Where to Invade Next opens theatrically in N.Y. and L.A. on Dec. 23, 2015 and nationwide Jan. 15, 2016.
Ed Rampell is author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States