Europe, A Love Story: Michael Moore’s Latest Film Tries To Sell Social Democracy to America

In ‘Where To Invade Next,’ Moore marches around Europe with a flag on his shoulder, to dubious effect.

Jeremy Gantz December 17, 2015

Michael has stars--and stripes--in his eyes as he travels Europe.

On a lazy August night in 1994, two kids flip­ping through chan­nels stum­ble on a strange new show called TV Nation. The end seg­ment pits the Unit­ed States, Cana­da and Cuba against each oth­er in a health­care Olympics,” with breath­less play-by-plays of patient treatment.

It’s impossible to imagine any conservative having a come-to-Moore moment after watching the filmmaker coax Europeans to trash the American way.

Cana­da wins, although it will lat­er be revealed that NBC reject­ed the segment’s orig­i­nal win­ner, Cuba. This was my intro­duc­tion to polit­i­cal satire at age 12. It was also my intro­duc­tion to Michael Moore. If you’re able to get your hands on TV Nation (which, trag­i­cal­ly, has nev­er been released on DVD and isn’t stream­able), you can see bril­liant, bite-sized treat­ments of themes he would explore in-depth in doc­u­men­taries like 2002’s Bowl­ing for Columbine (America’s messed-up gun cul­ture), 2007’s Sicko (America’s messed-up health­care sys­tem), and 2009’s Cap­i­tal­ism: A Love Sto­ry (America’s messed-up polit­i­cal econ­o­my). All in all, it was one of the most sub­ver­sive pro­grams ever to air on U.S. net­work tele­vi­sion — and by far the most enter­tain­ing entry in the news mag­a­zine” show genre (which includes 20/20 and Date­line).

By con­trast, Moore’s lat­est film, Where to Invade Next, is a plod­ding and dis­joint­ed movie that man­ages to be most­ly unen­ter­tain­ing and at times painful­ly unfun­ny. How Moore could unleash this on the world just a few years after a Toron­to Film Fes­ti­val keynote speech in which he scold­ed doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers for their fear of being enter­tain­ing is hard to fathom.

Appar­ent­ly exhaust­ed by Cap­i­tal­isms full-throat­ed con­dem­na­tion of this country’s way of doing busi­ness, Moore decid­ed to head across the pond to learn what oth­er coun­tries are doing right. Where to Invade Nexts cheeky premise is clever for a few min­utes: The Pen­ta­gon, unable to win a war, has ordered Moore abroad to find solu­tions to prob­lems no army can solve.” He duti­ful­ly decides to invade coun­tries pop­u­lat­ed by Cau­casians with names I can most­ly pro­nounce,” i.e., Europe. And so begins a two-hour jour­ney around the con­ti­nent that should be 40 min­utes shorter.

In Italy, we learn that all work­ers get long, employ­er-paid vaca­tions. In France, we learn that school lunch­es are very deli­cious. (In one of the film’s few fun­ny moments, dis­gust­ed French school­child­ren mock pho­tos of U.S. school lunch­es.) We also learn that France is seri­ous about sex edu­ca­tion because its peo­ple aren’t fight­ers, they’re lovers” — an aside made painful­ly off-key by bomb­ing in Syria.

Next we head to Fin­land to see how the world’s lead­ing edu­ca­tion sys­tem thrives despite a lack of both home­work and stan­dard­ized tests. (The Scan­di­na­vian secret? Teach­ers put the hap­pi­ness of stu­dents first!) Then we wit­ness Slovenia’s tuition-free high­er edu­ca­tion sys­tem and meet a few Amer­i­cans who wise­ly chose to avoid crush­ing debt by attend­ing uni­ver­si­ty there. We see footage of mil­i­tant stu­dent groups in var­i­ous coun­tries protest­ing tuition hikes, fol­lowed by Moore’s lamen­ta­tions about U.S. stu­dents’ pas­siv­i­ty — which seems a bit unfair, giv­en groups like Strike Debt, and espe­cial­ly dat­ed after last fall’s Mil­lion Stu­dent March.

Still, Moore’s wish list is on point. A strong mid­dle class, pro­tect­ed by laws against con­tact­ing employ­ees on vaca­tion or email­ing after nor­mal work­ing hours (Ger­many). A con­sti­tu­tion that guar­an­tees women’s equal­i­ty (Tunisia). Gen­der equi­ty in cor­po­rate board­rooms (Ice­land). A penal sys­tem that is reha­bil­i­ta­tive rather than puni­tive (Nor­way).

