When Michael Moore’s latest documentary was announced as part of the Toronto International Film Festival lineup a few months ago, only its title, Where To Invade Next, was provided—no synopsis or log line. Many people reflexively cringed, imagining some sort of bellicose rant about American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. As it turns out, however, Moore is in an unusually playful mood this time around, and his hypothetical invasions are cultural rather than military. Pretending that the Joint Chiefs Of Staff have sent him on a mission, he travels to various European countries with the intention of “annexing” their good ideas, or at least claiming said ideas for the good ol’ U.S. of A. After several films in a row that leaned too hard on manipulative emotional appeals (Fahrenheit 9/11 was especially galling in that regard), Moore here makes his strongest bona fide argument in ages, albeit one that still gleefully stacks the deck and avoids examining possible downsides too carefully. He even comes across as genuinely patriotic, in his own way.
Moore’s first stop is Italy, where ordinary workers, we learn, receive as many as eight weeks of paid vacation every year, allegedly without affecting productivity. (The film features a slew of quick infographics that beg for greater analysis and context.) He then heads to France to check out the gourmet lunches its school cafeterias serve to children in lieu of frozen pizza and sloppy Joes. Other destinations include Norway (which treats even convicted murderers humanely and imposes no sentence longer than 21 years, while maintaining one of the world’s lowest crime rates), Portugal (where most recreational drug use has been decriminalized, with the country placing much more emphasis on treatment), and Slovenia (a nation that allows not just its own citizens but even foreigners to attend college for free). In every case, Moore barrages administrators and residents with questions about how these policies work, and is assured that they work magnificently. Why, he wonders, wouldn’t they likewise work for America?
Plenty of possible answers exist, starting with the difference between a population of roughly 2 million (Slovenia) and a population of more than 300 million. Like many documentaries, Where To Invade Next would arguably be more effective as a lengthy essay, or even as a book (with a chapter devoted to each country); Moore’s case would be more persuasive were counterarguments addressed in depth, rather than swatted down as irrelevant. Plus, in written form, one wouldn’t have to endure his tired faux-naïf routine, which here mostly involves that cheap lawyer’s trick of feigning shock and surprise at the answer to a question, even though the question was clearly meant to elicit that answer. Over and over, Moore furrows his brow and sputters something along the lines of “So, wait, you’re telling me that…?” Yes, Michael, that’s why you brought a camera crew. We know you researched this shit. Move along.
Still, as presented in the necessarily shallow terms required of a movie (especially one that seeks to be entertaining as well as informative), many of the ideas explored in Where To Invade Next do seem worthy of consideration. Some verge on socialism—cue hisses from Republicans—but most are simply rooted in the conviction that basic human decency should take precedence over profit and punishment. The most powerful and provocative sequence (which Moore, for some reason, places smack in the middle of the movie, rather than at the end, where it plainly belongs) takes place in Germany, where numerous signs, monuments, and other public displays serve as sorrowful reminders of the country’s Nazi past. A thought experiment about America doing the same regarding Native Americans and slavery follows, making a compelling case that a nation can’t strive to be at its best without first acknowledging its worst impulses. That includes owning up to the arrogance of exceptionalism. Other countries do things well, too. Emulate them.