We all know what to expect from a Michael Moore film: snark. Though politically pointed and frequently hilarious, Moore’s bad attitude has been offending viewers ever since his groundbreaking boob tube series ‘TV Nation’ aired for a single season in 1994 (who can ever forget the Serbo-Croatian peace process pizza party?).
Now comes Moore’s latest feature, Where to Invade Next (opening at Landmark’s California Theatre on Friday, Feb. 12). Has the enfant terrible of documentary filmmaking toned things down since his last polemic, 2009’s Wall Street takedown Capitalism: A Love Story — or is his passive-aggressive sarcasm still in full flower?
The first five minutes of Where to Invade Next suggest that little to nothing has changed in Moore-land. Beginning with patriotic imagery, martial drumbeats, and a fictional visit to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the film seems intent on repeating themes previously examined in Fahrenheit 9/11.
Despite its suggestive title, however, Where to Invade Next is not about the military-industrial complex or the sorrows of empire. Instead, Moore frames the film as his personal ‘invasion’ of a dozen countries, his goal being the appropriation of a treasure chest of ‘good ideas’ that he’ll bring home as war booty for the betterment of American society.
As in most Moore films, his scattershot approach renders some segments more successful than others. A meditation on Italian working conditions (eight weeks vacation a year, two-hour paid lunch breaks, five months paid maternity leave) offers a predictable (though thoroughly accurate) lament on the mistreatment of American workers, while a trip to Finland — where we learn how the Finns have the world’s top-ranked education system (hint: homework and standardized testing aren’t involved) — is much more enlightening.
There are other interesting surprises. A look at the Norwegian penal system offers revelatory insights into the ways other countries treat convicts, and a sojourn in Tunisia reveals that, not only are women’s health clinics and abortion free to all in that North African country, the Tunisian constitution even includes an Equal Rights Amendment similar to the one American women have been denied for decades.
Moore states early on that his film is about “picking the flowers, not the weeds,” and surely there are a few tufts of crabgrass in even the most well-tended of these gardens. One suspects the Tunisian constitution doesn’t walk the walk quite as well as it talks the talk, for example, but one could also be wrong: based on the evidence here, it’s impossible to tell.
Where to Invade Next is at its best when examining the rotten truth at the heart of American mythology — that ‘freedom’ is only for the few, while the many live with bad working conditions, decaying infrastructure, systemic racism, and a a massively bloated military that soaks up almost 60% of our tax dollars. Though unlikely to be a huge commercial success (those days ended when George W. Bush left office), the film will still satisfy Moore’s considerable fan base — and who knows, it might even convince you to move to Slovenia for the free college education.
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