Has Michael Moore gone soft? You might think so, making a snap judgment of Where to Invade Next, a crazy-like-a-fox documentary hellbent on seeing the best in people. Other people. Not us Americans. Turns out we suck at practicing what we preach. So here's Moore, the proudly schlubby Michigan warrior, heading off to Europe to plant our flag in countries where folks know how to live. In other words, he intends to steal the good stuff and bring it home. Naive? For sure. Manipulative? You bet. Moore's detractors see him as an arrogant fat cat passing himself off as the common man to nail easy targets. Even his supporters buy the arrogant part, but find – as I do – that Moore is just the pain in the ass we need in a crisis. Moore's newfound mellow approach in Where to Invade Next is meant to disarm us. This is Big Mike the entertainer, not the provocateur of cinematic missiles such as Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko. Don't believe it. No laugh in this doc – and there are plenty – goes out without a sting in its tail.
Moore sets up his film by daydreaming about a summons from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Instead of using Marines, use me," he pleads. As we watch a collage of America at its worst – bank scandals, stock frauds, housing foreclosures, black teens murdered by cops – Moore sets out to invade the world for bright ideas.
In Italy, he meets a couple who get 30 days paid vacation each year with no loss in productivity. Their bosses encourage two-hour lunches at home, where families can connect. In France, Moore is astonished by school kids who are served nutritional food, including several kinds of cheeses (Camembert, mais oui!), and are horrified by the slop washed down with sugary soft drinks in America. They drink water. In Slovenia, college is free – even for foreigners – and students go on strike if anyone even thinks about charging tuition. (Take that, American students who start life burdened with staggering college loans.) In Finland, students attend school for shorter hours, are rarely given homework and still rank among the best in the world.
OK, Moore is cherry-picking the most damning evidence. And you keep wishing he'd push harder and go deeper instead of skipping off to the next thing. But he's not making things up. And when he ventures into even more incendiary territory, the facts emerge with distressing impact.
On a visit to a Norway prison, the worst felons are treated with compassion, with sentences capped at 21 years, even for murderers. Yet the crime rate is low, as is recidivism. In Tunisia, women win free health care from a hidebound Islamist regime. And a female activist complains that selfish, me-first Americans won’t even make the first move to learn about her culture. And get a load of Portugal, where using drugs is not a crime, but rehab is offered to those who want it. "I have cocaine in my pocket right now," Moore jokes to a cop, who couldn't care less.
A trip to Iceland finds that the bankers who brought economic ruin to their country are thrown in jail instead of being bailed out. And the saviors of society are the skilled female leaders who reject testosterone as a fuel source.
Still, it's the Germans who most inspire Moore. They don't run from their shameful backstory; they use art and public forums to remind citizens of the Holocaust. Back home, our vicious history with Native Americans and African slaves is mostly ignored, even as recent events echo the past through gun culture and racial violence.
Love him or hate his methods, Moore touches a nerve in Where to Invade Next. In a climactic remembrance at the Berlin Wall, he recalls a time when a corrupt regime was brought down by people willing to protest. What counted most were humanitarian principles, the same bedrock concepts that America was founded on. See, the joke's on us. The rest of the world is swiping ideas that we originated. Amid the comic chaos of this scattershot satire is a shocking reminder to Americans that discovering the path ahead may be as uncomplicated as rediscovering the way we were. It's classic Moore.