The conceit of Where to Invade Next feels like a logical extension of Michael Moore’s previous work: after four documentaries that presented disturbing implications with regard to firearms, the Bush administration, the state of American healthcare, and deregulation of financial firms - while in themselves being concise and well-produced arguments that occasionally veered very close to the polemic, Moore has now decided to just go all-out and travel to several European countries (places with names he can “mostly pronounce”, as he puts it in the opening pitch narration) in order to harvest their best social and political practices for American adoption.
Movie Review: Where to Invade Next
By Ben Gruchow
February 25, 2016
It’s perhaps the most frivolous concept out of all Moore’s work, on its face; each of his prior documentaries were made in the aftermath of a national crisis or conflict, and Where to Invade Next finds him in a more contemplative, optimistic and even playful mood. This gives the material a far lower emotional temperature than a normal installment of his work, although he’s still prone to evoking pessimistic statements about the subject at hand - here, as before, with a dominant social or cultural theme juxtaposed with its relevant iteration in the United States.
This relative light-heartedness takes a little bit of time to show up, and the opening sequences - cutting together audio emphasizing righteous cultural identity with video showcasing the worst (police brutality) and most incongruous (TSA patdowns of small children) manifestations of that identity - put us on tonal ground we last trod in 2009 with Capitalism: A Love Story. In an election year, to showcase audio from our leaders pledging no effort spared in hobbling our enemies, and to overlay that on video of minority voters in long lines outside of voting locations, with the tagline “Voter Suppression” in a news feed at the bottom of the screen, is a move designed to strike a chord. And strike a chord it does; we are reminded that Moore is entirely willing to make a point with a darkly-comic blunt instrument, and he’s good at wielding that instrument. Finesse doesn’t matter much to him, although he’s quite capable of it.
As we progress and Moore begins his tour of Europe, though, the tone lightens; the participants in his interviews are largely citizens of each country, and we are told mostly about the advantages one has as an employee in Italy (nearly a month of paid vacation, annual bonus); a public-school child in France (school meals that look better and healthier than most restaurant-prepared dishes); a college student in Slovenia (free higher education); a woman in Tunisia (free, equal access to contraceptive care and women’s services). There are others, related to healthcare and prison rehabilitation, but the message clarifies itself pretty early on: these are considered basic services in other developed countries, but not in our own, and citizens of these developed countries are unilaterally better off for them.
It’s a solid, appealing message, created and molded to spur an instinct to action in the American viewer: why, as a member of one of the most powerful nations on the planet, do we offer only a fraction of these services to our people? There is a persuasive argument made by Where to Invade Next early on, where it tallies our federal and state taxes and judges them to be moderately lower than those paid in the European Union, and then re-classifies our out-of-pocket expenses - on college, on medical care - as additional taxes, stating that we merely call them a different name. Under this new logic, we pay far more than other developed countries…and we don’t even get the best quality of life.
Most of this material is pretty light in and out of context, but the movie is not averse to visceral effect. When it comes time to visit Norway and Germany, the blunt instrument comes into play and we are given a stark visual reminder of the very different way in which a democratic country faces imprisonment and criminal history. A focus on criminal rehabilitation in Norway, complete with maximum security prisons that are built around health, furthering education, and abstinence from prisoner and guard abuse are contrasted sharply with horrifying video of domestic prisoners being subjected to physical abuse by guard and by animal. In Germany, we learn that every grade-school student is educated in the minutiae of the Holocaust; they are reminded of the crimes their forebears have committed, and they own it as part of their national identity. The contrasts drawn here, between Germany’s clear-eyed view of history and our tendency to sanitize our educational material - remember how slaves became workers last fall in that high-school geography textbook? - are striking, moving, and humiliating.
These moments play to the movie’s strongest narrative throughline, eloquently verbalized by a police officer in Portugal, where drug use has been decriminalized to the result of lower incidences of drug-related crime, and I slightly paraphrase: “The backbone of our society is the preservation of human dignity.” The varying threads of Moore’s documentary are all ultimately traceable back to that universal ethic, and it’s inarguable. Where to Invade Next isn’t always on footing that strong, though. At various points during the documentary, particularly segments focusing on education in Slovenia and Norway, he engages in a familiar tactic of leading his subject: applying current United States sensibility to daily European life, as a method of illustrating discrepancy and differences in perception between us and European citizens. It’s not exactly a dishonorable tactic to use, but it’s a shallow one, and it makes an already-solid concept seem flimsier than it really is.
Elsewhere, Moore employs less-defensible tactics: juxtaposing archival and historic footage of American traditions and practices (by way of Reagan, newsreel footage, old educational films, et cetera) with modern-day video clips of interviews with European school principals, heads of state, presidents, etc. The goal, I imagine, is to contrast flawed idealism with reliable pragmatism, but the weakness here is fairly obvious: we’re seeing outdated material expected to compete against updated and current material. It’s like trying to illustrate how Mac is better than Windows, by comparing El Capitan to Windows 95. There are already plenty of fairer ways to illustrate why Mac is the better operating system; you don’t need to handicap things even more.
Much of the ethic that’s talked about in the modern-day clips with European participants is being debated and examined by us now: universal healthcare, debt-free or no-cost higher education, rehabilitation, school nutrition. Some of these, in fact, are direct targets of this year’s Presidential candidates - and to a degree, different people will take different lessons away from this documentary. One of the more consistent aspects of the discrepancy between America and Europe that Where to Invade Next explores either unknowingly or extremely stealthily is the difference in cultural temperament, and how one social right applied in one country may not be able to take quite the same shape in another country. The x-factor, Where to Invade Next implies, is in the population. The European leaders understand what America does and does not share in common with their nations, but it’s the individual citizens on-camera who are most surprised to hear that maternity leave, comprehensive healthcare, and higher-quality food for our students aren’t necessarily part of the bargain. Documentaries like this are important as an incitement to progress, to start thinking in a way that allows us to take the first step.