Michael Moore rose up in the world by speaking truth to power. Or, rather, by speaking truth at power. When he began, power wasn’t particularly interested in hearing from him. His signature self-aware naïveté, performing curiosity before the camera, is what drives his most effective films. The search for General Motors CEO Roger Smith in Roger & Me, for example, is more valuable than any real confrontation might have been.
But it has been many years since that now-legendary tour of Flint, Michigan. In his newest film, Where to Invade Next, Moore has very little trouble getting people to talk with him. He meets with elected officials, government ministers and the CEOs of major corporations. He even gets a 45-minute private meeting with Borut Pahor, the sitting President of Slovenia. This sudden popularity isn’t because the mighty are clamoring to be hit with hard ball questions. It’s because his new film is ostensibly a withering criticism of America’s problems by way of tremendous adulation for European public policy. He might mug for the camera in his photo-op with Pahor by pretending to mistake Slovenia for Slovakia, but the substance of the public portion of their conversation is a great deal more respectful.
The gimmick of this new feature, and it is certainly a gimmick, begins with a fictitious meeting Moore has with the leadership of the Pentagon. Disappointed by the results of every war since “The Big One,” they ask him where the American military should strike next. And so, Moore tells them to cool their heels and let him invade a series of European countries all by himself. The ensuing film is the content of these invasions, in which the hammy documentarian arrives in the living rooms of Europe with an enormous American flag and the tongue-in-cheek mission to conquer their best ideas. He goes to Italy, France, Finland, Germany, Slovenia, Norway, Portugal and Iceland before making a final stop in the North African nation of Tunisia.
The worthy public policies in question, which vary from country to country, are easy to guess. His visit to Italy is focused on the amount of paid vacation time Italian workers receive. France is praised for the quality of its school lunches, Finland for its approach to teaching and Norway for its prisons. In each case Moore plays the ignorant American, shocked that French children don’t love Coke and ostentatiously flabbergasted by the fact that the Portuguese police won’t arrest you even if you publicly declare that you’re carrying a whole lot of cocaine. He strives for the comedy of the stunned outsider, reacting broadly to every new piece of information. Even if he did very little research ahead of time, as he insists, his behavior and the way he focuses his film around it underline this strategy of wide-eyed doofiness.
The gimmick gets old very quickly. By the time he’s sarcastically raving about charter schools in front of a room of earnest Finnish teachers, it’s hard to even take this project seriously as a work of satire. Where to Invade Next resembles a feature-length version of a Daily Show correspondent segment, falling into a formula that was surely inspired by much of Moore’s work in the first place. The goal of each scene is to get a hilarious shot of the Italian couple’s astonishment when they’re told that Americans have no legally required paid vacation, or a quote from the French chef about how he’s never eaten a hamburger. The vignettes all build toward thin, comic impressions rather than real understanding. Moore exerts himself to underline politically complex sentences he has yet to actually write.
And, also like The Daily Show, this is a grand exercise in preaching to the choir. This isn’t new for Moore, who has spent most of his career dividing audiences on fairly predictable political lines. Yet there’s something less embarrassing when his work is permeated by justified rage. The comparatively sunny Where to Invade Next barely feels motivating enough to get the choir to stand up and shout for change. Rather, it’s like an extension of the smugly enthusiastic testimony brought by a buoyant friend who just returned from a Tuscan vacation or a semester abroad in Paris.
It’s also rhetorically incoherent around the edges. Moore hedges himself at the beginning of the film with an offhand comment that he’s come to Europe to “pick the flowers, not the weeds.” It is, after all, not in his stated mission to cover the refugee crisis, the financial crisis, or any other crisis making European life less than perfect. That’s fine. The problem is that his scope is so wide, covering the entire education systems of certain countries, healthcare and labor laws, drug policies and prison systems. The impression of Europe as socialist utopia is given by the film’s structure and tone even if it’s occasionally denied in voiceover. This is reinforced by some shoddy craftsmanship, including an animated tax chart containing no actual information and images of anti-austerity protests in Portugal presented without any background or context. The opening Italian segment is a paean to vacation time that doubles as an advertisement for Ducati motorcycles and Lardini suits.
This sheer optimism, so thinly stretched across a continent, also brushes uncomfortably up against Moore’s occasional direct invocation of America. He occasionally ends a segment with an injection of archival footage from back home. None of Where to Invade Next was shot in the United States. Instead, extensive use is made of the most upsetting images of brutality available. These images of chilling violence do not gel particularly well with the frequently staged, soft images of Moore’s European romp. This is obvious from the opening credits, when the video of Eric Garner’s strangling is simply plopped in the same sequence as a news item about toilet paper. It’s jarring, if not exploitative.
This brief but memorably upsetting moment is emblematic of Where to Invade Next’s dependence on instant recognition and gimmicky humor rather than anything resembling either artful filmmaking or reasoned analysis. Moore uses repeated images of violence against unarmed African-American men as evidence of America’s sins but takes Portuguese police officers at their word that there is no similar problem in Portugal. The conclusions he draws from visits to Iceland and Tunisia are that all of the world’s problems could be solved by adding more women to parliaments and corporate board rooms. An admirable and necessary goal, certainly, but the presentation of women as a panacea for America and Europe’s problems is a broad argument with some pretty condescending underpinnings.
It’s also an easy argument, one which gets quick (though fleeting) applause. Where to Invade Next is an easy film. It’s easy to shock and depress an audience with images of violence presented with no context. It’s easy to pinpoint the Finnish education system and the Norwegian prison system as success stories. It’s easy to get laughs from an audience by joking about the sex lives of Italians and by inserting Pepe le Pew into a segment on French food. It’s easy to provoke shudders with clips from Triumph of the Will. Mostly, it’s easy to get a liberal American audience to agree that Europe does a lot of things better. The only problem is that none of the actual issues brought up by the film are easy to resolve, or even easy to discuss if you keep at it after the initially droll culture shock. That doesn’t bother Moore, who with this film has declared that he is no longer interested in saying anything difficult to process. He’d rather just tell us about his vacation.
This review was originally published during the New York Film Festival on October 6, 2015.