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ReThink Review: Where to Invade Next -- Michael Moore's Promised Land(s)

02/12/2016 02:33 am ET | Updated Feb 12, 2016
  • Jonathan Kim Gentleman farmer, film critic for ReThink Reviews
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

For a lot of republicans, documentarian and activist Michael Moore is the worst, most dishonest, and most dangerous filmmaker ever. But when looking at his filmography, no one can dispute his track record for shining a light on issues several years before they're noticed by the corporate media or adopted by politicians.

With his first film, 1989's Roger & Me, Moore showed the devastating effects of offshoring and corporate callousness on his hometown of Flint, Michigan. Bowling For Columbine in 2002 drew attention to America's uniquely insane gun obsession and its consequences years before mass shootings became commonplace. Moore slammed the door on the Bush administration's response to 9/11, the catastrophic Iraq war, and the media's complicity in both with Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004, and three years before Obamacare was signed into law, Moore skewered the cartoonish cruelty of the health insurance industry in 2007's Sicko while making a demand for universal healthcare. And two years before Occupy Wall Street, Moore called out an economy rigged for the rich in 2009's Capitalism: A Love Story, with the housing meltdown and subsequent bailout as the ultimate crime scene.

And now in 2016, with either a woman or a self-proclaimed democratic socialist destined to be the Democratic presidential nominee, Moore is back with Where to Invade Next, perhaps his best, most hopeful, and solution-based film yet, which posits that America would be a much better place if it copied some of Europe's more humane, socialist-inspired solutions and had more female leaders in politics and business. Watch the trailer for Where to Invade Next below.

Where to Invade Next's premise is typical Moore silliness, with a fictional meeting where Moore proposes to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that, after decades of failed wars, Moore invade other countries as an army of one. But instead of coming for these nations' oil or land, Moore will steal their successful solutions to a wide range of problems plaguing America today. And by doing so, Moore manages to address and show working solutions for nearly every issue he's taken on in his over 25-year career.

While Moore's previous films utilized satire and gallows humor to show how bad things in America really are, Where to Invade Next smartly assumes you already know America's pain points and doesn't dwell on them long. So instead of explaining how bad workers have it in the U.S., the film has Italians describe how many months of government-mandated, paid vacation and maternity/paternity leave they get (along with two-hour lunch breaks), which are supported by both strong unions and management. Workers and management at a German pencil factory explain the benefits to all of having workers represented on their company's board and ending the workday early (with emails after office hours forbidden) so people can socialize, spend time with their families, and enjoy their off hours.

France demonstrates what school meals and sex education are like if you really care about kids' health, while Finland and Slovenia show how an education system that values a happy, fulfilled, productive citizenry treats students (hint: less homework, a wide array of subjects, shorter school days, and free college). Portugal and Norway provide lessons in valuing human dignity in their approaches to the war on drugs (decriminalizing drug use and treating it as a health issue) and incarceration (focus on preparing inmates for the real world, not punishing them). Iceland exemplifies the value of female leadership in the political and business realms, and the important message Iceland sent to the financial sector by jailing bankers whose reckless behavior cratered the country's economy. And in the film's one jaunt outside of Europe, we see how even a Muslim country like Tunisia got behind government-funded women's clinics (which also provide abortions) after a largely bloodless revolution wrested control from the country's religious conservative leadership.

For me, the question at the core of Moore's previous movies has always been: "As a nation, who are we?" For thoughtful people, it's an extremely difficult and possibly uncomfortable question given our country's many institutionalized, systemic problems. Moore's approach to answering that question has been to use humor to show how ridiculously awful and corrupted various aspects of American politics, corporate culture, race relations, etc. can be, with hopes of providing a wake-up call that angers viewers so much that they rise up and manifest change...somehow. While liberals like myself admired Moore for opening our eyes to ugly truths, his films were often short on solutions, which I've found to be an issue in most left-leaning documentaries that usually try to cram in a hopeful message in their last five minutes. And for unthoughtful republicans who would simply answer, "Who are we? We're America! The best damn country in the world!" Moore was simply labeled an America-hating liberal and demonized/dismissed for even bringing it up.

But Where to Invade Next asks a slightly different, more hopeful, more aspirational question that assumes "Who are we?" but goes further to ask: "As a nation, who do we want to be?"

By showing how workers are treated in Europe, Moore can make the selfish pitch to Americans by saying, "Doesn't that look nice? Wouldn't you like two months of paid vacation, longer lunch breaks, and shorter workdays?" But stated another way, Where to Invade Next asks: "Are we a nation that wants to treat workers as badly as a government corrupted by big business allows? Or do we want to be a nation that treats our fellow American workers with dignity, respect, and concern for their well-being?" And if that isn't convincing enough, the film has European business owners explain that treating workers better is actually just good business because happier, more rested employees increases productivity, reduces sick leave, and improves employee retention.

Do we want to be a country that makes it possible for new parents to be with their newborn babies for their all-important first months of life? Or will we force parents who can't afford childcare out of the workforce? With education, do we want to be a nation that truly treats young people as if they are our future and most valuable resource, providing them with the best education without forcing students (or their parents) into endless debt? Or are we a nation content to "educate" our children with standardized tests in underfunded, crumbling, prison-like schools while feeding them garbage that will eventually kill them? And if you claim America can't afford it, how come so many other countries can? And how come we keep finding trillions of dollars to spend on wars, the military, and tax cuts for the rich?

Are we a nation whose prison system is meant solely to punish and dehumanize while almost guaranteeing that criminals become repeat offenders who endanger our communities? Or do we want to be a nation like Norway that seeks to rehabilitate criminals, providing them with needed life and job skills so they have a chance at becoming productive members of society instead of returning to a life of crime? And while we're at it, don't we want to be a country that makes sure that megacriminals -- like the ones who stole billions of dollars by crashing the world's economy -- are prosecuted and serve some time the way Iceland did?

Do we want to be a nation that is honest about the darkest moments in our history, like slavery, racism, and the near genocide of Native Americans, so we can learn from it and move beyond it as Germany has with the Holocaust? Or will we continue to sweep them under the rug, underplay them, and learn nothing?

Don't we want to be a nation that doesn't just say, but shows that men and women deserve to be treated equally, and that women are more than capable of leading corporations, and even countries?

That last point obviously seems like an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, even though her name is never mentioned in the film. However, much of Where to Invade Next is studded with ideas that Bernie Sanders champions and that Clinton derides as being too idealistic, divisive, expensive, or naïve. If so, then why do all these other countries have them? Is there something wrong with America that we can't achieve them? Why are they out of reach for the greatest, richest country in the world? What kind of country do we want to be? And for republicans who would scoff at the idea that America should do anything (even good things) like any European nation, the film smartly reminds us that all of these "socialist", "unrealistic" programs have deep American roots.

Where to Invade Next is Moore's best, most ambitious, most powerful film to date because it shows Americans not how crummy things are, but how great they could be. And how might we get there? Lucky for us, there's an election coming up.

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