Just Folks
by Violet Lucca

Where to Invade Next
Dir. Michael Moore, U.S., Distributor Name Unannounced

Like all great showmen, Michael Moore knows to make his audience wait. In his introduction for the first public New York Film Festival screening of Where to Invade Next, Moore—in his Everyday Midwesterner uniform (gym shoes, ultra-baggy jeans, wrinkled black t-shirt, and camo trucker hat)—regaled the eager crowd for ten or so minutes. At one point he talked about how he’d installed an empty theater seat inside the van that he and his crew drove across Europe while making Where to Invade Next—to remind them for whom they were really making the film. As the well heeled around me burst into applause—possibly because, like those poor deluded people in Kansas who go red, they also enjoy voting against their economic self-interests by choosing Democrats—I didn’t feel lost or misrepresented, but like I was in a time warp. Didn’t we move past this conceited liberalism when Air America went off the air?

His tedious remarks adequately prepared us for the maudlin, smug, unfunny, and needlessly broad approach to America and Her Problems on display in Where to Invade Next. The fictional conceit of the documentary at first seems self-critiquing enough to be promising: after years of failed, expensive military operations (as credited in the film, Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq), the government decided to change their approach. On January 2, 2015, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and heads of the armed forces summoned Moore to the Pentagon, and asked him to be the first wave of all future invasions on behalf of the U.S. (Although it goes unsaid, Moore’s penchant for aggressively following people with whom he hasn’t scheduled interviews and insisting that they talk to him had gotten him some cred with the feds.) “No more invasions, no more using drones as wedding crashers,” Moore’s voiceover peacefully croons over black-and-white video footage of a building in some unidentified desert land being blown up. “For we have problems that no one can solve.” As the music—think Inception noise—crescendos, the voiceover falls away and a typically Mooresian found-footage montage kicks off: a toddler gets frisked by a TSA agent; officer David Casebolt wrestles a teenage girl in a bikini to the ground at the now-infamous McKinney, Texas, pool party; Occupy protesters march; Eric Garner is held in the chokehold that ended his life; a puffy-haired journalist reports that soldiers serving abroad have had their home illegally foreclosed on; protesters chant and run through the streets of Ferguson.

These are images that should not be used lightly. But instead of following this salvo with anything substantive, Moore instead assumes a dopey “ugly American” persona and travels to Italy where “everyone looks like they just had sex.” He’s there to investigate why these nubile dagos have so much time off from their jobs, visiting the Lardini (luxury clothes) and Ducati (luxury motorbikes) factory owners and employees and a tanned, fit married couple without children. As is true of the film’s many arbitrary or nonexistent transitions, the exact connection between increased beach time/lovemaking and decreased police brutality/entrenched racism goes unexplained. Moore’s approach to feature filmmaking has always contained a TV-segment quality, and his editing style often feels like he’s flipping the channels for us. After a series of cutesy interviews that underscore how great work culture in Italy is, Moore decides to steal the idea of paid vacation and maternity leave for us, and plants the U.S. flag on the Ducati assembly line, an unspoken callback to the long-deceased plants of Flint, Michigan. There’s no mention of Italy’s massive unemployment rate, the legacy of its extended periods of violent political unrest (be it the Risorgimento or the Years of Lead), fascist(ic) heads of state, or its culture of accepting/attributing everything to the existence of corruption while also expecting that the government will provide a great deal for the people. In short, it relates a trip to Italy the way in which a dopey, ugly American would: by only mentioning the parts of the experience that prop up their worldview, and not even registering anything that complicates that understanding. Moore issues a blithe, folksy non-apology for this rhetorical failure in voiceover: “Italy has its problems, like all countries. But I’m here to pick the flowers, not the weeds.”

Of course, acknowledging a problem exists doesn’t actually solve the problem. Like Jon Stewart (a comedian who made millions by reading the news and then making a face) or Bill Maher (a comedian who made millions by bullying jerk pundits and other ill-informed celebrities), Moore diverts criticism—and increases the palatability of his messaging—by hiding behind humor. Yet much of Where to Invade Next isn’t really that funny, as it mostly contains groaners straight out of the sort of “FWD: FWD: RE: BUSH JOKES” emails you’d see in your inbox circa 2003: when the president of the University of Slovenia reveals that their alphabet only contains 25 letters (they don’t use “w”), Moore asks, “Did you cut out ‘w’ while Bush was president?” (A dated approach calls for dated jokes, it seems.) Far worse are the times when, as an infotainment man does, Moore tries to have it both ways. While investigating Norway’s radically humane prison system, Moore shows the welcome video to a maximum-security facility: a karaoke version of “We Are the World,” sung by the warden and guards. In and of itself, the video makes clear the differing attitudes about punishment and institutionalization in Norway. But this isn’t enough for Moore, who puts their song over a grisly montage of extreme police brutality in the U.S. Unidentified through text or voiceover, this suffering, visited upon (mostly black) prisoners, serves as a darkly comic counterpoint—which means that they’re dehumanized twice. A similar problem occurs when Moore states that in the German education system, students are taught every day about the Holocaust (something that is absolutely not true), and then suggests that perhaps we’d be a better country if we atoned for our historical sins while showing photos of (again unidentified) men being lynched. Of all the “flowers” Moore chooses to pick, this one is perhaps the easiest and most reasonable—but it’s undermined in three seconds by misrepresentation, sloppy ethics, and evidence of the racism it’s standing against.

Is this project fundamentally a disservice to all the liberal ideas Moore’s championing? The short answer: yes. Throughout the other parts of his European vacation—France for school lunches and sex ed, Finland for no homework and no private schools, Portugal for the decriminalization of drug use, Norway for better prisons, Iceland for gender equality in business and politics—and a lone North African interlude to Tunisia for reproductive rights (and to generally challenge stereotypes about Muslims), all sorts of cities, people, and places go un- or under-identified, and countless facts are flubbed. (He even manages to misrepresent the timeline of gay marriage in the U.S., saying that only three years ago it seemed like it would never happen—even though Iowa, New Hampshire, and Vermont had legalized it back in 2009.) Moore cheerily floats along on idealism, and, at the end, walks next to the remains of the Berlin Wall with a friend who witnessed its fall. He breathlessly ponders the impossibility of its demise, but then has a gee whiz moment: when he really thought about it (yes, this weird tense shift exists in the voiceover), it turns out that these crazy European ideas are actually based off of things that once existed in America (like Finland, we also used to have no homework), or were inspired by things that happened in America (the Haymarket Riots are linked to Italy’s amore for vacations) and are in our constitution (equality).

Where to Invade Next closes on Judy Garland clicking her glittering red heels to go back to Kansas. Really, this is the perfect image for an uplifting message of hope that contains zero practical follow through, delivered with a thick veneer of fabrication. I’d rather have Bill Gates write a check.