Where to Invade Next ★★★½

When Michael Moore came to Britain to promote his Channel 4 series The Awful Truth, Chris Morris couldn't resist a bit of alpha-prankster brinksmanship, conducting a spoof interview where he praised Moore's gift for "shouting at buildings". It's a reputation that Moore seems to be over, if his latest film is any indication. Made under the working title Mike's Happy Film, Where to Invade Next features Moore going on a mock-imperialist tour around the world, cherry-picking policies that he thinks should be implemented in America. During a piece on Italy's labour laws, he notes that this is the first time a CEO's actually met him on the factory floor; later on, he cheerfully admits that he's become a "crazy optimist".

What could have made him this way? Eight years of a Democratic president would be the obvious answer, though none of his Clinton-era material was ever this sunny in its disposition. (Despite a late segment on Iceland's pioneering female leaders, the question of how he's feeling about the prospect of another Clinton getting the Presidency goes unaddressed) He seems more energised by the discussions among the grass roots of America's left than their leaders, most notably in a segment on the prison-industrial complex that frames it explicitly as a racial, rather than class, injustice. By contrast, Obama is heard affirming that he won't hesitate to use the military against America's enemies - a soundbite which is played, brutally, brilliantly, over footage of police using military vehicles and gas against protesters in Ferguson, Missouri.

But hang on, we're getting bogged down in the bad stuff. Where to Invade Next is comfortably the funniest example of Moore's work since TV Nation. Some of this is down to his interview subjects - I particularly loved the French schoolchildren who react with utter horror at his photos of American school meals - but a lot of it's down to Moore. He's on sharp-witted form, asking if Slovenia decided to remove the "W" from its alphabet during the Bush years, and introducing each country with a tongue-in-cheek factbook designed to set up the ugly-American attitude towards these nations before overturning them with a closer look. (It's not the most sophisticated gag, but I couldn't help laughing at Germany being introduced with "Fun facts: none")

The obvious rejoinder to Where to Invade Next is that he's looking at the good of these countries without considering their flaws, though given his stated mission is to isolate usable policies rather than alternative social orders that didn't bother me. It would be viable to ask how carefully he has checked that all those smiling Italian CEOs, Portuguese policemen and Tunisian politicians are as good as they say they are, though he does get in ahead of the usual whinge that treating workers like human beings will simply cost too much. (In Britain, this is often used to justify reduction of the welfare state, a social program born directly after World War II when Britain was knee-deep in money, if by "money" you mean "rubble") This segment also contains the simplest and best idea in the whole movie; French paycheques contain an itemised list of where the money deducted for tax is actually going to be spent. If America did the same thing, Moore wonders, would people become less comfortable with nearly 60% of their taxes going to the Pentagon?

It's got some more serious problems, though. After dealing surprisingly well with the legacy of the Holocaust the final reel veers off into the kind of schmaltz that's always been Moore's weakness, with an overlong montage of Icelandic women designed to show that yup, there are women in Iceland, and a very misjudged Wizard of Oz reference. Promoting Fahrenheit 9/11 Moore compared the Bush administration to the Wizard, and said his film was intended to pull back the curtain. Here, he's saying decriminalising drugs and creating rehabilitation-focused prisons will be as easy as clicking your heels and wishing you were back in Kansas, which makes the social changes he's arguing for seem less realistic than they did when you were hearing politicians and professionals explain how they worked.

That said, there have been plenty of people on the left and on the right looking to imitate Moore's populist-pamphleteer style since Fahrenheit 9/11, and all of them have had the effect of making me value Moore more. None of his imitators have the skill to make these grand overviews of American and global politics flow like an actual movie, let alone making them as entertaining and persuasive. Even in its rougher stretches, Where to Invade Next is a reminder of what a confident and talented film-maker he is. You may wish for a more in-depth look at the policies he addresses; I'd certainly watch a documentary solely about Norwegian prisons after this. But that film might not have an archive video of guards at a maximum-security Norwegian prison singing 'We Are the World', so it's give and take, isn't it?

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