Michael Moore made his latest movie, Where to Invade Next, on the sly, shooting abroad and keeping not just the concept but the very fact that he was working on something new off the radar. When the documentary was announced last month and slated for a world premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, it made sense to assume that Moore was onto something juicy that mandated the tight-lipped approach. Would the Oscar-winning provocateur be taking on the military-industrial complex? Government surveillance? Drone warfare?
It turns out, it's none of these things. Instead, the biggest shock that Where to Invade Next is packing is its pervasive optimism, a sentiment Moore himself describes as "crazy."
Moore got his start as a filmmaker as the hometown boy shining a light on what General Motors' outsourcing of its factories did to Flint, Michigan, in 1989's incendiary Roger & Me. After going on to tackle corporate accountability, guns, 9/11, the heath care system, and the financial crisis, Moore's baseball cap and dad jeans–wearing, joke-cracking everyman air crystalized into a dichotomous persona: the outsider finding his way into halls of power and demanding redress, and the director with considerably more calculation when it comes to the power of the polemic. But Where to Invade Next doesn't feel like the work of a gadfly. It feels, at its best, like the upbeat urgings of someone convinced large-scale change is possible and, at its worst, like the documentary equivalent of listening to someone fresh off a semester abroad gassing about how everything's just better in Europe.
It's in Europe where Where to Invade Next spends most of its time, aside from a late pit stop in Tunisia. It's barely pinned the concept of Moore, American flag flung over his shoulder, "invading" other countries and taking their best ideas back to the U.S. His spoils add up to a progressive's wish list. In Norway, he visits Bastøy Prison and touches on the concept of incarceration for rehabilitation rather than retribution. In France, he lunches at a public school and contrasts the leisurely, wholesome multicourse meal with American cafeteria fare. In Slovenia, he explores the idea of free universities, commiserating with some expats who've left the States in search of a tuitionless education oversees.
Moore's galvanizing point is that policies that may have started to seem impossibly pie-in-the-sky to the American left are in place and functioning in other parts of the world, though he doesn't skirt the fact that implementing and protecting them has involved some hard-won battles. The movie's hopefulness is heartening, but Moore's tendency to generalize and his faux-naïf approach have never rankled so much. He selected each of his stops to showcase an idea in action, so why the "aw shucks" pretense that this is all news to him?
Moore feigns awe when talking to an Italian couple about how much vacation they get a year, shakes his head in disbelief when a Finnish math teacher tells him how invested he is in his students' happiness, and quivers when Portuguese police officers express their thoughts against capital punishment. Again and again on this carefully engineered journey, he plays the ignorant abroad: The French have frank, practical sex ed? Why, in America, we teach abstinence, and you won't believe how much higher our teen pregnancy rates are!
Moore has often been accused of preaching to the choir, though that's true of any maker of overtly political documentaries. But it's not the reassuring sight of German pencil factory workers making comfortable middle-class wages or Finnish high schoolers listing all the languages they speak that Moore's selling here — anyone interested in seeing his film is likely to already be a fan of everything that's enabled their existence. What Where to Invade Next is really pitching is the illusion of the imagined viewer who's going to be as startled by all this information as Moore pretends to be and who will change his or her mind.
Moore is good when he's angry and better when he's honest, as in the heartsick opening montage of domestic news footage, or the sequence toward the end of the movie in which he reminiscences with an old friend about being in Berlin when the wall fell and about how major change can start with a few people chipping away at a problem. But Moore's not chipping away here — he's working on a bigger scale than ever, hopping from country to country and letting one or two simplistic interviews represent national policies, and corralling disparate issues under the message of people needing to take care of one another. It's a diluted, scattershot approach for a filmmaker for whom optimism may not actually be a good fit.