The documentary Where to Invade Next features a sobering insight, and it’s telling that the movie’s maker, director Michael Moore, doesn’t seem to be conscious of it. Ostensibly a tour across Europe (with a side trip to North Africa) to “invade” different countries and steal their good ideas for the United States, Moore’s lighthearted film is meant to show his fellow Americans how the rest of the planet is outpacing the superpower in myriad ways. But, as is too often the case with his work, Where to Invade Next isn’t really about America—it’s about Moore’s version of America, which means putting Moore front and center. He has meaningful things to say in Where to Invade Next, but you have to get past him to hear them.
Where to Invade Next opens with a creaky conceit that sets the tone for the so-so humor to come. In voiceover, Moore informs us that he was recently summoned to Washington to speak with the heads of our different military branches so that they could pick his brain. You see, America hasn’t won a war outright since World War II, and after a series of failed campaigns ranging from the Korean Peninsula to Iraq, they’re hoping Moore has some answers. The Oscar-winning filmmaker’s advice, he tells us, was that he should travel to other countries with a camera crew, swiping policy elements that might be worth implementing back home.
That setup, delivered in Moore’s sardonic, aren’t-I-irreverent tone, is supposed to be richly wry: Ho ho, could you imagine the U.S. military being so desperate for help that it would recruit a raging liberal filmmaker like Moore?! But the joke, like so many in Where to Invade Next, sours immediately because it’s built almost entirely on Moore’s own preening self-regard and his assumption that his audience finds him as adorable as he does.
Where to Invade Next then follows Moore from country to country—Italy to Germany, Slovenia to Tunisia, Iceland to Portugal—as he talks to different citizens about their lands’ enlightened attitudes toward, say, free college education or the decriminalization of drug use. His default way of introducing this information is through faux surprise, always based on a stereotypically insular American mindset: “But that’s not how we do it!” And just about every time, Moore concludes his trip by hammily planting a U.S. flag in the “invaded” nation’s ground, his way of parodying American exceptionalism and our interventionist arrogance.
When it comes to Moore, I often cite film critic John Powers’s dead-on assessment, written during the release of 2002’s Bowling for Columbine: “One of the mosquito-bite irritations of being on the left is finding your ideals represented in public by Michael Moore.” That documentary won Moore his Oscar, cementing the filmmaker’s position as an outspoken mascot for liberal causes. But even by that point, his shtick was getting tiresome. Moore used to be a great director: 1989’s Roger & Me already contained some of the showy, self-promotional tendencies that soon would become his brand, but that film seethed with anger and sorrow that felt raw and personal, the local boy from Flint, Michigan, shocked into action by General Motors’s shoddy treatment of his hometown. Even subsequent films such as Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, although marred by Moore’s hunger to keep himself at the center of their respective stories, churned with righteous indignation. A shameless attention hog he may be, but Moore wasn’t wrong about the injustices that infuriated him.
But a film like Where to Invade Next illustrates the severe limitations of Moore’s strain of populism, which rarely challenges viewers’ preconceived notions and instead flatters us for thinking the same way he does. I agree with about 90 percent of Moore’s advocacy in this film—the end of the death penalty, more protections of workers’ rights, the need for Americans to confront our shameful history of slavery and racism—but the simplicity of his arguments ought to make even those sympathetic to his activism suspicious. He talks to Italians about the fact that they have weeks of paid vacation—and months of paid maternity leave—without even considering that American culture heavily prizes success and ambition, which makes implementing such a change in this country so fundamentally difficult. When he visits Norway to examine its relatively comfy prisons and 21-year maximum sentences (even for murder), Moore is astonished, but doesn’t stop to ponder how American politicians have won elected office for generations by promising to be tough on crime.
It’s not that the example these other countries set isn’t inspiring—it’s that Moore blithely adopts a “If they can do it, why can’t we?” attitude, as if a wave of the hand is all it takes to change deeply ingrained mindsets in this country. (Speaking of mindsets, for a guy so wowed and humbled by other nations’ progressive policies, Moore doesn’t miss an opportunity to make broad, lazy cultural jokes about Italians always looking like they’ve just had sex or the French being a nation that surrenders at the drop of a hat.)
Where to Invade Next can be enormously moving—such as when Moore shows how Germans acknowledge their Nazi past on a daily basis—but it’s almost despite the man making the movie. It can’t be a coincidence that Where to Invade Next is strongest when Moore gets out of the way—when, for instance, he has Dr. Nuno Capaz, Portugal’s minister of health and its de facto drug czar, explain why decriminalization can’t work in America without an equal commitment to better health care access and treatment. Moore purports to be on a mission to learn from the rest of the world, but it’s striking how few of the people he meets really stand out: He’s too interested in his own take to let a wealth of different voices really emerge. (That said, when a handful of female Icelandic business leaders speak out against America’s callous patriarchy, it’s damning precisely because of its directness.)
Which brings me to the film’s big takeaway, which feels accidental. By shining a light on the advancements of other nations, Where to Invade Next means to shame our (and possibly Moore’s) cultural myopia. The sting is most acute during Moore’s trip to Tunisia, where he talks to a young radio journalist named Amel Smaoui, who tells him with frustration that she absorbs plenty of American culture through our music and fashion and is conversant in our history—but that most Americans don’t know the first thing about her homeland, or any other in the world.
But if Moore has heeded this lesson, it doesn’t come through in the rest of his film. Where to Invade Next’s big twist is supposed to be that the concepts that Moore is “stealing” are actually American ideas that we’ve either abandoned or forgotten. Iceland’s prosecution of its bankers after the 2008 financial collapse was inspired by the U.S. crackdown on the banks after the savings-and-loan scandals of the 1980s. Norway’s abolition of capital punishment has its roots in Michigan’s similar decision in 1846, when it became the first Anglophone government to do so. But this irony is oddly jingoistic, essentially arguing that America is so awesome that everybody is ripping off our good ideas. No doubt Moore hopes this patriotic logic will appeal to those who disdain anything that smacks of European-style socialism, but the unobserved darker truth demonstrated in Where to Invade Next is that, perhaps, other countries have evolved beyond us because they’re not wrapped up in the same bubble of exceptionalism that blinds Americans (and, in some ways, Moore, too).
Watching this film is to see a host of other nations take the best examples of our democracy, improve upon them, and then ditch all the more toxic elements of this country’s DNA. For all of the criticisms Moore lobs at America, it’s revealing that his general stance is that just a tweak here and a polish there would get the United States back up and running. But Moore’s self-serving agenda and his own ego leave him as blind as the people he chastises on the right for creating legislative gridlock and starting foolish wars. Where to Invade Next congratulates viewers for knowing that other countries do things better than we do. But it seems curiously oblivious to the deeper reasons why things got that way.