For his latest screed, Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore certainly couldn’t have picked a more expected title, oozing as it does with the same level of snark as Bowling for Columbine, Sicko, and especially Capitalism: A Love Story. Sadly, the film itself turns out to be more or less business as usual for Moore, as he, with his showman’s instincts and penchant for oversimplifications and grandstanding, continues to be his own worst enemy when it comes to the broader argument he’s actually trying to make.
This argument is a valuable one, as is often the case with Moore’s films. Despite what its title may imply, Where to Invade Next isn’t a diatribe about U.S. foreign policy, but an attack on American exceptionalism. By adopting the persona of an insular American traveling the world in order to find ways to improve his home country, Moore attempts to not just show how much better circumstances are overseas, but, more importantly, to demonstrate how some foreign nations are currently fulfilling such classic American ideals as freedom and equality far better than the United States is.
Some of what Moore uncovers is eye-opening. In Finland, he discovers an educational system that not only turned itself around from being one of the worst in the world to being quite possibly the best, but also one that includes such foreign-to-the-U.S. novelties as shorter school days, minimal homework, and no private schools, thus forcing rich and poor to inhabit the same spaces. In feminist Iceland, even more fascinating than the fact that the nation elected the world’s first female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, in 1980, is that the one bank that didn’t fall during their recent financial crisis had three women as part of its board of directors, thus leading to a digression on how having more women in power has historically led to sturdier businesses.
Michael Moore toes the line toward shooting himself in the rhetorical foot with his own thuggish persona.
But other stops on Moore’s globetrotting tour can’t help but inspire skepticism as to just how much the filmmaker is squelching nuance in order to push his agenda. When, in Slovenia, the documentarian notes an incident in which students at the University of Ljubljana successfully rose up against the school for wanting to impose tuition rates, he doesn’t ask why the school made such an attempt in the first place—as if afraid that admitting to some of the possible impracticalities of achieving the dream of no-debt higher education would severely weaken his argument.
A similar suspicion of evasiveness pops up in Norway, when Moore interviews a reformed prisoner about the nation’s relatively paradisal prison system and seems uninterested in digging more deeply into the reasons behind the murder that landed the man behind bars in the first place. The filmmaker is too busy extolling the virtues of a more humane approach to imprisonment to express much of an interest in the human beings themselves beyond how they fit into and flatter his larger ideological vision.
These issues should be familiar to anyone familiar with Moore’s recent output, and such allowances often have to be made in order to find anything of value in his polemics. But instead of the Moore who showed at least some sense of authentic exploration in his on-screen interactions in works like Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine, Where to Invade Next exudes the more disheartening feel of a film with a preordained thesis, with everything manipulated to demonstrate said thesis.
That practiced dumb-American act that Moore simulated during his tour of competing health systems in Sicko gets blown up to feature length, and the results are often more insufferable than entertaining. That, of course, is the unfortunate paradox of Moore’s work: As informative and passionate as he often is on screen, he also always toes the line toward shooting himself in the rhetorical foot with his own thuggish persona. Where to Invade Next is, in many ways, a necessary call to awareness of the world beyond U.S. borders—but such a cause deserves a more fair-minded spokesman.