Where to Invade Next review: “it’s gimmicky and upbeat, but not afraid to go to darker places”

Michael Moore once more addresses America's ills in entertaining style, suggesting that a European outlook may provide the cure

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★★★

The most common charge levelled against Flint, Michigan’s down-home polemicist Michael Moore is that his hugely popular, left-leaning films cherry-pick footage and facts to support the thesis in hand, whether it’s to do with gun control, American warmongering or rampant capitalism. 

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You could argue that he lives in a country where the media is equally biased in the other direction and his heavily authored documentaries are merely a necessary corrective. He’s certainly provided a lot of entertainment while preaching to the choir and playing to the gallery. 

Fahrenheit 9/11, a state-of-the-nation address from the middle of the first George W Bush administration, remains the highest-grossing documentary of all time. It didn’t stop Bush from being re-elected in 2004, however. Typically for Moore’s work, it made around half its money in the US, and half from the rest of the world.

His latest provocation is less Fahrenheit 9/11 and closer in tone and approach to Sicko, his scattershot hymn to universal healthcare, which criticised America’s pre-Obamacare, insurance-based system and looked abroad to the “socialised” systems operating in Canada, the UK and France. 

Where to Invade Next similarly attacks American social policy by looking outward to schemes in foreign utopias like Italy (better workers’ rights; more paid holiday), Iceland (a better deal for women; harsher punishment for bankers after the financial crisis), Norway (less draconian prisons), Germany (a healthier acceptance of the sins of its national past, illustrated by a moving section on Holocaust non-denial, compared unfavourably to America’s amnesia about being “born in genocide and built on the back of slaves”) and France (better school meals – yes, seriously). 

The gimmick of an increasingly unkempt-looking Moore “invading” these countries and “stealing” their best ideas is thin, but the upbeat content, filmed across three continents using a small crew and drawing on gently cajoled testimony from Italian CEOs, German pencil-factory workers and Portuguese cops, speaks for itself, with Moore himself mostly gawping in disbelief as yet another liberal policy is revealed. 

As is customary with his films, Moore cuts and pastes evidence to support his thesis, and throws in fast-edit montages of uncaptioned footage that works emotionally but not necessarily factually. But while the overall tone is folksy and idyllic, presenting a predominantly European world of not-for-profit initiatives that clearly work, Moore isn’t afraid to go to darker places. 

He dares to contextualise the seemingly out of national character mass murder of Anders Breivik in Norway, where the maximum sentence is 21 years and one island prison is shown to be more like a holiday village. He interviews an almost heartbreakingly fair-minded bereaved father, who refuses Moore’s invitation to wish death upon his son’s killer. And, having rhapsodised over the Norwegian justice system, he shows a montage of black American prisoners being abused by white officers, offering this up as a new and shameful form of slavery in a country with a lot to learn.

Since the film was made, Europe has been enveloped by the migrant crisis, with some territories closing their borders and even Germany’s open arms being put firmly behind its back, bedevilled by terrorism. Even so, Where to Invade Next might prove a better advert for the EU than anything cooked up by the Stay campaign.

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Where to Invade Next is released in cinemas on Friday 12 June