Michael Moore's gutsy new film: Our military has not won a war since World War II

Look out: Moore's new film opens with assertion sure to inflame the right, then suggests we "invade" for good ideas

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published November 4, 2015 6:15PM (EST)

  (Evan Agostini)
(Evan Agostini)

Michael Moore is no stranger to controversy.  He has, after all, been threatened by Clint Eastwood—twice. And who could forget that notorious Michigan restaurant that banned him for a tweet critical of snipers? His new film, “Where to Invade Next,” promises to be his most controversial yet.   The controversy, though, is not what many of Moore’s viewers would immediately suspect.   Instead of focusing on what is wrong in our country, Moore uses the film to focus on what is right elsewhere.  Instead of pointing out our flaws, he imagines our possibilities.   And instead of wallowing in fear and panic, he offers practical ideas for productive change.  Given that we are in the midst of another election cycle, it’s worth asking what impact it might have on voters.  While it is hard to say whether it will influence voting patterns or policy stance, there is one thing for certain: It’s really going to piss a lot of people off.

“Where to Invade Next” is currently touring film festivals.  It has screened in New York, Chicago, Toronto, Philadelphia, and it will screen on November 16 in Washington, D.C., to launch the AFI film docs series.  It will open in select cities on December 23, and will then have a wide U.S. release in January.

After an opening that reminds viewers that our military has not won one war since WWII, the film ironically suggests that the man to save us is Moore.  He will go out and “invade,” but this time he won’t use weapons; he will just pillage other nations for their good ideas and bring them back for us to claim.

Moore travels to Finland, Slovenia, France, Tunisia, Italy, Portugal, and beyond.  In each country he finds a policy that is not only more humane than current U.S. practice, but also more effective.  Among the many innovative policies he covers, he documents better women’s rights, prison policy, worker rights, and educational policies than we have in the United States.

The film has been called “chirpy” and “romantic,” but these reviews miss the point.  Sure it’s hilariously funny at times, sure it’s deeply ironic, but the focus on covering “good” stories from across the globe only further serves to show what’s tragic here.  It’s the deep dialectic between these images that drives the power of the film.  With each shiny image abroad, the contrasting images of the United States feel more and more tarnished.  All it takes is comparative photos of school lunches in the United States and France to turn American exceptionalism on its head.

Moore’s latest film is his most bold and most sophisticated.  Rather than focus on a single issue he covers a wide range of social practices.  The radical idea at the core of the film is that change for the better is possible if we just commit to it.  But the film’s real subversive edge lies in its ability to out GOP policy for all of its naysaying, doomsday, Chicken Little rhetoric.  And the film’s art lies in implicating that rhetoric without really citing it.  Unlike Moore’s earlier films, it is what is left unsaid that is often more powerful than what is narrated in the voice over.

Moore himself suggests that the film may, in fact, be his most angry.  The anger, though, is at the failure to imagine other possibilities.  What Moore illustrates is that one can be angry at the state of affairs without being negative or cynical. In this election cycle, it’s a radical notion and it’s guaranteed to provoke.

As soon as the film has a wider release it will likely come under attack from the right—it’s hard to imagine a Michael Moore film without conservative attacks.  But this film will be different, because this time Moore will be attacked for what he offers as vision rather than what he exposes as critique.

There will be countless complaints that one thing may be possible in Finland but not in this country.  And that is where the real brilliance of the film lies.  At a basic level the film anticipates some of the ways it will be judged—and it asks us to think deeply about the flaws to that exact line of thinking.  The place he really is trying to invade is our very own mindset—a mindset that has become accustomed to a poverty of ideas and a politics of suspicion.

But even more radical during this election circus is the fact that Moore highlights policies that have an existing connection to reality and that actually work somewhere in the world.  And that is radically different from many of the loony GOP policies we currently have on offer.

As Politifact reports, the last GOP debate was simply chock full of lies.  And when the candidates were pressed to explain their policy, they sidestepped, flubbed, or made things up.   As Robert Reich points out –almost all GOP policy is based on myths, lies and voodoo economics. The point is that much GOP policy has zero connection to reality.

In contrast, the programs Moore shows us have at least some connection to the real world. In one vignette, we see Rick Perry extolling the efficacy of abstinence. “I know it works,” he says, even after his interviewer cites data that proves it doesn’t. Hearing of this, the sex ed teacher from France, who teaches students to value their partners and treat them with care, looks quizzically at Moore and explains that “abstinence is not sex education.”

Moore will likely get hammered for the impracticality of applying these policies here at home.  But in our culture of hypocrisy, he will get hammered by the very same critics who accept delusional drivel with absolutely no connection to reality.  Imagine if Trump or Cruz or Bush or Rubio were held to the standard that Moore will be.

The crazy thing is that any number of current GOP slogans would be perfect taglines for the film: “Make America Great Again,” “Heal, Inspire, Revive,” “Reigniting the Promise of America,” “Defeat the Washington Machine. Unleash the American Dream.” Ironic coincidence?  Or tragic farce? As Moore proves in the film, it all depends on your perspective—and your politics.

Michael Moore Fumes Over R Rating For 'Where to Invade Next'

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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