Michael Moore looks for answers abroad in ‘Where to Invade Next’

Sunday, February 14, 2016 - 5:25pm

“Oh, we live in sick times, sick, sick times.” About two minutes into his 1997 film “The Big One,” documentarian Michael Moore (“Roger & Me”) relays his political outlook to an audience at Northwestern University. During the presidential campaign that year, Moore had sent $100 checks signed by groups with objectionable names (Pedophiles for Free Trade and Abortionists for [Pat] Buchanan are two examples) to each of the four prominent candidates at the time. “And who do you think cashed the check first?” Moore asks the audience.

Nearly 20 years later, in his new documentary, “Where to Invade Next,” Moore is as unabashedly progressive as ever. This film, though, takes a more subversive path. While Moore’s previous films prominently featured the documentarian and his crew attempting to speak to CEOs at their offices to question their efforts to outsource labor and lay off American workers during record profits, “Where to Invade Next” finds Moore off American soil, seeking to improve America by “invading” other nations and claiming their ideas as our own. Moore finds himself speaking to Italian business executives and Portuguese police officers, Norwegian prison guards and Icelandic politicians.

“Where to Invade Next” is endlessly hopeful. Though each interview features cutaways to relevant tragedies in contemporary American history, the end of each segment seems to stare into the eyes of Americans and say, “We can do this. We can fix these problems.” And while Michael Moore could have cemented his work’s legacy as a response to Bush-era politics, “Where to Invade Next” finds relevance in the still-unsolved problems in American politics and society over the last few decades. Labor, education, nutrition, student debt, drugs, prisons and women’s rights are all discussed, and it is in this way that Moore creates his most relevant film in some time. His ability to touch on all these matters with a heightened sophistication — rather than attempting to ambush executives to identify problems, here he talks to problem solvers who discuss their solutions — demonstrates his dedication to actually address these issues in the real world, beyond the cinemas.

And although he’s more sophisticated, Moore is still his acerbic, subversive self. By framing the film as a form of non-violent and self-serving imperialism, Moore not-so-subtly reminds his audience that the practice of invading nations to steal their good ideas can be as American as actual military invasion. “Make Love, Not War” becomes “Steal Ideas, Not Lives.” And as we learn near the conclusion of the film, these ideas all came out of America in the first place. The Norwegian practice of putting prisoners in more trusting and friendly prisons was adapted from America’s 8th Amendment, forbidding cruel and unusual punishment. Tunisia’s recent wave of women’s rights bills was inspired by the Equal Rights Amendment, which was heavily debated in 1972 but never passed.

At 119 minutes, “Where to Invade Next” certainly drags and feels redundant, especially later in the film. We see two different segments on labor rights, two different segments on education and two different segments on women’s rights. Moore’s unapologetic progressivism also prevents him, and us, from effectively understanding the complexities of each issue. Sure, these are great solutions for these countries, but what are the drawbacks? What are the sacrifices? Would these solutions work in America? Further, what should we do about it? Those with the foresight to stay through the credits will be able to see what Moore makes of his ending message of guidance, but for all the solutions Moore provides, he ends the documentary without guiding the audience to knowing how to actually institute these changes. The important questions are left unanswered, perhaps strategically so, to leave a slightly disillusioned aftertaste.

Still, “Where to Invade Next” shows Moore at his most poignant. One particular scene features a German school, with young students learning about the Holocaust. Their education teaches them to be critical of their government, but the students are no less proud of their country. They’re Germans who are aware their government failed their people and other countries’ people in the past. This scene is an apt analogy for Michael Moore and his relationship with America; regardless of one’s opinion of him, it’s hard to deny that Moore doesn’t have its citizens’ best interests at heart.