And there are a few gen­uine­ly provoca­tive moments, such as when he con­trasts Germany’s manda­to­ry class­room lessons about Nazism and the Holo­caust with the fes­ter­ing and large­ly unac­knowl­edged lega­cies of slav­ery in the Unit­ed States.

It’s a bit hard to appre­ci­ate all this, though, after you’ve sur­vived the film’s inter­minable Italy and France sec­tions and end­less shots of Moore march­ing around with an Amer­i­can flag over his shoul­der. Then there’s his mean­ing­less cel­e­bra­tion of land­ing an inter­view with the pres­i­dent of Slove­nia — an inter­view that the pres­i­dent doesn’t allow to be filmed.

Per­haps I’ve tired of Moore’s shtick in my old age. I sin­cere­ly hope oth­ers haven’t, so they can learn about how Ger­many requires union rep­re­sen­ta­tives to sit on cor­po­rate boards and Ice­land actu­al­ly threw a bunch of bankers in jail after they drove the island’s econ­o­my into the ground in 2008. With cre­ative think­ing appar­ent­ly banned in the halls of Con­gress and on the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign trail, solu­tions from abroad ought to be high-val­ue imports.

This isn’t a movie, how­ev­er, that will change hearts and minds. It’s impos­si­ble to imag­ine any con­ser­v­a­tive hav­ing a come-to-Moore moment after watch­ing the film­mak­er coax Euro­peans to trash the Amer­i­can way. His prompt:

What would you like to say to the Amer­i­can people?”

I would nev­er want to be your neigh­bor,” replies one Ice­landic CEO. You don’t treat your fel­low Amer­i­cans the way you should.” And con­ser­v­a­tives will loathe the rosy, reduc­tive ren­der­ings of coun­tries with cor­ro­sive immi­gra­tion and unem­ploy­ment problems.

But pro­gres­sives may find con­crete pol­i­cy pro­pos­als here, while any­one who’s in the polit­i­cal cen­ter (or sim­ply apo­lit­i­cal) will get an edu­ca­tion. Could this be the movie that intro­duces mil­lions of Amer­i­cans to the social demo­c­ra­t­ic won­ders of Europe so often ren­dered sus­pect or loony by U.S. media?

Maybe.

Past Moore movies have proven that huge audi­ences can be found for polit­i­cal doc­u­men­taries. Oscar-win­ning Bowl­ing for Columbine was the high­est-gross­ing doc­u­men­tary until Fahren­heit 911 snagged that record, and Sicko is in the top 10 for the genre. But all those films aimed their fire square­ly at the Unit­ed States, while Where to Invade Next aims a mean­der­ing Hi-Liter at a smat­ter­ing of coun­tries. And we all know that out­rage is an eas­i­er sell than opti­mism. If curi­ous mil­lions do over­come Amer­i­cans’ his­toric lack of inter­est in how oth­er coun­tries oper­ate, fork over a few bucks and make it to the clos­ing cred­its — which can­not be said for those I invit­ed to watch the film — they may feel ripped off. Doesn’t Moore call him­self an entertainer?

After the dis­ap­point­ment of Where To Invade Next, I cheered myself up by watch­ing a few TV Nation clips on YouTube. They were enter­tain­ing and sad­ly not very dat­ed: Moore talks to white males who feel endan­gered” and oppressed.” He has pro-lif­ers hand­de­liv­er flow­ers to the home of a very inhos­pitable anti-abor­tion activist. Crack­ers the Cor­po­rate Crime- Fight­ing Chick­en is intro­duced. I sup­pose mak­ing fun of our prob­lems is eas­i­er than try­ing to solve them, and I should give Moore cred­it for mak­ing a movie about what’s right rather than just what’s wrong. But I hear we’re in a new gold­en age of tele­vi­sion, so I can’t resist offer­ing a tip to Net­flix: Get the rights to stream TV Nation and order up a new season.

Jere­my Gantz is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at the mag­a­zine. He is the edi­tor of The Age of Inequal­i­ty: Cor­po­rate America’s War on Work­ing Peo­ple (2017, Ver­so), and was the Web/​Associate Edi­tor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012.

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