Courtesy of The New York Times

March 3, 2016

What to Avoid Next

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When Michael Moore responded to the deaths of 12 innocent high school students with Bowling for Columbine, no one could have argued against the film’s political significance. A fiery critique of congressional negligence to curb gun violence, Moore’s impassioned documentary was so charged with a palpable, collective anger that many still refer to it as one of the most compelling political statements made by any documentarian. Even watching Bowling for Columbine nearly a decade after its initial release as an Australian high school student did little to weaken my appreciation of its persuasive fury. And the fact that U.S. legislators have failed to account for the thousands of victims of gun violence and have written off their deaths as an acceptable cost for the preservation of a 200-year-old constitutional amendment has only strengthened the contemporary legacy of Moore’s most important work.

Moore’s latest film, Where to Invade Next — despite being deceptively titled to suggest a censure of American foreign policy — focuses on social welfare offered by other countries that Moore believes America ought to imitate. However, the two characteristics which animate Bowling with its renowned political zeal are sorely lacking in this mostly flaccid film. Where to Invade Next has neither the aesthetic formality that ensured Bowling’s potency, nor the correct narratorial tone with which to dictate its pedagogy.

For a start, Where to Invade Next wastes its opening moments with a serious lack of specificity. As the opening title sequence unfolded after the opening scene, I initially feared that what was coming was another example of Moore at his worst: a cantankerous, disingenuous, self-aggrandizing polemic who persuasively advocates for leftist policies out of middle-class anger rather than rational justification. (The Big One, released in 1997, is Moore at his absolute worst.) However, as the film proceeded, it gradually became apparent that its broad, overarching thesis presents a shopping list of favorable social policies America should consider imitating. While no one can deny the nobility of Moore’s relentless efforts to better America — and, indeed, Moore’s most commendable trait is his consistent desire to correct the myopia ingrained within American exceptionalism — it is precisely because he is unable to temper his all-encompassing wish to improve every facet of American society that severely undermines Where to Invade Next’s immediate power. Too many ideas are introduced to effectively galvanize not only a targeted political response, but any lasting response altogether.

The film’s rudimentary structure — akin to that of a televised travelogue through a series of mostly European countries and one token North African nation — is about as exciting as it sounds. Each country has one “lesson” to teach America — whether it be Italy’s incredibly generous paid vacation schemes or Finland’s better education outcomes. This episodic structure is problematic, because it does not allow the film the opportunity to mature a single idea or follow a clear arc. The taut, methodical editing of Bowling for Columbine is substituted here by a televisual conceit unbecoming of a cinematic documentary. In fact, Where to Invade Next feels like it would have been a lot more appropriate as an eight-episode TV series. Then Moore would have been able to explore each country’s policies in greater detail, and audiences would have had greater time to digest his more detailed explanations.

Inherent to the film’s structural problems is also a strange decision regarding the film’s timeline. It honestly feels like the film peaks within its first hour, when Moore concludes his foray into the German classroom by proposing the immensely powerful thought experiment that America ought to similarly confront the shameful chapters of its past. The film is then painfully elongated to the point that each successive “lesson” feels sorely anticlimactic and redundant.

Moreover, it is in Moore’s narratorial voice that audiences can find one of the film’s most annoying characteristics. The incredulity Moore feigns when he “learns” of these purportedly better policies is incredibly grating, especially when he asks pointed questions designed to solicit deliberate answers he already knows. It is here that Moore’s sense of humor devolves into smug self-righteousness, which makes Where to Invade Next one of those films undermined rather than strengthened by Moore’s comic sensibilities. It’s worth noting, however, that Where to Invade Next demonstrates some of Moore’s core strengths as a filmmaker — among them his coy use of ironic juxtaposition to highlight perceived injustices. For instance, a brutal montage of American prison life, accompanied by the pop idealism of “We Are the World,” is reminiscent of how Moore’s pessimistic debut Roger & Me concludes with a rendition of “What A Wonderful World.”

In spite of Moore’s competencies, Where to Invade Next is ultimately burdened by its lack of specificity. Instead of pushing for a specific policy change, Moore advocates for a whole swath of policy proposals that audiences retrospectively condense in their memory — if not forget. When one further accounts for the misguided directorial tone that steers the film, it seems as though Moore’s latest effort will inevitably assume an unremarkable place within his mostly mediocre oeuvre. Most of Michael Moore’s films aren’t very good, but we recognize him as a filmmaker for his few films that are. Where to Invade Next sadly lacks the dramatic urgency of these few important works, and instead shares more in common with the divisive histrionics of most of his other filmography.