Michael Moore's Where to Invade Next has a misleading title, although I should have seen the misdirect coming. His last was 2009's Capitalism: A Love Story, a scathing critique of America's convoluted, for-profit culture wherein the love part is largely sarcastic. I assumed this latest documentary would be another critique on America's penchant for throwing its military might around, but that's just the scaffolding to prop up Moore's larger premise. What if, instead of invading other countries for our usual evil, imperial reasons, we went in and reclaimed their progressive ideas on things like workers' rights, prisons, public schools and the war on drugs?
With that same fed up but hopeful energy he's brought to his other films, Moore signals his invasion by bringing a large American flag on a pole with him to interviews and then ceremoniously setting it down. In Italy, Moore talks to a typical middle class couple about their country's policy on employee time off—and, big surprise—it's a lot cooler than ours. We learn that Italians dole out several weeks of paid vacation time, in addition to five months paid maternity leave, time off for honeymoons and other flights of fancy. Americans have long grown accustomed to a culture that values long hours and employee sacrifice, and so with this news the film triggers its first of many culture shocks.
In France, the school lunches don't look like beige lumps of garbage, and in Finland, there's no qualitative difference between the public schools in their poorest and richest neighborhoods. In Norway, we see prison cells that look like dorm rooms, where the maximum sentence is 21 years and murder is still rare. In Portugal, resources they would have spent arresting drug users go toward treatment options instead, and the hits just keep coming from there.
After decades of this shtick, we're accustomed to seeing personalities engage with their political subject matter in humorous ways, so it's easy to forget that Moore was an early pioneer of the genre. In his first film, Roger and Me (1989), Moore explored the collapse of his hometown of Flint, Mich., by using humor and participatory journalism in a way that few documentaries up to that point had ever attempted. Now, with the water crisis in Flint making national headlines, his iconic first film is more relevant than ever.
Comparatively, Where to Invade Next doesn't have a whole lot of new information—you're probably already familiar with most of these ideas—but they have an impressive impact on the psyche when stacked together.
In 2016, a Michael Moore film is unlikely to change anyone from a conservative to a progressive; our media choices are too tailored to hope for anything like that. Where to Invade Next exists mostly as a reconfirming of beliefs among progressives. In that vein, the film shows us that cultural change doesn't have to be some abstract, impossible notion in the future. In Iceland, we learn that women's rights protests in the 1970s gave way to the country's first female president in the 1980s, and now they have an entire generation of women who see their success in the public sphere as a normal, pedestrian thing. We see footage of students in other countries vehemently protesting when the government tries to take away their right to a free college education. In America, students react to constant tuition hikes with a comedic, profound lack of action.
All of this points to a plain and powerful thesis: A better America is possible, and change can happen more swiftly than we've been trained to believe.
Where to Invade Next opens at the Roxy Fri., March 4.