Michael Moore makes me embarrassed to recommend his new movie “Where to Invade Next.” By now, Moore’s snarky ragamuffin caricature is every bit his trademark as Charles Chaplin’s Little Tramp was his, but the former is much less charming than the latter. Here Moore pretends to “invade” various countries, mostly in Europe, to steal their good ideas, and his antics – purposely looking like a slob while carrying around an American flag and spewing comic sarcasm – are rather mortifying. If you can look beyond that though, Moore has crafted a passionate and powerful film trying to do a lot of good.
With a title like “Where to Invade Next,” one might think Moore’s making a film about a runaway military-industrial complex, but that’s only alluded to. His main goal is to find what works in other countries and advocate those solutions in the United States. In many ways, this film is an extension of “Sicko” in which Moore compared health care in the United States to other countries so he leaves that off the table here.
His first visit is to Italy where he finds people get eight weeks of paid vacation, two-hour lunch breaks, and five months of maternity leave. For Italians, the idea is that happier workers means less stress and sickness which means more productivity. When Moore asks a clothing manufacturer about cutting workers’ benefits to make themselves richer, one of them responds rhetorically, “What’s the point of being richer?” They prefer their employees happy.
Moore goes to France next where he has to make an obvious joke about French resistance. French school cafeterias are about providing nutrition and even the poorest schools have menus that put the food in most U.S. schools to shame. An apparently average French school lunch has four-courses, an example being a scallops in curry sauce appetizer, a lamb and chicken skewers entrée, a cheese plate, and ice cream, but no sodas. Moore makes the point that the French spend less on school lunches than the U.S. does.
In Finland, the film looks at how the Finnish transformed their mediocre schools into one of the best education systems in the world where school is 20 hours a week with almost no homework and no standardized tests. Slovenia provides free college to everyone, even foreigners, so no one has student debt. In Germany, half of company boards are made up by workers with fellow board members valuing their input and insight because they’re the ones doing the actual work to know what’s right, what’s wrong, and what can be improved. In a particularly powerful moment in the Germany segment, Moore gets a dig in at right-wing’s revisionist history promoting American exceptionalism as he shows how every German is taught about the shamefulness of the Third Reich and public memorials are daily reminders of that shame. Portugal decriminalized drug use and illicit drug use went down. Norway’s penal system focusing on rehabilitation over punishment has an extremely low 20% recidivism rate (although the prison guards singing “We Are the World” in an orientation video might be considered punishment). Tunisia funds women’s health centers including abortion services and women’s rights are written into their constitution.
Underlying currents that run through many segments are how these different countries have a stronger sense of community than Americans and that people must fight for their rights in a democracy whether through demonstrations or labor unions. That message is poignant. That Moore insinuates that change is also easy is disingenuous. Moore uses the fall of the Berlin Wall and the legality of gay marriage as examples of quick change, but both required decades of action to get to their point of fruition.
In debate, one of the most common logical fallacies is argumentum ad hominem, which basically means the validity of a claim has nothing to do with the person making the claim. Attacking Michael Moore, which his political opponents relish doing, has no bearing on whether Moore is right or wrong on the issues. Likewise, in this film, despite Moore’s propagandistic nature, his tendency to exaggerate or use anecdotes to generalize or not provide full context, the ideas that Moore presents have merit. A film is not literally a debate, but films are a form of communication and a documentary’s conveyance of its ideas functions similarly to a debate, but also does more. Even if you understand or agree with the ideas in “Where To Invade Next,” the film does something reading about these ideas in this review doesn’t, which is to provide the experience of these ideas in action and to feel their power. As cringe-worthy as Moore himself is, his film strongly brings to life the emotional intensity of the solutions he’s supporting. Considering them is the least we can do.