I feel guilty for criticizing Michael Moore and his latest documentary “Where to Invade Next” for an excess of xenophilia, especially at this ugly moment in American politics. But I’ve long been annoyed by his tendency to romanticize Canada and Europe.
In “Sicko,” his gushing over all the social services provided by the French government to its citizens somehow avoided the unpleasantness of any engagement with unemployed Arab men in Paris’ suburban ghettos. “Bowling for Columbine” talked to African-American visitors to Canada about that country’s lack of racism but shied away from speaking with any indigenous Canadians about their run-ins with the cops. “Where to Invade Next” has a refreshing optimism regarding the state of the world, but it also views Europe (along with a token jaunt to Tunisia) via rose-colored glasses.
Moore kicks off with a clumsy use of still images of military leaders calling on him to decide how to solve America’s many problems. These issues are illustrated in news clips and audio soundbites, mostly from George W. Bush. Then Moore decides to “invade” Europe in search of good ideas to bring back to the US. These range from healthy school lunches in France to drug decriminalization in Portugal to extremely comfortable minimum security prisons in Norway.
In his first “invasion” of Italy, Moore acknowledges “Italy has problems. All countries do. I’m looking for the flowers, not the weeds.” The problem with this approach is that it winds up picking over European culture solely for what nuggets appeal to American progressives. With its culture of 21-year maximum prison sentences and emphasis on rehabilitation over punishment (leading to only 20 percent recidivism, Moore says), how did Norway produce an Anders Behring Breivik — or, before him, murderous neo-Nazi rock musician Varg Vikernes and a heavy metal scene full of rockers who burned down churches as a weekend hobby — in the first place?
The film’s low point comes when Moore interviews the father of one of the mass murderer’s victims and tries to talk him into declaring a desire to avenge his son. Obviously, Moore isn’t trying very hard, and resistance to revenge and the death penalty isn’t only a Norwegian — or European — concept.
Moore shows German schools so devoted to the lessons of the Holocaust that a dark-skinned immigrant named Sami Ahmed, who’s only recently become a German citizen, says he feels responsible for this part of the country’s history. He doesn’t discuss the rise of the far right in Germany, particularly in the poorer regions in the former East Germany, or anywhere else in Europe. While thirsting after American school history lessons that would take into account our country’s foundation on slavery and genocide, he never asks the difficult questions of whether feeding millennials a steady diet of their ancestors’ sins can lead to a nasty backlash or if it’s healthy for a teenager of color like Ahmed to feel implicated in a history that ended long before he was born and that his great-grandparents took no part in.
Moore is a polarizing figure on both the left and right, and not always for good reasons. Whether or not he’s a nice person has little to do with whether his films are factually correct — and, for that matter, most of the fact-checkers of “Sicko” had ulterior motives far more malign than Moore’s. Many of Moore’s critics act as though fat jokes are a true riposte to his points. Even if I find his faux-naif persona grating, he’s worth taking seriously if only because he put the American documentary on the map of our pop culture.
However, there’s a book that does the work of “Where to Invade Next” much better. Written by Danish-based, British-born journalist Michael Booth, “The Almost Nearly Perfect People” sets out to find cracks in the social democratic utopian façade of Scandinavia; while it does indeed do so, it still winds up suggesting that the Scandinavian countries are pretty good role models for the rest of the world. Such a balanced take is alien to Moore’s film. His view of the US here is utterly dystopian — mentioning the legalization of marijuana in four American states would be relevant to its Portuguese segment but would also conflict with its depiction of American life as All Prohibition, All The Time — until it tries to rally an upbeat, idealistic ending. “Where to Invade Next” winds up having a great deal in common with the Hollywood schmaltz to which documentaries supposedly offer an alternative.
WHERE TO INVADE NEXT | Directed by Michael Moore | IMG Films | Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston at Mercer St. | angelikafi