Thursday, July 28, 2016

Next Up

Michael Moore's latest documentary, Where to Invade Next, is eye-opening and challenging. Unfortunately, Moore has become such a politically polarizing figure that the film is unlikely to get the attention it deserves. This documentary examines a variety of government programs in several foreign countries (mostly in Europe), looking at how tax money is allocated and what that money gets for citizens. It provokes some meaningful introspection, and could spur equally meaningful conversation.... if Moore weren't in some ways his own worst enemy.

Moore's framing device (as indicated by the title) is that he is going to "invade" each of these countries, taking back to America some single great idea. And while America's military industrial complex is another topic worthy of introspection and conversation, it's somewhat ancillary to the points being made here. "How would you pay for these programs?" is an important question, but I'm pretty sure it alienates a lot of the potential audience right out of the gate by, in the opening scene, positioning the military in one corner and everything the film is going to present in the other.

I mean, I'm generally a fan of Michael Moore, and certainly a fan of the ideas presented in this film -- but even I was put off at times by his grandstanding gimmicks this time around. At the end of each segment of the documentary, each examination of one country, he melodramatically plants a flag in the office/room/factory of one of the people he's been interviewing, claiming their ideas for America. At the start of the next segment, he's striding through the airport in the next country literally draped in the America flag. Ugh.

It's a shame, because setting aside the tricks, each segment of the film is fascinating. Things start off in rather uncontroversial territory, looking at mandated vacation policies in Italy, and school lunch programs in France. After slowly winning you over with these simple notions ("Couldn't we all use a nice vacation?" and "Grade school is already paid for by taxes; shouldn't kids get to eat -- and not crap -- while they're there?"), the movie wades in deeper. We go to Slovenia, one of many countries where education at the college level is free (and some students from America are taking advantage). We travel to Germany, where education includes hard looks at painful history never to be repeated.

Now the audience is ready to consider some ideas that might be way outside its comfort zone: Portugal's complete decriminalization of drugs, and Norway's rehabilitative (and comparatively luxurious) prison system. Or ideas that shouldn't be outside the comfort zone, but somehow are: the measures taken in countries like Tunisia and Iceland to ensure gender equality.

Overall, the film is a great look at "other ways things can be done." For some, it will be a validation of ideas for change, proof that they have actually worked elsewhere in the world. For others, it will be an actual look at the "free stuff" that political opponents seem to want. It feels like a good documentary for any audience, if you can sometimes look past the messenger. I give Where to Invade Next a B+.

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