"I think people are expecting Edward Snowden to walk out on stage right now," Michael Moore joked from the stage at the Toronto International Film Festival, in an introduction that doubled as a public apology. He understood that, when you name your latest project Where to Invade Next and slap a kitschy picture of the Joint Chiefs of Staff above your fest's catalog blurb, it's bound to suggest any number of things: a take-no-prisoners takedown of America's military-industrial complex; a scathing indictment of our nation's perpetual-war fetish; how the government sends its soldiers into war and then ignores them once they come back home. (These were simply the three most popular rumors about the movie leading up to its premiere; there were dozens of others.) The fact that virtually no one knew the 61-year-old cinematic muckraker was even making a movie until it was announced as one of the event's opening night selections attests to how under-the-radar the project has been since he'd started on it last year.
As Moore sheepishly admitted to the audience, however, Invade is none of these things. "I'm not exposing NSA secrets," he declared. "I have to say that out loud." Rather, what the Fahrenheit 9/11 director presented was his own socially conscious variation on Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad. After a bit of misdirection involving the filmmaker being "summoned" by the Pentagon (sayeth the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the subject of occupying foreign countries: "We don't know what the fuck we're doing"), he tells the assembled brass that from now on, "I'll do the invading." So off Moore goes to numerous pictureseque places, examining things that our European neighbors do right: worker-friendly factories in Italy, a humane prison system in Norway, healthy school lunches in France, a different attitude towards the war on drugs in Portugal, tuition-free college in Finland and so on. He then plants an American flag in these countries, claiming these ideas for the good ol' U.S. of A. — a satirical imperialism dedicated to pilfering progressive ideologies for "the common good."
Despite the fact that Where to Invade Next has all the hallmarks of a typical Moore movie (rhetorical flourishes that lean to the far-left, ironic narration, a wicked sense of humor), his first new film since 2009's Capitalism: A Love Story displays a kinder, somewhat gentler version of his usual gonzo style, one laced with a sense of uncharacteristic optimism instead of boiling-over outrage. The morning after the film's premiere, the filmmaker — bleary-eyed and checking his BlackBerry as distributors circled to buy his self-produced movie — talked about why Americans should be open to better ways of doing things, why the "dinosaurs" and "performance artists" of the political right are courting extinction and
Was there a particular call-to-action moment that inspired this?
How about it's just enough that it'd been a long while since I'd made a movie and I felt like making one? Why did the guy who made Birdman want to make a movie?
Okay, sure, it'd been six years — but let me rephrase this: You could have made a movie about anything…
…And I made a film about virtually everything. It was an attempt to make a film about the United States without actually going to the U.S. How do you show us without actually showing us? To quote a famous Canadian rock band: Why are we here? Because we're here. [Pause] Roll the bones.
I genuinely thought you were going to say "Fight the good fight, everybody."
[Laughs] The reviews have been nice so far, but I've noticed people have been focusing on the fact that it doesn't focus on one theme or a central subject matter. You know, at the end of every year, they put out that Best American Short Stories anthology — and I love those. I buy them every year. There's no thread there, except good writing. You could say there were nine short films in one feature-film format.
Except there's a bit more of a connection here.
As in I'm a humorist "invading" all these countries, yeah. I mean, when the Pentagon decides they're going occupy these places, do they consult a travel agent? Why go to Iraq when there's the South of France and the fjords of Norway? If we're going to send our troops somewhere, let's send them somewhere nice! Let's invade Europe.
When we invade a country, why do we do it? These days, it's because we want something from that country. Now, rather than go back to being the complete isolationists we were before Pearl Harbor, we said to ourselves: What if there were other good things beside oil that we need, and what if we approached the countries that seem to be doing these things right and get some for ourselves, without killing anyone in the process? The great thing about the National Health Service in Britain or Finland's education system is that they've been doing this for decades. They've done the trial-and-error phases for us. We don't have to be guinea pigs.
"You're talking about a species that's dying. The angry white men who've run things for so long…they know their days are numbered."
And many of these concepts were taken from our own ideas, as you point out in the movie, right?
If not directly from specific ideas, like the progressive education idea that one of the Finnish teachers brings up, then certainly from the philosophies espoused by the founding fathers of this country. How about starting with the very first American word — the one that kicks off our Constitution? It's "we." In that one sentence we call the preamble, it has "we," "welfare," "union," "the common good"…
Throw in "socialism and you'd have a far-right–winger's nightmare.
I guarantee you, if socialism had been a word then, it would have been in there! It's all "we, the people," not "go out and make a killing." These other countries now believe more in our original ideology more than we do. That's depressing.
