Where to Invade Next: Michael Moore asks essential questions

As political candidates argue about what role the United States should play in the world, leave it to documentarian Michael Moore to remind us what we can learn from other countries. With the style, wit and candor that Moore brings to each of his films, Where to Invade Next entertains while making us think.

Unlike his best known documentaries – the Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine and his landmark Roger and Me – this Moore is less cranky than when he chased GM CEO Roger Smith to explain the company’s decisions and less troubled than when he searched for answers about random violence. Instead, Moore comes across as an inquisitive man who sincerely wants his country to get better. And, rather than look for answers in conventional ways, he launches a global search for solutions from other countries that may address problems at home.

Moore’s journey takes us to Italy to explore the impact of paid vacation, generous benefits and extended maternity leave, to France to observe how children in school react to fine cuisine in the cafeteria and to Finland to experience the educational difference when schools bypass standardized tests and routine homework. In Germany, Moore looks at health care – a key issue in the US – and, in Slovenia, he assesses the potential of public colleges. His visit to Portugal explores penalties for drug use while his time in Norway delves into rehabilitation in prisons.

By examining what happens around the world on these topics, Moore manages to comment on what can stand in the way of progress at home. Rather than make his point of view the thrust of the film, he carefully lets us discover how a solution from another country could, possibly, work back here. While acknowledging that conditions may differ – with some countries facing less complexity than the US – Moore suggests that, as we try solve our problems, perhaps we should look beyond ourselves.

While Moore walks around with his predictable posture, and wears the standard baseball cap, he brings little of the anger that fuels his earlier films. His subdued manner, actually, suggests a man at peace with his views, the reactions they can generate, and the people he may irritate. Rather than try to create objections to his positions – which he does in other movies – Moore tries to win us over with his endearing personality and endless curiosity. He sells his ideas by engaging us in the possibilities rather than scolding us for the failures. And, for the first time, he seems to believe the future can be bright, that the US can survive and that we can solve the challenges we face. His optimism is, actually, a welcome change to the dark news we hear every day. And that’s surprising for a Michael Moore film.

A few years ago, when Moore won the Best Documentary Oscar for Bowling for Columbine, he drew boos from the audience at the Academy ceremony when he criticized then President Bush for leading the US into war. That Michael Moore might wonder what’s going on in this film from a calmer man. Perhaps Moore has learned that it’s easier to secure support through discovery than through lecture.

Where to Invade Next

  • Content: High. This documentary from Oscar winner Michael Moore dares to suggest that the US can solve some of its problems for looking for solutions beyond its borders.

  • Entertainment: High. Because Moore chooses to lead his audience, rather than lecture to his audience, he keeps the film at an entertaining level that is sure to please audiences who may typically check out documentary films.

  • Message: Medium. While Moore identifies interesting solutions in other countries, he chooses not to consider how the ideas could survive in a different context in the US.

  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with older teenagers about the challenges our country faces can be meaningful.

  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older teenagers, ask them to identify the most important issues they believe the US must address.

4 Stars

(Where to Invade Next is rated R for “language, some violent images, drug use and brief graphic nudity”. The film runs 119 minutes.)

How Michael Moore views the world

With his sharp vision, keen perception and acid tongue, documentarian Michael Moore has become a self-proclaimed guardian of truth in a world filled with betrayal, denial and exaggeration. For almost 30 years his films have exposed issues he believes the world needs to absorb in a way that makes his audiences think even when he dares to offend.

Moore burst onto the movie scene with the gutsy documentary Roger and Me in 1989. As he searched for answers to troubling questions about corporate commitments and decisions, he gave us a film we hadn’t seen before. Rather than let the camera do the exploring – as with traditional documentaries – Moore puts himself at the center of the frame as an ultimately social critic, a man so disturbed by a situation that he doesn’t care what he says or how he looks as long as he can tell his story. In his first film, Moore focuses on the troubled relationship between General Motors and his hometown of Flint, Michigan. As if portraying an investigative reporter named Michael Moore, the filmmaker creates a character to chase GM CEO Roger Smith to learn why the corporate giant closed its factories in Flint in favor of making cars in Mexico. While people close to the company have trouble with some of the facts, Moore makes his point: companies answering to shareholders often make decisions that hurt communities.

While the film was a big hit at the box office – rare for a documentary – the Academy ignored the project when announcing the nominees for that year’s Oscar. Perhaps Moore’s camera spent too much time making Moore a character or the subject matter was too uncomfortable for documentary purists. But Moore didn’t seem to care. No matter what his peers may have thought, the moviemaker had found his voice and his audience. While he took a satirical view of the political world in Canadian Bacon in 1995 – about a US President who decides to go to war with Canada to boost his poll numbers – he returned to the issue of corporate greed in The Big One in 1997. And Moore seems comfortable playing the cynic who detests corporate comfort.

Next, real events prompted Moore to take a sharp look at his reel world. In Bowling for Columbine, in 2002, he dares to question the popularity of guns as an expression of violent thoughts in the US. Rather than use the camera to criticize, or to make a movie only about his views, he forces us to examine how we create a culture that may accept, even endorse, violence as a means to express. Without apology to the Second Amendment purists, Moore explores the emotional aftermath of cruel actions, the inconsistency of popular sentiment and the selfishness of limited viewpoints. His camera shows no mercy as he searches for answers from victims, promoters and sellers, even an Oscar-winning actor (Charlton Heston) who supports the NRA. The depth of Moore’s work made his accomplishment impossible for traditional documentarians to ignore and, at Oscar time, he won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Two years later, Moore took aim at President George W. Bush with his controversial and popular Fahrenheit 911. Once again Moore brings his concerns and fears about the US to center stage in a thought-provoking examination of how a country and presidency react to unparalleled crisis. In perhaps his angriest on-camera assaults, Moore accuses the President of basing too many decisions on too many secrets and lies that do not center on the safety and future of the American people. Rather than overlook the leader’s past, Moore seems to relish in the gaps in the Bush narrative; rather than simply showcase news reports of the President’s actions, the moviemaker delights in questioning every possible motive. Moore takes sharp aim at a selfishness he sees at the center of his concerns and, instead of simply portraying the leader as ineffective, he broadens the blame to a people too willing to accept artificial answers as he uses the camera to question the audience about the permission we give our leaders to persuade. The film won the Palme d’Or – the top prize – at the Cannes Film Festival but was not eligible to compete for an Oscar because Moore chose to show the movie on television before the 2004 election. While the Academy rules prohibit such distribution, another chance to win an Oscar was the last thing on the moviemaker’s mind.

Now, with Where to Invade Next, a calmer Moore seems to take a more uplifting look at how the US can address its issues. While the film was snubbed by the Academy, the curmudgeon continues to thrive. Now he chooses new battles and fights them in new ways.

See you at the movies.