A broadside at American exceptionalism

by Tim Pompey
tjpompey@gmail.com

Where to Invade Next

Directed by: Michael Moore 
Rated: R for language, some violent images,
drug use and brief graphic nudity
2 hrs.

Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore knows how to pick a fight. He won an Oscar for it in 2003 with Bowling for Columbine, his satirical and insightful pic analyzing why Americans are obsessed with guns and violence. I think the Academy is probably sorry it encouraged him. He’s been on a tear ever since and, depending on your political views, you either love or hate him. There’s not much middle ground when it comes to his style: satirical, humorous, belligerent, fearless and full of “spoofery,” a nonexistent word that I think Moore would wholeheartedly endorse.

This time around he takes a trip abroad with one of his goofiest premises. He claims to be sent on a mission by the Pentagon to invade other countries and find out why America can’t win a war. What is the opposition doing that makes them so darn good?

Of course, it’s a ruse to examine socialism among European and African democracies and understand how and why they treat their own citizens, even their maximum security prisoners, more humanely than we do here in America. It’s a big dig, especially at conservative politicians who believe that we are being invaded by immigrants from Mexico and taken advantage of by a host of good-for-nothings (mostly people of color) who, like panhandlers, just have their hands out looking for a free ride.

My first response to this film was that Moore was simply cherry-picking issues that were culture-specific. For instance, in Italy and Germany, where unions have fought for generous vacation benefits, and France, where the love of food encourages school chefs to serve a daily high-quality lunch to even the poorest students.

Then Moore starts to get serious. He examines Finland’s highly rated education system. What? Students there only attend class 20 hours a week and do virtually no homework? We learn about universities in tiny Slovenia, where both Slovenian and American students get their college degrees. For free.

Continuing on, we discover that women in Islamic Tunisia have fought for political and social equality, and that in Iceland, there’s no glass ceiling for women in politics and business. And how about Portugal, which has completely thrown out drug enforcement laws? Even more disconcerting is Norway, which has humanely reformed its entire prison system. No death penalty. Nice digs for inmates. A maximum sentence for an offense such as murder is 21 years.

Furthermore, I think Moore himself is surprised by some of the dialogue he hears, at least surprised enough that, for lengthy parts of this film, he buttons his lip and lets other people do the talking. A female Icelandic CEO scolds us for treating our neighbors so poorly. Even more blunt, a Portuguese police officer warns Americans about the immorality of the death penalty.

Some of Moore’s subjects even freely admit that many of the ideas they’ve implemented were born in America. One example is the Icelandic prosecutor who sent financial executives to jail when three Icelandic banks failed in 2008. It’s galling to know that he received much of his strategy and advice from American attorneys.

Moore takes a long journey to get his point across, maybe too long for some. At two hours, maybe his film could have used a bit more editing. But one thing to know about Moore: His point is hard to miss. He’s a joyous gadfly to Reaganites and a passionate defender of the middle class. Yes, he’s a showman, but he also knows that a picture is worth a thousand words and a good joke helps us swallow our medicine.

So, we ask, if so many of these ideas are American, how come they’ve worked so well somewhere else? Good question.

You’ve got to hand it to Moore. He sure knows how to punch you in the face and do it with a smile.