All has been fairly quiet on the pestering front for Michael Moore since “Capitalism: A Love Story,” his glum 2009 assessment of the greed-is-good culture that spawned the global financial crisis. But now this impassioned and unruly provocateur returns to further dismantle the myth of American supremacy with renewed optimism and sharpened comic instincts in “Where to Invade Next,” an impishly entertaining, career-summarizing polemic bent on demonstrating how other countries around the world — with their happy workers, superior schools, humane prisons, healthy sexual attitudes and fully empowered women — are putting U.S. progress to shame. This may be drive-by tourism on a highly selective, flattering and downright gluttonous scale, but there’s something undeniably sharp and buoyant about Moore’s globe-trotting, grass-is-greener approach that compels indulgence and attention. It may not win over his detractors, who are and remain legion, but with careful election-season targeting by a shrewd distributor, he might just have his biggest crowdpleaser since “Fahrenheit 9/11,” at home as well as abroad.
Made under considerable secrecy and unveiled on opening night of the Toronto Film Festival with little advance word about its content, “Where to Invade Next” initially suggested a sweeping indictment of America’s war addiction, especially since it shares its title with a 2008 book that advanced several disturbing theories along those lines. All of this now feels like a sly campaign of misdirection on Moore’s part, in light of the relatively adroit piece of comic sociology he’s given us, which cooks up no sinister conspiracy theories, has little to do with U.S. military misadventures, and indeed embraces an altogether different, more fanciful definition of the word “invasion.”
After a characteristically flip opening montage of various far-flung conflicts in which the U.S. military has embroiled itself over the past century, Moore decides to brand himself a new kind of American invader, a one-man conquering army who will travel to foreign nations not to destroy their villages and enslave their citizens, but rather to plunder their way of life — to claim their utopian ideals and hold them up as examples for the U.S. to learn from. Moore’s viewers will of course recall certain passages of his 2007 documentary, “Sicko,” which amounted to an awestruck love letter to France, extolling its free health-care system, generous day-care provisions and healthy sense of work-life balance.
“Where to Invade Next” effectively amounts to a two-hour variation on that tactic, and indeed, France is one of the earliest countries we see Moore invading, this time to marvel at the exceptional quality of the cuisine served in its public schools (a far cry from the mystery-meat slop typical of most cafeterias) and the practicality and sophistication of its sex education, which has resulted in far lower teen-pregnancy and STD rates than America’s abstinence-first programs. From there, Moore makes a logical leap over to Finland, whose world-renowned schools have adopted such radical yet intuitive measures as doing away with homework and seeking to educate the whole person, rather than merely training students to pass a standardized test.
On and on Moore goes, in typically rambling, discursive fashion: He pays a visit to the “magical fairyland” of Slovenia, where college tuition doesn’t exist and any attempts to impose it are met with immediate, successful student protests. Moore looks agog at Italy, where people work reasonable hours and get as much as eight weeks’ paid vacation a year. And he makes a particularly instructive stopover in Germany, specifically pointing out how a country should grapple with and atone for its cruel history (cue some unnecessary Hitler-rally footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”), in this case by displaying constant reminders of the Holocaust in the form of city monuments, memorials and public art.
This aside leads Moore down one of his more sobering alleys, in which he wonders what a similar level of self-examination and accountability would look like on American shores; for him, regular reminders that the country began with a Native American genocide and grew rich on slave labor would be a decent start. Although much of the film unfolds beyond U.S. borders, Moore does throw in an early sequence (set to the ominous foghorn blasts of Hans Zimmer’s “Inception” score) that offers a diffuse, despairing snapshot of a nation in turmoil, with a particular emphasis on the ongoing abuses suffered by black men and women — from the fires that have ravaged Ferguson to the recent police attack on unarmed black teenagers at a Texas pool party. Later in the film, he contrasts Portugal, where drug use has been decriminalized, with the U.S., where the so-called war on drugs has become a campaign to incarcerate and disenfranchise as many black men as possible.
Geographically as well as philosophically, Moore is all over the map here. There doesn’t seem to be a single pressing issue of the day that he’s unwilling to comment on, and next to the relatively focused approach of films like “Roger & Me,” “Bowling for Columbine,” “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Sicko,” “Where to Invade Next” has a broader topical scope that gives it the feel of a career summation, a cinematic statement of ideological principles. As such, it may be even more susceptible than its predecessors to the charges of slipshod, simplified filmmaking that have dogged Moore for years: His shaming-by-example strategy doesn’t acknowledge or account for the fact that poverty and injustice persist, even in countries with more generous social services. Needless to say, those seeking a more balanced, politically nuanced perspective — one that offers, say, a more subtle parsing of the death penalty and abortion rights — will not find themselves among Moore’s targeted demographic.
Still, insofar as the construction of an airtight argument has never been Moore’s strong suit, there’s something to be said for the way he’s deliberately structured his latest as a series of inspired and loosely interconnected riffs. His preferred style of message-mongering may be immediately recognizable with its reams of voiceover, satirical interpolation of old film clips, and sledgehammer-subtle use of music. But he’s happily done away with some of his other shtick; at no point do we see Moore trying to push his shlumpy frame past security guards in order to penetrate some One Percent citadel, and for the most part, he keeps his inner cheap-shot artist largely in check.
If there’s a throughline here, it’s the firm conviction that we are human beings rather than human doings, and that the ever-present stigma of “socialism” has kept too many Americans from grasping that a good education, a fulfilling, low-stress work life and ready access to health care should be universal entitlements. Since Moore’s work has always divided audiences along partisan lines, it’s hard to imagine “Where to Invade Next” will win over anyone staunchly opposed to government programs and higher taxes, despite the director’s insistence that the values he’s embracing are deeply American ones. Liberals and conservatives alike may take the cynical view that Moore’s climactic visit to Iceland, known for its pioneering tradition of strong female leadership, effectively recasts the movie as a stealth Hillary Clinton campaign promo.
In showing how a country’s belief in its own military, political and economic infallibility can devalue its own citizens, Moore retains his genius for the human (or at least human-interest) moment. In one moving scene a Norwegian man, who lost his son in the horrific 2011 summer-camp attacks, states that he has no right to retaliate against the convicted killer Anders Behring Breivik, now behind bars in a country that caps jail time at 21 years (and has one of the lowest murder rates in the world). Later, a Tunisian woman aptly rebukes the small-mindedness of a global superpower that exports its culture all over the world but demonstrates so little curiosity about the cultures of others. With plain-spoken eloquence, she cuts to the heart of Moore’s conviction that we must study and seek out the lessons of other countries if we truly profess to love our own.