“I've turned into this kind of crazy optimist,” Michael Moore admits in his new documentary Where to Invade Next, his first film in six years. At 61, the gadfly savant has mellowed. Instead of charging into rooms, he shuffles, the American flag wrapped around his shoulders like a grandmother's shawl.
Conservatives reject Moore because he publicly rejects them, as in his furious triptych Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko. Liberals shun him, too, believing that his antics make them look ridiculous. Moore fudges the facts to prove a truth. He shouts to get audiences to listen. Though a silent majority of Americans wanted universal health care, only Michael Moore ferried sick 9/11 rescue workers to free clinics in Cuba. But that's his calling. Moore martyrs himself in the court of public opinion to make other liberals look reasonable.
Where to Invade Next opens like a sloppy stunt. Moore pretends that the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, wounded by their losses and pyrrhic victories in every war since Korea, have finally asked him for advice. How to put the world to rights? Moore's conceit: He'll sail east on the USS Ronald Reagan to conquer Europe's best ideas. He visits the Continent's happier and more successful factories, schools and jails, where he literally plants the American flag and demands to take their innovations home. The Europeans awkwardly nod.
First, Moore visits a working-class Italian couple who live like Kardashians with eight paid weeks of vacation. When he tells them many Americans are lucky to get two, the wife gasps, “A year?!” Moore asks an Italian CEO why she shares her wealth. She insists that she doesn't want to be richer at the cost of her employees' happiness.
The American cynic in us gags — that's the type of slogan we expect GE to pledge in a Super Bowl ad right before slashing jobs. Yet Moore, a cynic disguised as an idealist, is still playing the naif who can't imagine why General Motors CEO Roger Smith ducks his questions. But in Where to Invade Next, Moore has stopped being cynical altogether. He's sincere — a noble fool willing to ask questions we've abandoned. When the German middle class lives well on a 36-hour work week, he wants to know why Americans have settled for less. The United States popularized the concept of the American Dream. How did that dream become more real in Europe? Why have we stopped asking for more?
At the Toronto International Film Festival, Where to Invade Next premiered on foreign soil to a global audience. The theater was packed. When Moore “invaded” France with a joke about the country's limp defense, the Parisian next to me roared. In France, Moore discovered that the average public school cafeteria considers lunch a class, serving scallops on actual plates and stocking 80 types of cheese. (The chef says the kids adore Camembert.) The enfants at Moore's table were terrified of his photos of U.S. school lunches and uninterested in sharing his Coke. Yes, the French pay for their social benefits with higher taxes. But they don't pay tuition, co-pays, deductibles. “We don't call them taxes," Moore says of those expenses, “but they are, and we pay a whole lot more than the French.”
Moore is curious about other countries' solutions to our seemingly permanent problems. Finland improved its schools by slashing homework. Slovenian students demanded free college. Portugal cut down on drug addiction by legalizing drugs. Norway treats felons like friends — even a maximum-security inmate has the key to his cell — and its recidivism rate is just 20%. (Ours is 82%.) When the Icelandic banks collapsed, the bankers went to jail. And Tunisian women won free female health care from a conservative Islamist government. Meanwhile, in Texas women are being stripped of family-planning clinics by a conservative Christian government.
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As Moore treks on, his question expands from “What does your country get right?” to “What concepts does America have wrong?” A few: First, Americans don't cooperate, we compete. Second, women are underrepresented in powerful positions. Third, Americans have stopped protesting. Finally, above all, Americans have stopped believing that change is possible — the cynicism we're choking on is fatal.
Moore has an audience problem. His idiot Everyman shtick has never won over undecided voters. They don't even buy tickets to his films. He makes movies in order for liberals who tolerate him to celebrate his ideas. The audience for Where to Invade Next doesn't need a gimmick — it needs inspiration.
Moore finally finds hope with a visit to the Berlin Wall. Thankfully, he doesn't bother to brandish his huckster Stars and Stripes. He just talks plainly about his past. Moore was there in 1989 when the Wall fell. He saw firsthand that a few people who dare to chip away at a stone rule can tear the whole thing down. A month later, Roger & Me would make him America's most famous pest. You sense that Moore, a new filmmaker and sudden celebrity, split himself in two. The public Moore kept up the dumb, brash persona. But the true Moore — the kind of passionate global citizen who would even visit 1989 Berlin — continued to believe in the impossible.
By exposing his soft belly, the aging documentarian is re-conquering his own legacy. He's spent 25 years bellowing about our problems. Now it's time to solve them. If we don't think we can, just remember Berlin. An act like that isn't just recent European history — it happened this year at home when Bree Newsome strapped on rappelling gear and took down South Carolina's Confederate flag. In this film, that's the only flag that matters.