There will still be people who watch this film and go, "Well, he's just peddling his ‘America sucks' ideology, and…
Really? Who are these people? Tell me their names. I want a list.
We could start with Roger Ailes and work our way down, I guess.
You're talking about a species that's dying. Roger Ailes is the biggest dinosaur of that bunch, and they are on their way out. They know it, too. The angry white men who've run things for so long…they know their days are numbered. They know you can't win a national election without appealing to women, people of color and young people — three constituencies that the Republican party have completely lost.
Except there are over a dozen candidates vying for the GOP slot for the presidency, and the majority of them fit that angry-white-man description to a tee, Michael.
I don't consider them candidates. I consider them performance artists; the reason Donald Trump is leading in the polls is that his shtick is the best.
Still, some people will have a knee-jerk reaction to this sight unseen, don't you think?
Of course, but hopefully enough people will pick up on the fact that I'm not saying these countries I'm traveling to are perfect. I'm very deliberately cherry-picking things that they are doing right and saying, let's take a look at how they're handling this and learn from it. I cherry-pick stuff all day, whether I'm buying a pair of shorts or, you know, "I don't want to sit with those people at work, they're mean. I'll sit over here." [Laughs] You do the same thing. So do most folks. There was a line I said at the film's premiere that I should add into the film" "I went to pick the flowers and not the weeds."
So how do you decide how selective you're going to be when you present your cherry-picked results? You talk about Italy's worker-friendly environment but don't mention the economy or Berlusconi's legacy.
You briefly mention Iran's stem-cell research — which, honestly, is not the first thing you think of when you think of Iran.
But that's why I'm mentioning it. The country clearly has more going on than that, but how many people here even knew they were also doing pioneering research in this field? If we didn't have a President for eight years — I'm talking 2000-2008 — who wasn't opposed to science and wasn't just plain dumb, think of how far we'd be in our own research. Think of how many people would not have died. We lost eight years and a lot of lives because of this. So I'm not saying we should model ourselves on Iran, but we could pay attention to what they are doing in that particular field, for sure.
Look, one of my jobs, as far as I see it, is pointing out things the mainstream media may not get around to or won't look into. You could have also brought up that I namechecked Rwanda at one point, which also has a rough past. Well, sorry — they're a democracy now, and half of their parliament is made up of women. Why is that not the case with the U.S. as well? It boggles my mind that women are not angrier about the lack of power they have.
"When people like Jon Stewart and John Oliver [use] humor to expose what's going on — I feel honored to be in that company."
That discussion seems to be changing for us, hopefully — especially as we enter an election with a female candidate who has a viable shot at becoming the President of the United States.
It's changed radically and for the better. There still lots to be done, but you can see things getting better. Look at what's happened with gay marriage, parents organizing against standardized testing in schools, Obama finally starting to release prisoners who were incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, the slow legalization of marijuana. Social media has played a huge role in these discussions, because it really dispels ignorance.
Speaking of social media, how did you manage to keep the fact you were making this documentary a secret in the Twitter age?
We simply disconnected ourselves from it in terms of the film. I love social media; I was on Twitter the entire time we were filming. I just didn't mention it once. We didn't think we could pull it off, because I was out there filming — it wasn't like I had a fake nose and beard! But by the third country we realized that the American news agencies had shut down most of their foreign bureaus, so we weren't encountering American reporters. If I'm filming in Slovenia, no one is going to say, "Hey, let's get a reporter over to Slovenia, or let's hire a translator to see what the Slovenian media says Michael Moore is doing." It's not going to happen.
You've been doing this for over a quarter of a century. Do you feel that it's harder to do what you do — the gonzo political documentarian thing — now than it used to be? You're a known commodity.
Wow, I've never thought of myself as a commodity.
Let's say "celebrity" then.
Yeah, I see what you're saying. People know it's me when I walk into a room. Though given how I look, maybe people usually think I'm just a roadie for a band. [Laughs] It's about the same, I guess. What's changed is that there are more people out there doing it now than there was back in the late Eighties. Political satire is nothing new; just ask anyone who's read Jonathan Swift. But when I see people like Jon Stewart and John Oliver doing what they do, going after institutions and corporations, asking for accountability, using humor to expose what's going on — I feel honored to be in that company. When someone likes Jon Stewart hires folks who used to work on my movies or TV shows, that feels incredible to me.
Those Daily Show field reports always felt like they could have been TV Nation or Awful Truth segments.
An improved-upon imitation is the sincerest form of flattery [laughs].