The title of Michael Moore’s latest documentary, Where to Invade Next, seems to reflect ambivalence on the part of its creator. It is after all no coincidence that Moore’s trio of breakout box office hits — Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Sicko — appeared during the administration of his antagonist-in-chief, George W. Bush. Though no one would pretend that mass shootings have subsided since the release of Bowling for Columbine, the election of President Obama saw the formal end of the Iraq War and the passing of health care reform — the subjects of Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko, respectively. The working title of Moore’s latest project might as well have been, What To Tackle Next?
The answer is a little complicated. The movie starts with spliced-together footage showcasing a litany of modern American sins — collapsing bridges, failing schools, tanks rolling through Ferguson — cleverly juxtaposed with voice-over rhetoric of American “nation-building” overseas. In response, Moore embarks on a global journey — albeit one which only covers three timezones, by my count — to “invade” other countries, talk to their citizens, and bring back their best policy ideas.
Moore’s comedic conceit burns bright but fades fast. The light-hearted language of “invasion” and “surrender” in the scene-setting voiceover quickly becomes tired, as does Moore’s insistence on “planting” an American flag in the home, office, or factory of each of his slightly bemused interviewees. In a narrative sense at least, the gimmick is effective in providing a unifying purpose to the disparate set of issues Moore’s journey covers, from drug decriminalization to prison reform to childhood nutrition. Yet as an attempt to construct a coherent ideological platform, the approach is oddly à la carte; Moore’s own stated intention to “pick the flowers, not the weeds” feels less a mission statement than an (almost literal) admission of cherry-picking.
None of this is to detract from Moore’s masterful skills as an interviewer: his talent for eliciting pitch-perfect responses with faux naiveté borders on ventriloquistic, even across language barriers. And while Moore’s conversations may have been carefully curated, the idea of learning about a given policy by talking to people who benefit from it is certainly more persuasive and substantive than anything you’re hearing right now on the presidential campaign trail.
Many of Moore’s case studies, moreover, are genuinely enlightening, and some inspiring: a country with Norway’s redemptive jails, France’s gourmet school meals, and Slovenia’s migrant-friendly universities would undoubtedly be a pleasant place to live. Yet of course, no such single country exists — and therein lies the central flaw of Moore’s project.
The picture Moore paints of an ‘arc of equity’ stretching across mainland Europe is as morally simplistic and factually faulty as his nemesis Bush’s ‘axis of evil;’ the other side of the ledger is seldom examined. Italians enjoy their copious holiday pay probably more than the country’s economists celebrate its tepid growth. French children enjoy their state school lunches even as the state extends its zealous secularism into personal expressions of faith. And even as Moore lauds its egalitarianism and progressivism, Europe remains stained with the twentieth century’s nationalist and fascist excesses, which still lurk in the shadows.
This makes it all the more galling that Moore seldom ventures beyond the supposed social democratic havens of Europe to other parts of the world. Aside from a swift jaunt across the Mediterranean to Tunisia — and Moore is either unaware or unwilling to discuss the continent’s sporadic, sclerotic response to the tide of migrants heading in the opposite direction — Moore doesn’t once step foot on non-European soil. Rwanda, Brazil, and Iran each get a momentary stock-footage shout-out; nowhere else gets a look-in. It’s an unfortunate oversight, especially since a geographically and culturally broader outlook would better inoculate Moore’s argument against Europe’s current strife.
Moore’s Bush-era documentaries took a ‘shock and awe’ approach, fuelled by simmering resentment towards the belligerence of America’s leadership, the gun violence enabled by its laws, and the sicknesses endured by its people. Moore should be lauded both for his broader ambition and his slightly lighter touch in Where To Invade Next, casting a wider net to take on a far larger and more diverse set of issues. But this approach requires the sort of nuance and balance that Moore, battle-hardened and single-minded, is ill-equipped to provide. Where To Invade Next, for this reason, is a mission far from accomplished.