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Where to Invade Next - review

May 23, 2016 Film & TV

Early in his new documentary, Michael Moore strings together a series of news clips illustrating America’s various social policy failures. Tense, hushed music plays underneath them.

The music goes unreferenced, but it’s from the soundtrack to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, in which a grieving man raids the dreams of strangers in a quest to be allowed back into America.

Little-known fact about Moore: he once enrolled to study journalism. Unsurprising footnote: he dropped out. He has spent the past 25 years being the American left’s answer to Rush Limbaugh, or, if you prefer a local point of reference, to Mike Hosking: shamelessly partisan, intellectually bankrupt, no cheap laugh beneath him. I agree with Moore about most things, which is why his films generally drive me crazy.

Where to Invade Next is a surprise in a couple of ways. First, it isn’t the film its title seems to threaten. The opening minutes do contain a brief account of America’s inglorious recent military history, but only by way of setting up Moore’s central conceit: the armed forces, he suggests, should stand down. All future invasions will be conducted by a one-man strike force. Don’t send in the Marines. “Send in me.” He will tour the globe looking for the things America really needs ­— good social policies — and he will bring them home to a grateful nation.

And so he does. The film is a utopian travelogue, threading together brief visits to Italy, France, Finland, Germany, Norway, Tunisia, Slovenia, Portugal, Iceland. In each country, Moore finds a simple idea that works. Free education. Nutritionally sound school lunches. Paid parental leave. Yes, he concedes, during his Italian stopover, these countries all have their own problems. “But I’m here to pick the flowers, not the weeds”.

The second unexpected thing about this film is that it’s lovely. Warm hearted, inspiring, largely devoid of Moore’s usual cheap shots.

The second unexpected thing about this film is that it’s lovely. Warm hearted, inspiring, largely devoid of Moore’s usual cheap shots. There are hard questions he’s careful not to ask – his interest in Portugal’s drug decriminalisation laws, for instance, is purely focused on their existence, not on the years of struggle it took to make them work. There are also moments where his determination to ignore obvious counter-examples becomes distracting. (During his investigation of everything other countries can learn from Iceland’s tradition of strong female leadership, he displays a remarkable ability to skirt around the inconvenient words “Margaret Thatcher”).

But with all this said, there’s still something intoxicating about Moore’s project. The people he interviews are so happy to be given a chance to talk about the things their countries do that make them proud, and they’re not just indulging in empty-headed patriotism: the pride is justified. Norway’s criminal justice system and Finland’s education system, in particular, are achievements worth talking up.

Perhaps Moore’s suggestion that America – and, by extension, the rest of us – may be persuaded to adopt the best international models for its major social institutions is unrealistic. But “unrealistic” is a dangerous word. One of the strongest arguments in this film has to do with our collective failure to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sometimes what appears to be hard-headed realism is actually failure of imagination. Sometimes – and maybe this is what that musical quote from Inception is there to hint at – other people’s dreams can be the road to a better reality. As Moore puts it, “If they can do it, surely we can?”


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