Obviously, Michael Moore is a divisive filmmaker. He’s got an agenda, for sure, and he’s quite talented at finding the emotional core of a complex issue and capturing that on film. And he’s one of the few people willing to go well to the left of the mainstream media. Of course, the knock is that he stops at very little to make his point, even being overzealous in emphasizing certain simple points of view while sidelining mitigating factors that would undercut his point. In fact, I think that sometimes he goes so far that he does certain issues a disservice. As a scientist, I prefer to look at all sides of an issue and come to an informed decision. But there’s no denying that Michael Moore raises often-neglected issues to the center of public attention and gets people talking.
WHERE TO INVADE NEXT is classic Michael Moore. But it a twist, he made this film without a lot of hype, and even kept the subject matter a surprise right up to the premiere, which i attended, at the Toronto International Film Festival. The premise is that instead of a military invasion, he visits other countries outside the US and studies their best ideas to take back to the US. It isn’t a bad idea for a movie. I’ve been to 40-ish countries and lived in 3, and every time I’m in one and see some part of their infrastructure that works better than the equivalent thing in the US, I think, “Wow, why don’t we have that?” The result is a wide-ranging film, covering subjects as diverse as education, health care, maternity leave, vacation time, school lunches, military expenditures, sex education, race relations, capital punishment, women in politics, and standardized testing. The truth is, the US really is an outlier in most of these areas. And perplexingly, the right wing in has tended to dominate the discussion in the US, though it doesn’t elsewhere.
Some of the issues raised in the film are no-brainers, and should not be partisan issues. School lunches should be better in the US — it’s better for health, for learning, and saves all of us money. Families should get paid maternity leave. The rest of the world has it, and again it leads to a healthier, happier populace. And sex education should be taught in schools — it demonstrably leads to lower teen pregnancy rates.
Other issues are trickier — of course there should be more women in politics, but how do you make this happen? Yes, cops have been treating black people unfairly, and it is quite reasonable to point this out with righteous indignation, but does just throwing 5 minutes about it into a film get us anywhere?
And vacation policies in the US are generally abysmal, but to illustrate this, Moore invokes Italy, where people get more than two months of paid vacation, which is ridiculous in the other direction (I used to live in Italy). I get what he’s trying to do — say hey, other countries have more vacation time than the US, so why don’t we get just a little more here. But he doesn’t do it in the most effective way. The right wing nut jobs are just going to say — “Michael Moore thinks we should be more like Italy,” and invoke some ridiculous thing about the Italian economy, which isn’t tied to their vacation policy. Ahh, American politics — it is so much more about artificial “sides,” screaming, personalities, and money than reasoned, thoughtful debate.
Even the central conceit of WHERE TO INVADE NEXT perfectly illustrates Michael Moore. He starts with a montage of failed US military policy, then declares that he can do it better, and goes around planting the flag in many other countries. Of course, he’s being a bit tongue-in-cheek, and of course he’s right — the US has spent trillions on disastrous invasions of other countries, and by not invading, *anyone* could have done better. But in wrapping himself in the flag, and poking the military, he’s just going to get conservatives worked into a frenzy. Nobody that he’d like to get to is going to listen to him. In the end, he’s just rallying the liberal base. But hey, he’s an entertainer, not a politician. He’s produced exactly what millions want to hear.
But if you can appreciate Michael Moore as a provocative entertainer, almost at the level of a genius prankster, then there’s a lot to like about WHERE TO INVADE NEXT. It is clever, funny, and covers important subjects. And his unrelenting passion makes politicians look like dithering bores. And truth be told, it is his best film in years.