“Where to Invade Next” - Michael Moore (2015)

Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next (2015) is another one of his personal cinematic essays about American society, but it has some distinguishing features that make it stand out among his oeuvre.  First of all, despite the acclaim that a number of his earlier films have received (Bowling for Columbine (2002) was a US Oscar winner and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) was a Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner and is the highest-grossing documentary film of all time), I would say that Where to Invade Next is perhaps Moore’s most polished and well-crafted film.  A second distinguishing feature is the relentlessly upbeat nature of the film.  Although Moore’s narrative tone has always been mostly soft-spoken and congenial, he has nevertheless generally made films that have been critical of perceived flaws of US society.  On this occasion in Where to Invade Next, though, he is purposefully positive throughout.

Even so, there are a number of critics (and also people at large) who always defensively hate Michael Moore for his presumed unfair and “incorrect” depictions of the US, and accordingly, they hate Where to Invade Next, as well [1,2].  To get a clearer view of where some of this hatred comes from, it is perhaps best for me to quote some material from my review of Moore’s earlier and superb documentary SiCKO (2007) [3]:
Documentary films are supposed to expose the “truth” about some subject. Inspired by the demonstrated success of Western empirical science, a good documentary film is supposed to lay bare the objective facts of a situation, so that a judicious and unprejudiced viewer can see objective reality and arrive at the truth. This is in direct contrast with propaganda films, a label that Moore's rabid critics attach to his films, which display a willingness to distort the facts in an effort to persuade the viewer on some point. In ever-more-strenuous efforts to get at the underlying truth of a subject, documentary filmmakers have always continually striven to efface the subjectivity of their own point of view by attempting to expose “the truth” in ever-more objective detail. An idealistic extreme of these efforts has been cinema vérité. I commented about cinema vérité in connection with my review of Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1999):   
The notions of cinema vérité, which actually go back to the work of Dziga Vertov and his Russian colleagues in the 1920s, became popular in France during the 1960s. The goal was to capture objective reality, “the truth”, with the camera. When the popularity of cinema vérité spread to the US, it became known as “direct cinema”, but there was an often-overlooked difference. The American filmmakers adopted a “fly-on-the-wall” approach: they wanted to make the camera so inconspicuous, so “invisible”, that the subjects being filmed were not consciously aware of its presence. The camera was to be an objective record of reality. But of course this is a fiction: the camera always has its presence and its point of view in any filmmaking activity. The French cinema vérité documentarians tended to acknowledge explicitly this presence of the observer, and they incorporated their own observations into their recordings.
The fundamental distinction between French cinema vérité and American direct cinema relates to a fundamental philosophical divide separating two ways of looking at the world, which I call “Objectivism” and “Interactionism”.
  • Objectivism is the naive objective reality stance, which most of us adopt most of the time in our everyday activities. The objective world is assumed to be scientifically knowable and reducible to elementary entities that operate according to laws that can, in principle, be discovered by an “objective” observer. This objective world is “out there” – independent of any observer. To know about this world, one’s act of scientific observation must avoid any interference with that which is being inspected. Isaac Newton’s Laws of Physics are representative examples of Objectivism’s achievements.
  • Interactionism (which could also be called the “the Phenomenological”) recognizes that the observer invariably and essentially has an effect on whatever may be observed (as attested to by physicist Werner Heisenberg with his Principle of Uncertainty). For Interactionism, every human activity invariably involves an embodied interaction with something else (even, as Heisenberg noted, when interacting with a scientific instrument). In this respect, rather than Cartesian dualism and Newtonian analysis, one should associate Interactionism with Buddhism, Sufism, and the work of Merleau-Ponty. From the Interactionist perspective, Objectivism is only an abstract ideal that has pragmatic application in many domains, but not all. But real experience, which is inescapably interactive, can only be approximated by Objectivism -- and only approximated accurately some of the time, such as when observing more remote physical objects, like the stars. In other spheres of activity, where account of human interaction cannot be minimized, such as the sphere of human social activity, Objectivist approximations are particularly weak and inaccurate.
“Direct Cinema”, which has dominated the American imagination when it comes to documentary filmmaking (even though it is only one style and not even the most common practice), exemplifies Objectivism, or claims to, anyway. Note that in fact, direct cinema documentary filmmakers have shooting ratios as high as 100 to 1, which means that out of all that “fly on the wall” material that has been collected, only a small amount of footage is actually used. This means that the film editor has been highly selective in terms of what makes the final cut, and this selectivity almost invariably reflects a personal point of view. In contrast with Objectivist-influenced American direct cinema documentarians, outstanding European documentary filmmakers, such as Werner Herzog and Louis Malle, have been Interactionists. They recognize that every documentary film presentation necessarily involves interactions on the part of the filmmaker with his subject material, and they explicitly acknowledge that interaction by supplying their own personal commentary. Michael Moore belongs to the same camp and is an Interactionist, too, but he is operating in a popular society that clings stubbornly to the belief that Objectivism is the only option.
So what we have here in Where to Invade Next is the idea that Moore takes the viewer along with him on his own personal, Interactionist journey.  It is not the US military that will be invading a foreign country on this occasion, but, instead, it is Michael Moore (and we viewers vicariously along with him) who will be doing the invading.  This sarcastically intended ruse means that, unfortunately, some people may be misled by the film’s suggestive title and stay away, thinking that the film is just a followup to Fahrenheit 9/11 and is concerned with future misguided American military misadventures and atrocities.  They will then miss out on this film’s wider philosophical compass and interesting virtues, which are more concerned with just what kind of world you want to live in.

