After decades of documentaries criticizing the puzzlements of the American way of life—opposition to gun control despite a decades-long mass murder crisis (Bowling for Columbine), abiding lust for capitalism despite catastrophic results for the vast majority (Capitalism: A Love Story), opposing free public healthcare as a basic right comparable to free public education (Sicko)—Michael Moore is back, but with an entirely different approach. In his latest film, Where to Invade Next, he showcases alternatives instead of directly critiquing our many archaic policies. It’s one thing to critique, it’s another to actually show how many other countries, not so different from ours, would never dream of allowing what takes place here as business as usual, even as a remote possibility. Moore has never been more oblique, and he is all the more incisive for it.
The concept is that, in Moore’s imagination, he has been asked to consult the leading generals of the U.S. military. They have admitted that they face problems that their tactics can’t solve—they need to invade other countries to steal ideas, because America’s many ills can’t be fixed by military might. So Moore goes on an invasion tour of Italy, France, Germany, Iceland, Tunisia, Slovenia, Finland, and Norway, planting the American flag wherever he finds a good idea, claiming the land as ours.
In his first stop, Italy, he chats with some relaxed, well-adjusted members of the Italian middle class. Not only is the Italian middle class touted as secure and comfortable, but Italians have eight weeks of paid vacation mandated by the state. They have so much vacation, in fact, that even their salaries aren’t enough to pay for all the trips they have time to take. So the Italian government added a 13th month of salary at the end of the year—every December, Italian workers receive a phantom month’s salary to help them finance their vacations.
But they also take vacations of a sort every day—each worker gets a full two hours to eat a proper, leisurely, relaxing lunch. Many go home and prepare fresh, healthy meals. In America, of course, you will likely scarf it down at your desk while you’re working. It’s a strikingly foreign concept: a shared and agreed upon set of values that have real meaning. It is understood by employers and workers alike that providing the means for people to live full, respectable lives benefits everyone in the long run by creating a society people actually want to be part of.
Moore next travels to France to look at two main areas—school food and sex education. In both, the presence of actual values and the overall aim of developing citizens ready to experience a good life stand out. French schoolchildren eat four-star meals, cooked properly by trained chefs, served to them on actual china by people who seem to care about their jobs. Moore shows school kids photos of typical American school lunches, and they recoil.
There is real thought put into the whole eating experience. School officials have weekly meetings with government officials to plan out the upcoming week’s meals, haggling over which kind of cheese—shall it be gruyere or camembert?—to educate the palates. The children have a full hour for lunch, so they can learn to incorporate dining into their lives, sitting around tables where everyone faces each other, rather than the horrible long cafeteria tables with benches favored in American schools. They are served French fries maybe twice a year. French fries, aside from having little nutritional value, don’t develop a young person’s palate, and that matters to the French.
Eating is an unavoidable part of life, and the French take great measures to ensure that their citizens have a healthy relationship with food. Likewise, they take a similarly lucid, intentional approach to teaching sex education. Students are taught to value passionate love and sex, to be generous lovers, to make love slowly, to value their virginity but not treat it as a supernatural quality. They consider “abstinence education” to be a laughable quirk of the strange American people.
The film’s humor comes, mainly but not exclusively, from the sheer absurdity of the differences between American and foreign cultures and by bringing many of the absurdities of contemporary American life into sharp focus. Germans, for instance, can ask their doctors to prescribe them three weeks at a luxury spa when they feel burnt out, and they get it absolutely free. As outrageous as the contrasts may be, the film is often very funny.
Critics may point out that the countries covered in the film have far less demographic volume and diversity than America, and because of this, it must be far easier for those nations to implement these policies. But having a lot of people with diverse racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds is no reason for having such fundamental antipathy to basic pro-social logic. There’s an ugly, egoistic streak in the American outlook that has nothing to do with demography.
During his Icelandic invasion, Moore presses a group of pioneering female CEOs, who rose to prominence in the 1970s, for their honest views of America. It’s their default to be polite and accommodating, but after Moore insists on their unfiltered opinion of the United States, one of them lets loose, saying she wouldn’t live in America if she were paid. Why? Because we’re very bad neighbors, she says. She has a point, but that isn’t even the real problem. To be a bad neighbor, there has to be a neighborhood first. In America, there is no neighborhood—just a group of competitors occupying the same geographical region.