A prolific documentarian, Michael Moore has become shorthand for the mildly snarky, moderately subversive and heavily engaged leftist documentaries that have come to define his niche in cinema. Moore, though reared in the waning days of the Cold War, typifies the spirit of millennial progressivism. His movies are deeply starched in contemporary cynical humor, critiquing the flaws of the U.S.’s domestic policies. However, typically at the end, when you’re convinced you must move out of this country, he gives you a sense of optimism towards the future. “Where to Invade Next” is the latest incarnation of this dynamic, similarly inspired and hampered.
The documentary tracks Moore’s farcical invasion of various European countries (and Tunisia) where he is determined to discover and extract resources for the betterment of the United States. The resources in question are progressive domestic policies, in areas including but not limited to: paid vacations, nutritious school lunches, women’s representation in government and their rights as workers, inexpensive and efficient education, rehabilitative incarceration and democratically accountable financial practices. After infiltrating the relevant institutions, observing the behavior of their constituents and interviewing their representatives, Moore playfully annexes the land and its lesson by planting the American flag, with their permission, in front of his grinning interviewees. Moore would warn each of his interviewees that he was going to steal this idea and take it to the U.S. and they simply smiled and said, “Please do!” All the while, Moore and the American moviegoer are shocked time and time again at how regressive the policies of the greatest superpower in world history are, and how the American Dream came to be so foreign to its weavers.
While Moore may colonize literally new grounds, he treads the same ideological earth that today’s progressive media does every day, from Trevor Noah’s Daily Show to Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Naturally, it was Moore’s artistic imperative to differentiate his work from those spawned by his fellows. Unfortunately, this is the front at which “Where to Invade Next” stumbles.
The purpose of the documentary is simple enough: criticize the American domestic policy by comparing its domestic policy to those of other first-world countries. What this accomplishes on paper are as follows: 1. Disquiet the audience by challenging the quietly but assuredly assumed preeminence of the United States in all things significant. 2. Highlight exactly how behind many the United States is in these particular areas. 3. Offer fascinating insight to different cultures, their politics, and their opinion of the United States. 4. Be uniquely hilarious.
The problem is that the movie does not unfold as it ought to in theory. Even during in depth and at times personal interviews, the focus is always on comparing the achievements of France, Germany and Finland to the relative failures of the United States. There is no time to study the political atmospheres of these nations, certainly interesting in their own right, because the documentary is choked with information as it is and cannot afford to lose direction. While that directorial decision lends to a well-paced, clearly presented and overall informative and enjoyable movie, it strips the final product of the advantages it could have flaunted over its myriad competitors.
The movie is genuinely funny from time to time, but it again relies on familiar stock. The bulk of the jokes rely on the “ignorant American on foreign soil armed only with flag and foreign policy seriously flagging behind the times” gimmick. But these types of gimmicks also give way to the words of the foreign interviewees, which ironically, feed back into the “focus on America” dynamic of the movie. Many interviewees argued that the central idea behind their advanced domestic policy from the United States, who for various political reasons that were not talked about, had strayed away from the path these countries had followed. As they are, the gimmicks exist only to embellish the tail end of every segment of the film, providing decent relief from the procedural outpours of information.
The movie is not a complete disappointment, however. It showcases occasional inspiration in several scenes throughout, attesting to Moore’s experience and prowess as a longtime filmmaker. The film is also extremely well edited, not once interrupting the movements of body and mind that constitute it. But past all the post-production polish and the in-production intrigue, the scene that remained with me most was a single line spoken by an Italian: “It is the dream of many Italians to live in America.” It is a brief view a world of nuance absent from the film, an uncalculated utterance that belies the truth that the United States remains idolized by many throughout the world who live in places with ironically superior welfare. The film, among countless alternatives, could have charted this world, provoking questions regarding how exactly a country void of these progressive policies scaled the heights and became “great,” and whether it is a greatness worth our 21st century appreciation. It would have certainly made Moore’s latest film stand out of the burgeoning crowd. As it is, “Where to Invade Next” is a perfectly serviceable sermon to the choir, whose form confines its words to the place of their worship and probably offers little to the unbelievers ambling outside.