Michael Moore’s latest documentary, “Where to Invade Next,” is a sprawling, didactic polemic wittily disguised as a European travelogue. Watching it made me feel like a deprived child with my nose pressed against the glass of a magical toy store in a faraway land. On one side is a happy, harmonious land of productive people. On the other is a world of misery, anxiety, war and greed.
As Mr. Moore “invades” one country and then the next, beginning in Italy and ending in Iceland, you begin to suspect that heaven on earth is anywhere but in America — unless, of course, you belong to the top 1 percent.
The film’s premise is only half serious and wildly exaggerated, but there is enough truth in it to make you squirm and consider what went wrong. Every country has problems, many of them very serious. (The film was completed before the migrant crisis in Europe.)
“Where to Invade Next” is really a fairy tale with a moral. As Mr. Moore visits European schools, workplaces, hospitals and prisons, the movie builds into a cri de coeur about America’s weakening social contract: the widening inequality gap, the disappearing middle class and a military-based economy. “A land of we,” one talking head remarks, has transformed into a “land of me.”
At the beginning of the film, Mr. Moore fantasizes being summoned for advice by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose members, he imagines, are perplexed by America’s having lost so many wars since World War II. Oh, what to do? Although he doesn’t try to answer that question, the movie strongly implies that funding America’s military is starving the country of money that would be better devoted to humanitarian endeavors. With a camera crew in tow, he tours Europe, with a side trip to Tunisia, looking for solutions to our social ills that he can bring back home.
Mr. Moore, who wrote, directed and produced the film, is his usual screen alter-ego, a glib, blue-collar Everyman lumbering along and playing naïve when it helps make his point. There are none of the ambushes of those he sees as high-level villains that he staged in previous documentaries. There may be too much music and newsreel bloat, but “Where to Invade Next” is nevertheless stirring.
His examples of progressive European social institutions are cherry-picked to make American audiences feel envious and guilty. In a running joke he notes that many progressive European ideas and policies originated in the United States.
In Italy, Mr. Moore interviews a radiant couple; they love their work in a furniture factory, where the employees have more than 30 days of paid vacation every year. Across Italy, mothers have five months of paid maternity leave.
The next stop is France, where he visits a public school that serves multicourse, high-quality lunches to its students. Shown images of the typical slop served at a public school in the United States, the students recoil. In Finland, a country whose students are among the world’s best educated, he learns that little to no homework is assigned, standardized testing is a rarity and education is based on learning an array of skills with the emphasis on the growth of the whole person.
In Slovenia, he discovers that college education is not only free but also available to foreign students (though students pay small registration fees to the colleges). In Germany, the workers in a thriving pencil factory are sent to a spa when they feel overstressed.
At around this point, “Where to Invade Next” becomes more serious and its critical attitude sharpens. Mr. Moore believes that every country has its own original sin, which in the case of Germany would be the Holocaust. In atonement, along with concerted efforts at remembrance, Germans are continually reminded of the country’s Nazi horrors in monuments, landmarks and public art.
America’s original sins, Mr. Moore says, are the genocide of its native population and slavery, tragedies with which, he says, the country is still unable to come to terms. The mass incarceration of African-Americans for petty drug crimes, he suggests, is slavery in a new guise. The movie’s most unsettling images are familiar from newscasts: black people, in and out of prison, being savagely abused by white police officers.
“Where to Invade Next” becomes almost giddily optimistic once Mr. Moore visits Norway to investigate that country’s prisons; the maximum sentence is 21 years. Even convicted murderers are housed in the equivalent of small Manhattan studio apartments equipped with televisions and cookware, even sharp utensils. No one is locked in solitary confinement, prisoners have a lot of mobility and the principal punishment is separation from the rest of society.
In Iceland (population around 320,000), the recent global financial crisis gutted the economy, which quickly recovered with the help of tourism, the mending of the domestic banking system and debt restructuring. The key to the country’s resilience and stability, Mr. Moore concludes, is its strong female leadership, and he goes on to suggest that testosterone drives a patriarchal society to violence and irrational risk-taking. In his view, the world would be peaceful and just if women were in charge.
As for the future, Mr. Moore points out, enormous positive change often happens suddenly and with little warning. His best example of this is the fall of Communism and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Behind despair lurks hope.