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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Where to Invade Next documentary review: finding the American dream everywhere but America

Where to Invade Next green light

Michael Moore doesn’t hate America. But he does wonder how other nations are doing so many things better than the supposed greatest country in the world.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Michael Moore

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Alas, the Americans who really really really need to see this movie will go out of their way to avoid it.

I’m talking about the people who get all of their “news” from Fox, and “know” that Norway and Italy are communist hellholes where everyone waits in line for toilet paper and can’t get their blood pressure checked without permission from the government and an appointment 18 months out. These people also “know” — because Fox News has kindly informed them of this — that rabble-rousing documentarian Michael Moore hates America. Obviously. Because criticism of one’s homeland in the hopes that it can improve is clearly the same thing as hatred.

Perhaps it is a smack in the face to those people — even if they will never see that smack — that Moore literally wraps himself in the American flag in Where to Invade Next, his first film in six years. He “invades” other nations — stalking into Norway and Italy, and also France and Germany and Finland and Iceland, and even Tunisia — in search of great ideas America can steal, with the Stars and Stripes actually drapped around his shoulders, and then he plants a flag when he finds great ideas to claim. It’s hilariously bellicose, self-deprecating in a personal way and ironic on a cultural level: the film opens by juxtaposing grand speeches by recent American presidents about the awesomeness of American freedom and power and beneficence with the clusterfuck of collapsing American infrastructure and social upheaval and unrest. Who are we to talk about how great America is when our police attack and kill children, when our bridges are falling down? There is love in Moore’s stance here — it’s not just satirical — but also anger and disappointment. He doesn’t hate America. But, like many of his fellow Americans, he doesn’t understand how, if America is the greatest in the world, as it keeps insisting it is, so many other nations are doing so many things so much better?

What are other nations doing better? How about six weeks of paid vacation in Italy — and an extra month’s salary to pay for relaxing holidays — and a two-hour lunch every day? How about four-course gourmet meals in French school cafeterias and sex-ed classes that focus on physical and emotional well-being, not fear and abstinence? How about shorter school days and no homework in Finnish schools, which results in the best-educated kids on the planet? Feeling stressed at work in Germany? Ask your doctor for a prescription for a stay at a spa. Want to reduce recidivism in the criminal justice system (the U.S. has one of the highest rates)? Maybe our prisons should be more like Norway’s (with one of the lowest rates); minimum security looks like a summer camp, and maximum security looks way nicer than the college dorm I once lived in. And maybe we could completely decriminalize drugs, like they’ve done in Portugal, which has so far refused to collapse into a postapocalyptic wasteland.

That last one would require a nation interested in treating drug addiciton as a medical problem instead of a criminal one, and Moore doesn’t go much into health care in Invade; he covered how the rest of the postindustrialized world does that better than the U.S. in Sicko. But even without a focus on health care, he lays out an excellent and persuasive case that citizens of these other nations are happier, healthier, have more power at work but work fewer hours, have more free time, are better educated, and just overall get a lot more enjoyment out of life than Americans do. Human dignity matters in these places in ways that seems to be missing in America. For this privilege, we see, the people of France and Italy and Norway pay a little more in taxes than Americans do, but they get a lot more. When you add in all that Americans pay for the things that taxes cover in part or in whole in other countries — everything from day care to college tuition — Americans are paying a helluva lot more… or, at least, those who can afford it are. Everyone else is screwed. As Moore sadly sums it up: “The American dream [seems] to be alive and well almost everywhere but America.”

Moore does not deny that other countries have their share of problems, but his “mission” here, as he says, “is to pick the flowers, not the weeds.” Moore isn’t saying — as the reflexive America-love-it-or-leave-it crowd would have it — that anyone unhappy with the course America is on should move elsewhere. He’s saying this: If America really is the greatest country in the world, it should be able to plant those flowers and make them grow even better than France and Italy does. Shouldn’t it?

green light 4.5 stars

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Where to Invade Next (2015)
US/Can release: Dec 23 2015
UK/Ire release: Jun 10 2016

MPAA: rated R for language, some violent images, drug use and brief graphic nudity
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language, violence, drug references)

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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