“I've turned into this kind of crazy optimist,” Michael Moore admits in his new documentary Where to Invade Next, his first film in six years. At 61, the gadfly savant has mellowed. Instead of charging into rooms, he shuffles, the American flag wrapped around his shoulders like a grandmother's shawl.
Conservatives reject Moore because he publicly rejects them, as in his furious triptych Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko. Liberals shun him, too, believing that his antics make them look ridiculous. Moore fudges the facts to prove a truth. He shouts to get audiences to listen. Though a silent majority of Americans wanted universal health care, only Michael Moore ferried sick 9/11 rescue workers to free clinics in Cuba. But that's his calling. Moore martyrs himself in the court of public opinion to make other liberals look reasonable.
Where to Invade Next opens like a sloppy stunt. Moore pretends that the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, wounded by their losses and pyrrhic victories in every war since Korea, finally asked him for advice. Replies Moore, “Instead of using Marines, use me.” The doc bursts into a montage of American sins: bank scandals, wrongful convictions, murdered abortion doctors, housing foreclosures. It's like Moore's best-of album, remixed. Over Bill Clinton's 20-year-old State of the Union promise, “This country will hunt down terrorists and bring them to justice,” Moore splices in this summer's Texas cop crushing a 14-year-old black teenager in a bikini. His hits are hasty and scattered. Did Moore discharge the Marines just to misfire his own shotgun?
Conceit introduced, Moore sails east on the S.S. Ronald Reagan to conquer Europe's best ideas. He visits the continent's happier and more successful factories, schools and jails, where he literally plants the American flag and demands to take their innovation home. The Europeans awkwardly nod.
First, Moore visits a working-class Italian couple who live like Kardashians with eight paid weeks of vacation. When he tells them many Americans are lucky to get two, the wife gasps, “A year?!” Moore asks an Italian CEO why she shares her wealth. She insists that she doesn't want to be richer at the cost of her employees' happiness.
The American cynic in us gags — that's the type of slogan we expect GE to pledge in a Super Bowl ad right before slashing jobs. Yet Moore, a cynic disguised as an idealist, is still playing the naif who can't imagine why General Motors CEO Roger Smith ducks his questions. But in Where to Invade Next, Moore has stopped being cynical altogether. He's sincere — a noble fool willing to ask questions we've abandoned. When the German middle class lives well on a 36-hour work week, he wants to know why Americans have settled for less. The United States popularized the concept of the American Dream. How did that dream become more real in Europe? Why have we stopped asking for more?
Here at the Toronto International Film Festival, Where to Invade Next premiered on foreign soil to a global audience. The theater was packed. When Moore “invaded” France, with a joke about the country's limp defense, the Parisian next to me roared. In France, Moore discovered that the average school public cafeteria considers lunch a class, serving scallops on actual plates and stocking 80 types of cheese. (The chef says the kids adore Camembert.) The enfants at Moore's table were terrified of his photos of U.S. school lunches and uninterested in sharing his Coke. Yes, the French pay for their social benefits with higher taxes. But they don't pay tuition, co-pays, deductibles. “We don't call them taxes," Moore says of those expenses, “but they are, and we pay a whole lot more than the French.”
Moore is curious about other countries' solutions to our seemingly permanent problems. Finland improved its schools by slashing homework. Slovenian students demanded free college. Portugal cut down on drug addiction by legalizing drugs. “I have cocaine in my pocket right now,” Moore tells a Lisbon cop. “Lots of it.” The officer shrugs. Norway treats felons like friends — even a maximum-security inmate has the key to his cell — and its recidivism rate is just 20 percent. (Ours is 82 percent.) When the Icelandic banks collapsed, the bankers went to jail. And Tunisian women won free female health care from a conservative Islamist government. Meanwhile, in Texas women are being stripped of family planning clinics by a conservative Christian state.
As Moore treks on, his question expands from, “What does your country get right?” to “What concepts does America have wrong?” A few: First, Americans don't cooperate, we compete. Second, women are underrepresented in powerful positions. (A plug for Hillary Clinton? “I believe it’s very possible with her as president that we are going to have a Pope Francis moment,” said Moore after the screening to The Hollywood Reporter.) Third, Americans have stopped protesting. Finally, above all, Americans have stopped believing that change is possible — the cynicism we're choking on is fatal.
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“I know a lot about you guys,” says a Tunisian female-rights activist to the Americans behind Moore's camera. Yet Americans know very little about them — no matter that there's much they could teach. Even here at this international film festival, how many people are showing up for docs about fixing North Africa?
But Moore has his own audience problem. His idiot Everyman shtick has never won over undecided voters. They don't even buy tickets to his films. He makes movies in order for liberals who tolerate him to celebrate his ideas. The audience for Where to Invade Next does't need a gimmick — especially not Moore clanging a flagpole on a concrete floor. It needs inspiration.
Moore finally finds hope with a visit to the Berlin Wall. Thankfully, he doesn't bother to brandish his huckster Stars and Stripes. He just talks plainly about his past. Moore was there in 1989 when the Wall fell. He saw firsthand that a few people who dare to chip away at a stone rule can tear the whole thing down. A month later, Roger & Me would make him America's most famous pest. You sense that Moore, a new filmmaker and sudden celebrity, split himself in two. The public Moore kept up the dumb, brash persona. But the true Moore — the kind of passionate global citizen who would even visit 1989 Berlin — continued to believe in the impossible.
By exposing his soft belly, the aging documentarian is re-conquering his own legacy. He's spent 25 years bellowing about our problems. Now, it's time to solve them. If we don't think we can, just remember Berlin. An act like that isn't just recent European history — it happened this year at home when Bree Newsome strapped on rappelling gear and took down South Carolina's Confederate flag. In this film, that's the only flag that matters.