When I mentioned that I liked Michael Moore's new film “Where To Invade Next”, at least three people responded “Isn't his schtick getting kind of old?”. That question, posed by people who (I'm assuming) would identify themselves as “liberal”, reveals a great deal about how attitudes toward non-fiction film, the politics of image, and the general tone of political discussion have changed (very badly, as for that last item) since Moore first picked up a camera.
More than twenty-five years have passed since the appearance of “Roger and Me”, one of two films at the end the 1980s (the other being Errol Morris' “The Thin Blue Line” ) which re-wrote the rules of cinematic reporting and many of things which made traditional documentarians apoplectic – a deeply subjective narrator, deliberately provocative editing and an investigative approach that was structured more like a comic monologue than a dry news item – have since become not just common but inescapable. Moore's greatest invention was presenting himself as a faux-innocent everyman, a concerned citizen who viewed a serious subject (the economic decline of his hometown, Flint, Michigan, in the Reagan years) through its effect on his own friends and neighbors. Moore created a comic character who just happened to share his name and background, an aw-shucks small-town kid who doesn't understand why he can't get the head of one of the world's largest corporations to return his phone calls.
Moore's schtick caught on, creating a method that has since been imitated (badly) by tv hosts, stand-up comedians and right-wing weasels like James O'Keefe. Moore's willingness to satirize himself has made him a public figure and an easy target for ridicule, but it would be a mistake to confuse the popular image of Moore (as seen on “South Park” etc.) with the real thing. He's in the uneasy position of Lenny Bruce, who used to complain that he was being punished for the inept performance of attorneys and policemen who tried to imitate his act in court. But while Moore's detractors are stuck with criticising his fictional alter ego (yes, he wears baseball caps and he is fat) , the real Moore remains an ambitious thorn in the side of American politics, always finding new ways to irritate his victims. In reality, his schtick has changed, his subjects have become more serious, and his film-making more sophisticated and engaging. By focusing solely on his celebrity, his critics are -unsurprisingly – choosing to ignore the increasingly serious subjects he addresses.
Moore's latest film “Where to Invade Next” mostly abandons the political idiot-savant image (though he can't resist slipping into it at times, as when he horrifies a group of French children by showing them a typical American school lunch) and addresses a wide range of issues from education to prison reform, using the successes of nine different countries (Italy, France, Finland, Slovenia, Germany, Portugal and Norway) to show how the rest of the world manages to educate their children, give women an equal voice in politics, provide health care , enforce drug laws, treat workers fairly and create an awareness of their political history – almost always, he explains, using the “American Dream” or our constitution as their model.
Even if you prefer to ignore Moore's jokey set-up (that he's “invading” these countries, American flag in hand, and stealing their best ideas) and his occasional tendency to overstate the obvious, “Where to Invade Next” is a thoughtful, detailed and, yes, optimistic film about real social issues and realistic solutions. It would be easy to argue (and I'm sure someone will) that all of those countries have problems of their own; Moore acknowledges this within the film but states that his intention is to show only what these countries are doing right. It's a defensible position: although the film shows the inner workings of these foreign schools, prisons, factories and other institutions at length, the implied message is “Why aren't we doing these things?” Moore has always presented himself as a kind of populist clown, but as we head deeper into an election cycle that proves nothing more than our ability to create a bigger freak show that the previous election cycle, this clown is starting to look refreshingly sensible.