Where to Invade Next

April 7, 2016
Michael Moore in documentary 'Where to Invade Next' (2015)
Michael Moore in documentary 'Where to Invade Next' (2015)

Donald Trump says he will make America great again. Michael Moore has plenty of suggestions about where to start. In the fanciful opening to Where to Invade Next, it’s not Trump that asks Moore for advice, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who are concerned that they’ve bungled every engagement since 1945. They need a new strategy, and Moore begs: “Instead of using Marines, use me!”

The shambolic filmmaker sets off on a mission to “invade” various countries and claim their good ideas for the United States. It’s a journey vaguely reminiscent of National Lampoon’s European Vacation, with Moore playing the innocent abroad who asks dumb questions and expresses amazement at the answers he receives.

His persona, as usual, is that of the All-American, working-class slob, dressed in shapeless clothing and baseball cap. His corpulent form suggests a steady diet of whoppers and Coke.

First stop is Italy, where he meets a happy, smiling couple who explain how they get eight weeks’ paid holidays every year, plus an extra month’s salary each December. In addition there are two-hour lunches and generous maternity leave provisions. Moore is incredulous, and his feelings are compounded when he speaks to factory bosses who endorse the system and claim it’s very good for productivity.

One doesn’t need to consult Google to realise this is a much, much better deal than any worker gets in the USA, where holidays are viewed as the bitter enemies of productivity. This Italian exchange sets the scene for a series of revelations, as Moore is astonished by the gourmet school lunches served in a French village and impressed by the same school’s enlightened approach to sex education.

The school theme takes him to Finland, a country that is renowned for having the best education system in the world. How did they do it? By virtually abolishing homework and examinations, and giving students a say in the way schools are run. It sounds like a fairy tale, but it works.

In Slovenia, Moore reveals, tertiary education is free, even for foreign students. It’s a long way from the usual approach to universities today, where degrees are bought and sold. Anybody remember the Whitlam years?

Moore is gobsmacked by the Norwegian approach to crime and punishment, which involves putting prisoners in well-stocked apartments where they can rehabilitate in relative comfort. The longest sentence that can be brought down by the Norwegian courts is 21 years – which is what they gave to the mass murderer, Anders Breivik. Allowing for this one exception, Norway has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.

Travelling to Lisbon, Moore finds that the Portuguese have decriminalised drugs, and treat addiction as a health issue. The result is that drug usage and the crime it generates have hit all-time lows. He goes to Tunisia and meets women who protested vehemently when a new Islamist government tried to rob them of their hard-earned rights. The women won the battle, and now have rights and privileges that would be the envy of their sisters in many western nations.

In Germany, Moore discovers that the government will pay to send workers to spas if they complain of excessive stress. He is also struck by the way the Germans are prepared to confront the national shame of World World Two and educate their children about the Holocaust. He can’t help wondering if Americans will ever confront their own historical crimes in relation to the Indians and to slavery.

The final stop is Iceland, where Moore notes that the only local bank that weathered the Global Financial Crisis was managed and run by women. This gives rise to a meditation on Iceland as a country that has profited from putting women in top jobs. The implication is that testosterone was a major factor in the risk-taking that brought Wall Street crashing down, dragging the rest of the world with it.

Moore’s detractors will say this is all pie in the sky. He paints an idyllic portrait of these countries by the simple expedient of concentrating on the bits that he likes and ignoring the rest. Since this documentary was completed, the refugee crisis has brought out a much uglier side of the European personality.

As a dedicated polemicist, Moore doesn’t deny he is being highly selective. He argues that the point of his quest is “to pick the flowers, not the weeds” by concentrating on specific policies and ideas that are antithetical to those that prevail in the United States. In every instance he can prove that those policies are cheaper, more efficient, and conducive to a greater sense of happiness and well-being.

Moore claims everything for his native land, planting the stars and stripes wherever he meets a good idea. It would require a revolution in thought to see any of them adopted, although ironically, most of the European states say they have taken their inspiration from American sources.

Everyone knows the Germans and Scandinavians have high taxation and a high level of social services, but in America the Tea Party has convinced the poorest people in the country that taxation is theft and universal healthcare is a communist plot. If we are to believe Moore’s figures the Germans’ taxes secure them a wide range of benefits for which Americans must pay and pay. When he does the math, the Germans are way ahead.

It’s difficult to imagine America (or Australia) creating more humane prisons or decriminalising drugs. The damage to the American psyche is too far advanced to allow for quick fixes. Moore is like Catherine the Great, who came to power with every intention of freeing the serfs but soon found that the serfs were not ready to be freed.

Finland can embark on a bold educational experiment because it has a population of only 5.4 million. Iceland is even better placed, with a mere 320,000 citizens. The thought of bringing the light to 324 million Americans is stupefying, especially when two-thirds of them have never set foot outside of the United States. Before educating the children of America there is a lot of work that needs to be done with the grown-ups.

One could multiply reasons why all the “flowers” Moore picks would fail to take root in the USA, but his optimism is relentless. He points to the fall of the Berlin Wall as an event that came out of nowhere and changed the world overnight. Is there an American equivalent? Obamacare and gay marriage were long shots that have become realities. Nevertheless, in a political landscape suspended between the militant demagoguery of Donald Trump and the social idealism of Bernie Sanders, it appears that Americans are only getting more polarised in their views. It’s hard to see them taking time to smell those flowers.

Where to Invade Next
Written & directed by Michael Moore
Starring Michael Moore
USA, rated M, 120 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 9th April, 2016.