For folks on or near the right wing of the political spectrum, the concept of “American Exceptionalism” is an article of faith. Tea Party members and Fox News pundits feel free to lambaste American politicians as incarnations of evil, or at least of Big Government; but be prepared to duck and cover if you dare to suggest to them that some other country does something – anything, really – better than the US does. Even Donald Trump gets on the fightin’ side of some of this crowd when he proposes to “make America great again”: The “again” bit doesn’t sit so well with them.
Left-leaning documentarian Michael Moore, who seems adept at maintaining a goofy good humor in spite of being a popular lightning rod for opprobrium from the right-wing media, has a somewhat different take on what constitutes patriotism. For him, it’s about citizen activism – about individuals doing whatever they can to make America a better place, rather than boasting that it’s already the best.
In his 2007 film Sicko, Moore contrasted the national health care systems of four other countries with cases of individuals denied health care in the US and examined the role of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries in creating a market system where there is little incentive besides profit to enhance public health. His latest effort, Where to Invade Next, takes that inquiry several steps further, using interviews in eight other countries to examine a wide variety of ways in which their residents enjoy a superior quality of life.
Proceeding from a fantasy premise in which the Joint Chiefs of Staff admit that they keep losing wars and beg Moore for his advice on what foreign forays might have a greater guarantee of success, the filmmaker “volunteers” to mount one-man invasions of several nations to plant his flag and carry home examples of their best ideas. Wherever he goes, interviewing factory workers, schoolteachers, law enforcement officers, business owners, politicians and students, Moore encounters people shaking their heads in disbelief that Americans are willing to live without the advantages that they take for granted.
In Italy, he finds that blue-collar workers routinely get eight weeks of vacation per year, two-hour lunch breaks and five months of maternity leave, and that factory-owners consider this largesse a good investment in their employees’ health. Children in French public schools are fed gourmet meals and turn up their noses in revulsion at pictures of American cafeteria pizza, chicken nuggets and Mystery Meat. He visits Norwegian prisons where inmates receive strikingly humane treatment focused on rehabilitation, resulting in an enviably low rate of recidivism. Finnish educators explain how they turned their failing school system into the top one in the entire world by eliminating nearly all homework and standardized testing. Portugal’s drug czar tells Moore how rates of addiction and crime have plummeted in the 15 years since the country decriminalized possession of all drugs.
In Slovenia, everyone can get a free college education – even students from America. Germans confront and acknowledge the dark side of their history on a daily basis and use it as a motivator to be better world citizens. Free health care for women in Tunisia includes abortion on demand, and when asked about gay marriage, a conservative Muslim politician says that the government has no business in anyone’s bedroom. And in Iceland, we meet the world’s first female elected head of state, former president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, and learned how a bank owned and run primarily by women was the only one not to topple in the country’s 2008 financial crisis.
In each of these interviews, Moore plays the devil’s advocate, asking people if they wouldn’t rather live in the US instead, and most look at him like he’s nuts. And indeed, as they accumulate onscreen, the perqs of living in these alternative systems can’t fail to whet the envy of even a diehard American Exceptionalist. But Moore doesn’t leave it at that. He points out – with help from many of his interview subjects – that pretty much all of these “great ideas” that Moore the Invader comes to “steal” are in fact principles that got their start in America, but have somehow been swept aside. He concludes that reclaiming them here might not be such an impossible goal to achieve, after all.
Though at times it addresses some dark topics, Where to Invade Next is by far the sunniest, most upbeat of Michael Moore’s confrontational oeuvre, liberally laced with satirical humor that is more tongue-in-cheek than laugh-out-loud. Though unabashedly an example of advocacy journalism, it doesn’t come across as terribly polemical. It’s entirely possible to imagine Trump supporters and Libertarians cheering the screen right alongside those viewers who are feeling the Bern. I recommend that you check it out – and take along your grouchy old Archie Bunker uncle. An enlightening conversation on the trip home from the movie theater is just about guaranteed.
Where to Invade Next is currently playing at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck. Upstate Films is located at 6415 Montgomery Street in Rhinebeck. For more info call (845) 876-2515 or visit https://upstatefilms.org.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.