It is six years since Michael Moore’s last film and he’s back on top form. Perhaps a little less strident (a good thing), and still showing his trademark righteous but witty indignation combined with a populist style and message. From the title, you might think this latest documentary is a critique of US foreign policy. Only indirectly. The film’s premise is that, after decades of invasions that have brought no tangible benefits to Americans, the US needs to consider a different approach.
So Moore tries to persuade the Pentagon to give the troops a break. Instead, Moore will travel to various countries to wage a series of one-man ‘invasions’. The twist is that, instead of colonising oil and mineral resources, he will stake a claim for the best practices that can be ‘exported’ back to the US.
He begins in Italy talking to a couple about holiday entitlement. Moore is amazed that they get eight weeks (40 days) holiday a year, and he contrasts this with the situation for workers in the US – where there is actually no legal entitlement to paid holidays. The management of the company also seem to be super-happy: contented, rested workers are more productive, after all. The good part of this section is that there is also an interview (too brief) with a union militant who explains that none of these gains were conceded willingly but required a struggle by the workers, first to win them and then to defend them.
The not-so-good part – a common weakness of his films – is that Moore exaggerates unnecessarily, cherry picks or even misrepresents, to make a point. In this case, the norm for Italian workers is not 40 days’ holiday. They are entitled to 20 paid days plus twelve public holidays, although there are cases where unions have won more.
In France, Moore discovers school lunches in the public sector that are not only free and nutritious, but are prepared in-house, cordon-bleu style. He tries tempting the kids with a Big Mac and Coke but the kids won’t bite. He visits Finland, often ranked top for education and finds that kids get virtually no homework, have no standardised tests, and spend less time in school than their peers in other countries (777 instructional hours per year versus 900-1,000 in the US). In Slovenia, post-secondary education is free, with no tuition fees and virtually no student debt.
Moore contrasts how German history textbooks take up the Nazi past while their US counterparts fudge the issue of slavery and black oppression. In Iceland, he exalts the way the government dealt with the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash – arresting and imprisoning bank CEOs. He also advocates their forward-thinking approach to women’s rights. Likewise in Tunisia. He learns of the progressive handling of drug addiction in Portugal, where the use of all drugs has been decriminalised and the emphasis is on treatment centres and rehabilitation. This has led to a considerable reduction in drug-related crime.
Along the way, Moore makes many good points, but tends towards rose-coloured romanticism of other countries and their policies. This comes out in interviews with politicians, industry leaders, educators and the general public. The same applies to the mythologizing of what he calls ‘American ideals’.
For example, he sees the Italian vacation entitlement as catching up to and going beyond what had been started in the US with the struggle for an eight-hour day in the 1880s. “They weren’t European ideas”, says Moore, “they were ours”. While it is valid to trace the gains of workers across the world to particular struggles at particular times in particular places, it would be a gross distortion to attribute this to an ‘ideal’ unique to one country.
Moore is also under the illusion that the post-war social-democratic, ‘welfare state’ model of many European countries – under savage attack by neoliberal, austerity governments – can be transferred to the US today. Under the conditions of 2016 capitalism, they cannot. Despite that, this film is well worth seeing. Its left-wing, funny, populist message will resonate with many.
Reviewed by Tim Heffernan
Where to Invade Next, directed by Michael Moore, is showing in selected cinemas across Australia