The film does begin in conformance with its sardonic title, showing Moore having an imaginary meeting with the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.  These military leaders tell him that they have lost all wars since World War II and are now at a loss as to what to do.  Moore tells them that, in keeping with the military’s presumed temper of intrusive exploitation, he intends to stage one-man invasions into some civilized countries and “steal” from them some successful ideas for running a society that those countries have implemented.  He admits that he will not be making overall comparisons  of those societies with the U.S. – he will just be picking the flowers and not the weeds.  Moore then launches his series of invasions into nine countries to steal their good ideas.

1.  Italy
Moore first interviews an Italian working-class couple and learns about their customary work conditions.  He learns that it is common for Italian workers to have
  • 30-35 paid working-days of annual vacation (i.e. 6-7 paid weeks of vacation),
  • 15 paid days for a honeymoon,
  • 5 months of paid maternity leave, 
  • a “13th month” salary bonus paid to them at the end of the year.
Moore then visits some executives (from a clothing manufacturer and Ducati motorcycles) who express their firm support for these employee benefits.  They say they want to have happy, healthy employees, and they are happy to give their workers 2-hour lunch breaks.  Perhaps this is connected with the fact that life expectancy in Italy is four years greater than in the U.S.

2.  France
In France Moore learns that elementary school children are given a full one hour for lunch and are given nutritious food, unlike U.S. school cafeterias.  In addition, sex is not a taboo subject in French schools, and all students are given basic instruction about sex.  In particular, sex is not treated as a naughty activity, but is instead cast as a beautiful opportunity for the expression of  love.  It is suggested that perhaps the omission of sex education in US schools is connected with the high teen pregnancy rate in the U.S.

Incidentally, with regard to France and Italy, it may be worth noting that although national healthcare systems are not really a theme in this film (this is covered in Moore’s 2007 film SiCKO), the French and Italian healthcare systems were ranked numbers one and two in the world, respectively, by the World Health Organization [4].

3.  Finland

In Finland Moore learns about the renowned Finnish education system.  There are a number of contrasts between the U.S. and Finnish systems.  The Finnish system gives no homework, and it does not use multiple-choice exams in its teaching.  Nor does it teach to standardized tests.  They are more interested in developing well-rounded, cultured young people, and are not just focused on low-level skills.  They want their students to engage in the world at large.  Partly for that reason Finland has the shortest schooldays and school years in the Western world.  In addition Finland has no private schools – even the richest kids have to attend the public schools. Nevertheless, Finland has the highest performing educational system in the world.

Another possible reason for Finland’s high performance in education that I have heard about and one that Moore doesn’t mention explicitly in this film is that teaching is apparently a highly respected occupation in Finland and therefore tends to attract talented people who want to make a contribution to society.

4.  Slovenia
Moore next travels to Slovenia, where he learns that college education is completely free of charge for all students, even for foreign students.  In fact Moore interviews several American students who have come to the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia to study because they can’t afford the college fees in the U.S.  Notably in this connection, the University of Ljubljana offers one hundred courses taught in English.  These American students also say that the educations they are receiving there are of a higher standard than those they received back in the U.S.

Clearly the Slovenian government believes, like current US Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, that a well-educated and debt-free younger generation will be beneficial for the whole country’s welfare and that the investment for such is worth it.

5.  Germany
Then Moore shifts to Germany, where he discovers that companies are required to have 50% of their boards of directors staffed by workers in the company.  This ensures that the company boards will have longer-term, workplace-aware perspectives and not just concentrate on short-term windfalls.

Moore also notices that Germany does not shun teaching about disturbing aspects of its own history.  All school students are taught about Nazi-era atrocities to heighten awareness and ensure that such violations of basic human rights are never repeated.  This contrasts with the U.S., where, although the abolition of slavery is usually covered in schools, the subsequent continued discrimination against people of color and the earlier genocide of native American Indians is neglected. 

6.  Portugal
In Portugal Moore is astonished to learn from law-enforcement workers there that they have had no laws prohibiting drug use for the last fifteen years.  He is even further astounded that when laws decriminalizing drug usage were enacted in Portugal, the use of addictive drugs went down!  For example, Portugal’s rate of opiate usage is now about half that of the United State [5].  When  Moore asks how this is possible, one official suggests to him that free, universal healthcare is more effective in reducing addictive drug usage than punishing offenders with incarceration.

