In Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore continues his quarter-century crusade of treating the United States like the ex who secretly broke his heart—she’s allegedly contemptible, yet he can’t shut up about her. The conceit of the documentary, that Moore will “invade” other countries and steal for his own the protocols that help their societies run smoothly, is pretty weak, with many of his interview subjects looking confused when he plants an American flag in front of them and claims his invasion for enlightenment a success. Inarguably, though, the director’s revelation of the intellectual machinery running countries such as Finland, Iceland, Italy, and Tunisia are often so jaw-dropping you’ll want to pack a suitcase.
Moore opens with an obvious joke—that American leaders were embarrassed by their poor choices and sought Moore’s advice—but it’s followed by quite serious if absurd images such as a little girl being pat down by a TSA officer or a soldier whose home was foreclosed on while he was fighting in the Middle East. So it’s jarring as well as obnoxious when his tone quickly returns to flippant, with on-screen text listing this fact about his first stop, Italy: “Notable citizens: Jesus, Don Corleone, Super Mario.”
But obnoxious and flippant is how Moore’s been operating since 1989’s Roger & Me, and this film then settles into his trademark groove. The subjects that he explores here include the treatment of each country’s workers, such as Italy’s standard seven weeks of paid vacation and five months of paid maternity leave or Germany’s 36-hour workweek, laws forbidding employers to contact employees during vacation or after hours, and mandate that boards comprise 50 percent workers; school systems, such as Slovenia’s free universities and Finland’s 20-hour school week; and the education of children beyond the three Rs, such as France’s chef-cooked and dietician-approved four-course student lunches and sex ed in which the instructor speaks openly about the “magical moment” of the teenagers’ first times as well as how to be good lovers and, of course, the methods of contraception.
Regarding that last bit, when Moore tells the teacher how much higher the rate of teen pregnancy is in the U.S. than France, she says, “Hence the need for education.”
(Hear that? That’s the sound of every skull in red-state America exploding.)
In Norway and Portugal, law enforcement is the topic, particularly Portugal’s decriminalization of drugs and Norway’s emphasis on rehabilitation and not retribution in its jail system; its prison guards don’t even carry weapons. Moore embraces these facts to go on two tangents: First, he connects the U.S.’s civil rights movement and war on drugs, concluding that the rampant and unreasonably harsh drug prosecution in our country is a method to take back the right of African Americans to vote. Then, in an even more heartbreaking comparison, Moore flashes images of gutting police violence—some all too familiar—after a Lisbon cop’s statement that in keeping the peace, their force’s attitude is “human dignity above all.”
The issues presented in Where to Invade Next are disillusioning enough to provoke reflection on our society instead of irritation at Moore’s antics. Though, as is common in his work, Moore largely omits the not-so-great stuff that must exist for these countries to seem like such utopias: high taxes, long waits for doctor’s appointments, the inconvenience of a bank that arbitrarily closes midday so its employees can take a leisurely lunch. He also occasionally makes the U.S. sound worse than it is, such as when he tells a young Italian couple that American employers are by law not obligated to offer a single day of paid vacation. True on paper; not typically the norm in practice. Regardless, it’s understandable when the woman interprets a point her husband makes: “The dream of Italian people is to come to [the] United States,” she says, then waits a beat. “Maybe they don’t know how it works there.”