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Movies: Michael Moore, Optimist

Matt Shuham Dec 16

Where to Invade Next
Directed by Michael Moore
Dog Eat Dog Films and IMG Films, 2015

It’s alright if you forgot Michael Moore made movies. Since Capitalism: A Love Story back in 2009, the documentary filmmaker, author and activist hasn’t released anything for the silver screen, until now. Asked about his lengthy hiatus in a Rolling Stone interview, Moore acted as if he was waking up from an accidental half-decade nap: “How about it’s just enough that it’d been a long while since I’d made a movie and I felt like making one?”

Fair enough. But it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that a liberal filmmaker has been sitting out a mostly-liberal presidency. Moore began his career running down the CEO of General Motors with his 1989 documentary Roger and Me, and ever since, he’s played the willing David to the Goliaths of American crony capitalism — guns, oil, pharmaceuticals, health care, finance — against the backdrop of whichever conservative administration was running things at the time. (He released two films in the Clinton years, Canadian Bacon and The Big One, neither documentaries.)

Growing up with Moore’s films, I saw in them an articulation of a frustrated liberalism that couldn’t seem to find a home anywhere else in the mainstream, save maybe “The Daily Show” and The Onion. Moore was always on camera, anger on his sleeve, an avatar for the anti-war protestors, the debtors, the mothers caught in administrative insurance hell. He was a big, physical guy who wasn’t afraid to do some goddamn yelling.

Things have changed since Barack Obama took office, none more than the belief (a sacred one in 2007) that switching out presidents would end our long national nightmare, the Bush administration. With Obama’s election, Moore lost more than a villain, he lost a plot device.

Where To Invade Next is Moore’s answer to this new political and narrative reality. Absent a faux-cowboy villain, our protagonist travels across the world (read: Europe and Tunisia), “invading” places and stealing their best policy ideas for America’s benefit. It’s clear why his crew nicknamed the project “The No Problems, All Solutions Movie.” It’s all solutions: from healthy school lunches in France to ample vacation time in Italy, work councils in Germany and free college in Slovenia, we see the world through Moore’s fresh pair of rose-colored glasses, in 15-minute chunks at a time.

Still, most of the policies discussed stand on pretty familiar ground. And, as the film leans heavily on the tropes Moore has come to be known for in his work — his jaw has been similarly slackened by reports of Europeans’ quality of life for decades, now — I got the feeling that the movie’s main shtick, planting a flag in every country visited, was meant to assure viewers they weren’t watching old footage.

But if the issues themselves are a little stale, Moore’s approach to them carries the film. We’re not asked to be angry, nor even on the lookout for the same conspiratorial thrills that made Moore’s most successful film, Fahrenheit 9/11, so groundbreaking. There’s no one to blame for America’s failure to live up to its potential as the wealthiest country but ourselves. All of the ideas he “steals” from the rest of the world, after all, have previously been championed by American progressives, liberals and socialists.

In one of his most powerful moments on screen, Moore visits the Berlin Wall with an old friend, comparing the day it fell — after such a long time, and at the hands of a few young people with pickaxes — with similar moments in recent American history: the legalization of gay marriage, electing a black president and the stirrings of a low-wage workers movement.

Just as Moore’s films have punctuated my life, so too have the political changes he marvels at punctuated all of ours. And they really are marvelous: with the ascent of the Internet as a tool for organizing, our politics have been, ahem, disrupted. We don’t have to wait for a nonprofit to donate to, or for a political candidate to take on our cause. We’re driving this thing now. (Or at least, our hands are creeping closer to the wheel). And we have to decide what happens when the web amplifies our individual politics: the populist fascism and demagoguery of Donald Trump? The scattered good intentions of Occupy Wall Street? The urgent civil disobedience of Black Lives Matter?

Moore seems to have his own movement in mind, reserving the entire end of the film for the role women have played in Tunisian and Icelandic politics — delivering the only successful, inclusive and democratic Arab Spring revolt, and quickly and justly stabilizing an economy after the global financial crash, respectively. A gender-inclusive politics, he seems to be saying, is within our reach. All of these things are within our reach. This new, hopeful Moore just wants us to act. 

Where to Invade Next will begin screening in New York City on December 23.


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