7.  Norway
This contrast between hate-inspired punishment and rehabilitation is continued in connection with the next country Moore invades – Norway.  There the prison system is based on rehabilitation, and the prisoners are treated humanely.  Even the father of one of mass murderer Anders Breivik’s 55 victims in 2011 is not consumed with revenge, only with regret.

And the Norwegian penal system seems to work well, too, even in connection with the main concerns of those who advocate severe punishment.  In the U.S. the recidivist rate of released prisoners is much higher than that of Norway – 80% of released prisoners in the U.S. are rearrested within five years, while in Norway only 20% of released prisoners are rearrested over that time. 

8.  Tunisia
In Tunisia, Moore takes note of the progressive developments of the revolution that took place there and which culminated on 14 January 2011 [6].  In particular, this predominantly Islamic country installed a new constitution that guaranteed the rights of women.  In fact the clauses associated with the rights of women in the new Tunisian constitution are very similar to those of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the US Constitution, which failed to secure passage in the U.S. back in 1979.

Moore also has an interesting interview with Tunisian woman journalist Amel Smaoui, who at one point directly addresses the camera and reminds Americans that they can learn some things even from a small country like Tunisia.

9.  Iceland
The theme of women is continued in Moore’s visit to Iceland, where women now play important roles across society. In fact in 1980 Iceland became the first country in the world to directly elect a woman president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir (female prime ministers chosen by indirect means had appeared elsewhere earlier). 

Moore also interviews three female CEOs and comes to the conclusion that their more holistic perspectives (than those of men) are beneficial to their work environments.  As Moore observes,
 “We [men] structure ourselves with me in mind, and you structure yourselves
   with we in mind.”
He is also told that Icelandic law now stipulates that all corporate boards of directors must consist of at least 40% women.  In fact there is gender equality here – all company boards must have a membership that is at least 40% men, too.  

Further commentary from single-mom Vigdís Finnbogadóttir tells us that the characteristic holistic attitude of women (what’s in it for all of us, rather than just what’s in it for me) make going to war a less likely option.

Moore concludes his zigzag tour by visiting the remnants of the Berlin Wall, which he had visited back in 1989 when it was being dismantled.  This serves as a reminder for him that even seemingly impossible blockages can be overcome if one just keeps chipping away.

Overall, Where to Invade Next is Michael Moore’s most upbeat film and is thoroughly entertaining to watch.  Its production values are excellent and the interviewees are spontaneous and engaging.  Critics of Moore, however, seem to be put off by his shlumpy onscreen appearance and demeanor, which though it presumably is done to affect a sympathetic working-class perspective, makes his detractors feel that Moore is just a wise-cracking shoot-from-the-hip bellyacher.  But in fact Moore’s commentary is thoughtful and cogent. 

Moore’s critics resent him, because they feel he is attacking American society, and they feel defensive about this.  So they accuse him of cherry-picking items from foreign societies and not engaging in fair comparisons.  They forget that Moore explicitly admitted at the outset of Where to Invade Next that he was not going to be engaged in overall societal comparisons and that he actually was going to be cherry-picking – just picking the flowers and not the weeds from those societies.  What he is doing here is offering constructive suggestions, not damning criticisms. 

In fact many of these constructive policy ideas that he has picked up from other countries reflect the progressive and widely praised social proposals of the world’s top economists, most of whom are based in the U.S. – Nobel Laureates Paul Krugman [7], Amartya Sen [8], and Joseph Stiglitz [9], as well as Thomas Piketty [10].  These ideas are also aligned with those of Senator and progressive US Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.

As Moore reminds us at the close of Where to Invade Next, most of the ideas that he has “stolen” from invaded countries appeared earlier in the U.S. and inspired many of those other countries to adopt them.  But Americans got bogged down in narrow-scoped utilitarianism and lost the plot.  What we need to do now, he seems to be telling us, is just keep chipping away and learn from the experiences of others in order to get back on the track of serving the greater good. 

  1. Kenji Fujishima, “Review: Where to Invade Next”, Slant, (30 September 2015).   
  2. Armond White, “Michael Moore’s Chucklehead Itinerary”, National Review, (12 February 2016).   
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘SiCKO’ - Michael Moore (2007)”, The Film Sufi, (10 February 2010).   
  4. “World Health Organization’s Ranking of the World’s Health Systems”, The Patient Factor (2000).   
  5. “List of countries by prevalence of opiates use”, Wikipedia, (27 July 2019).   
  6. “Tunisian Revolution”, Wikipedia, (3 August 2019).      
  7. Paul Krugman, “Paul Krugman: Macroeconomics, trade, health care, social policy and politics”, Opinion, The New York Times.   
  8. Amartya Sen, Peace and Democratic Society, Open Book Publishers, (2011). 
  9. Joseph E. Stiglitz, People, Power and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent,  W. W. Norton & Company, (2019).
  10. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, (trans. by Arthur Goldhammer), Belknap Press (2019).

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