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Michael Moore's Anti-Hero Act Gets Old In 'Where To Invade Next'

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 12, 2016 3:15PM

Michael Moore in “Where to Invade Next”. (Photo: © Dog Eat Dog Films.)

Can't we do better than Michael Moore?

I ask this as someone whose politics run left of center, as someone wary of conservative media dominance, and as someone who once enjoyed and championed his work. But Michael Moore, who returns to his role of documentary provocateur with Where to Invade Next, seems increasingly like an irrelevant messenger, even when the message he carries is vital.

When Moore first gained national notoriety with Roger & Me (1989), it really felt like a breath of fresh air: an angry, unapologetically activist documentary that was also damned funny. No longer did it seem necessary for a movie to raise serious issues with relentless solemnity or a dry, academic tone. Even as his manipulations of facts and context became evident, Moore still seemed like part of a much-needed rebellion against a news media increasingly reluctant to speak truth to power.

When Bowling for Columbine (2002) made over $20 million at the box office (unheard of for a political documentary at that time) and then Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) grossed well over $100 million—joining the commercial ranks of Hollywood blockbusters—it seemed like the tide was turning.

But it didn't turn. So it's become increasingly hard to argue that Moore does much more than preach to the converted, serving the left in the same manner Fox News and AM talk radio serve the right. In Where to Invade Next, he again makes many important points about where the United States has gone wrong, but his questionable methods remain and his "average Joe" persona is becoming downright insufferable.

The premise of Where to Invade Next is a strong one. Moore "invades" several different, mostly European countries to show where we have dropped the ball, pledging to claim their good ideas for the U.S. Some of the stops include France, held up for higher school nutritional standards; Finland for a better educational system free of standardized tests; Iceland for being more inclusive and economically fair to women; Italy for its generous vacation allotment; Norway for its progressive prison policies; and Slovenia for its free college education.

These examples do show much the U.S. should emulate, but the movie is shockingly thin on background. Moore paints the Italian worker as basically living a dream life of comfort, with little if any mention of the country's serious unemployment problem. The Slovenia segment focuses on a school that announced plans to impose tuition until a student rebellion put a stop to it. But is the school in financial trouble? The movie leaves these and dozens of other questions unanswered.

I claim no expertise on the policies of these nations, and Moore may be absolutely right to hold them up as exemplary. But considering some of the blatant manipulations in his past work that have come to light, his arguments would be more convincing with more information and less cheerleading.

"Where to Invade Next." (Photo: © Dog Eat Dog Films.)

Still, Moore has always been more of an agitprop artist than a true journalist, so is he still making a valuable contribution to our political discourse? That seems less likely as his self-branding as a liberal icon means his films reach virtually no new or adverse audiences. Even the title, Where to Invade Next, excludes anyone who might be liberal on domestic issues but more hawkish on foreign policy. Persuasion is not this filmmaker's game.

The work of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and others who have followed in his footsteps, like Stephen Colbert and John Oliver, has far eclipsed Moore's work as a satirist/activist. They are sharper, funnier and more willing to expose hypocrisy on both the left and right. And the documentary film world has enjoyed a renaissance in both journalistic and agitprop realms that makes Moore's recent films seem far less substantial.

And Moore himself seems less substantial, mostly committed to keeping the Michael Moore brand (a very lucrative one) thriving. My queasiness about him began with the scene in Bowling for Columbine where he badgers Charlton Heston (already probably ailing with Alzheimer's disease), knowing it's flashier to diminish a celebrity mouthpiece than the NRA operatives pulling his strings. The exploitative (and sneakily edited) shots of him leaving the picture of a victim of gun violence outside Heston's estate was worthy of a tearful Glenn Beck rant.

The cover of his Fahrenheit 9/11 companion book, Will They Ever Trust Us Again?, with a sad-eyed Moore looming over a folded flag, as if presenting it to a war widow, was equally off-putting. He avoids anything quite so grotesque in Where to Invade Next, but can't resist his schlubby anti-hero routine, showing up for a meeting with major world and economic leaders in his trademark baseball cap. It's not so much that this is disrespectful, as it seems so highly mannered.

But Moore's everyman act is at its worst in how he responds to his interview subjects. Obviously he had done research long before traveling to each of these countries and had already established the premise of his film, so his "golly gee" reactions upon hearing about the benefits his subjects enjoy is condescending to viewers.

The director's filmmaking skills—underrated by opponents and supporters alike—also take a step backwards in the new film. The sharp pacing, impactful editing choices, and clever incorporation of outside media is less inspired here. In all respects, Moore seems to be coasting on his reputation in a movement that has passed him by.

Where to Invade Next.
Directed and written by Michael Moore. 110 mins. Rated R.

Opens Friday, Feb. 12 at select theaters nationwide.