5.5 out of 10
Starring and directed by Michael Moore
Where to Invade Next Review:
Advocacy journalism has a strong and historical place in American literature (and films are literature, make no mistake) albeit a contentious one. It pushes back against the notion that art, particularly in non-fiction, should deal in truth and find its strength in viewing multiple sides of a subject, but leaving conclusions to the viewer.
That idea would have been met with raised eyebrows a century ago where journalism in particular was predicated on pushing a point of view but in the modern world is considered something of an anachronism. Not that this has done away with the notion – it’s become political journalism’s lifeblood – and in the world of film few have been linked so strongly with the idea as Michael Moore (Capitalism: A Love Story) from drilling into the early effects of globalization on the American middle-class to his well-covered war of words against the George W. Bush administration and the Iraq War.
Moore’s newest documentary is not, as the title might suggest, a look at America’s continued military hegemony but in fact a return to his favorite theme: the country’s need to replicate the liberal social policies of other Western countries in order to return the middle class to its previous greatness.
Traveling throughout Europe, Moore symbolically ‘invades’ several of them to dig deep into some small but potentially transformative policies which he can plunder and bring back to America, in keeping with America’s classic military adventures. Ideas such as government funded and mandated vacations for workers, free or highly subsidized college education and being less beholden to banks or other major capital lenders.
It’s not a bad approach for advocacy documentary, but the fact that he feels bound to bait and switch at the beginning suggests he has, at some level, an idea of the difficulty he has in bringing those disparate elements together or making an argument for them. As has been Moore’s want, his goal in making a film is not to show reality or even to make an argument but to tilt the playing field so fully in the direction he intends to go, his viewers have no choice but to follow along with him.
Which not only plays into the classic argument against the form – that it is trying to force people down a chosen path via careful manipulation – but often inadvertently gives it more ammunition.
As his actual topic becomes more amorphous and harder for even Moore himself to make convincing, his manipulation becomes more obvious and does more damage than help to his goal. This is particularly distressing as many of the small stories he has picked out to focus on are worthy of the attention.
The look at Latvia’s free college system or Iceland’s ongoing prosecution of financial criminals are underserved stories which point out workable and potentially popular programs very much in the vein of modern news magazine shows. This is not enough for Next, however, which tends to radically worsen the alternatives Moore doesn’t favor and ignores the potential downsides to such programs, painting them instead as either unalloyed goods or evils.
Beyond the pitfalls this can create for the position he is actually pushing, the constant jumping from topic to topic without intuitive connection makes it difficult for Moore to clearly explain his overall point.
The more contortions a filmmakers needs to get his audience to follow him, or to explain where he’s trying to go, the weaker the argument becomes no matter how much belief is behind it. Moore goes through quite a few in the film’s various twists and turns with his focus seemingly more on interesting sequences than on how they fit together.
It’s particularly noticeable during his extended trip to France and view of its government sponsored leave and education programs, a classic Moore obsession he has trotted out in other films. Like any idea which grips an individual for an extended period, eventually it begins to feed on itself until it comes spilling out as an uncalled-for answer to any and all questions, like thematic Tourette’s.
Moore has been on this downward spiral since 2007’s Sicko when his investigation into the cracks in the US healthcare industry eventually turned into a similar comparison between US and European social programs Next is trying to make. Somewhere in his desperation to make us see the obvious truths, he himself grasps he’s lost the ability to make such distinctions clear, the skill which made his earlier films so memorable.
In that sense, what Moore does is most certainly more art than fact as it has the same inherent weakness: the fact that while a clear vision unveils some sort of truth, a poor vision will bury it. Moore used to have a laser focus on his subjects (an interview with Roger Smith, a repetition of the relative gun violence of America to other countries) but that skill has been lost somewhere as his perspective has expanded to try and encompass all of America’s ills.
What should be the focus here – the fact that all of these different programs were in some way once American ideas and if we could return to them we would actually find our way to the future – is instead held for some sort of late wrap-up conclusion trying to explain the wide net which has been cast. Like much of Next, it ends up being a case of too little, too late and leaving the viewer with little except the thought that Moore should have taken his own advice.