Michael and Me: Where to Invade Next

by / Feb. 10, 2016 1am EST

In 1989, when Michael Moore burst on the documentary film scene with his unprecedentedly successful film Roger and Me, the late film critic Pauline Kael was not among those acclaiming his debut. The titular Roger was Roger Smith, then chief executive of General Motors, and Moore’s comic conceit was that his film documented his efforts to get an opportunity to interview Smith about his company’s closing of a plant in Flint, Michigan (yes, that Flint, Michigan) and the consequential loss of thousands of jobs.

As the movie follows Moore on his obviously doomed-to-fail attempts to speak to Smith, the filmmaker encounters various Flint residents and elicits their clueless or clumsy responses to the closure. (Flint is Moore’s hometown.) It’s really a faux-documentary; Moore is a prankster and provocateur, but he recognized the serious nature of the underlying problem: the disappearance of manufacturing jobs and the collapse of American industry. Moore was provocative and funny, not so much in spite of as because of his all too thinly disguised and happy indifference to accuracy, not to mention fairness.

Kael called the movie “shallow and facetious” and “gonzo demagoguery.” Moore, she wrote, was “using his leftism as a superior attitude,” and said the movie made her “feel cheap for laughing.” She pointed out, among other journalistic crimes and misdemeanors, his falsification of chronology and context. (The jobs were lost over 12 years, not all at once, and GM closed plants in four states, not just in Flint.) Moore, she noted, interjected a clip of Ronald Reagan making a classically insensitive remark in 1980, implying it addressed plant closings years later. And then there was the sneaky, snarky way Moore treated guileless interviewees, gulling them into making foolish, befuddled comments, people like the older women he confronts on a city golf course.

I understood and shared Kael’s discomfort and annoyance, and the sense of guilty enjoyment Moore engendered. His saucy approach and attitude sometimes seem to slip over into arrogant superiority. For over a quarter-century, Moore’s frowsy and wide-beamed form has periodically been shambling through his movies. These are frequently amusing, sometimes slyly well-aimed polemics against the usual liberal banes and bêtes noires, not always demonstrating a scrupulous regard for accuracy and fairness. Writing about Moore, the late New York Times critic Vincent Canby said, “Playing fair is for college football,” his assumption about collegiate sports perhaps belonging to a more innocent era.

Moore’s latest, Where to Invade Next, is rather less aggressive and spoofy, but his adherence to the conventions of evidence-based argument is not much greater. The tricked-up premise—that Moore is “invading” other nations on behalf of America’s armed forces leaders in order to find solutions to this country’s military defeats—is flat and flimsy, and even he seems to have trouble maintaining the pretense. Essentially, the movie amounts to an omnibus grab bag in which Moore visits eight European countries and one North African country to cherry-pick social programs that put America’s negligence and more primitive arrangements to shame. This isn’t hard to do.

In Italy he supposedly discovers that workers have vacation and parental-leave benefits far better than Americans get (although Moore seems to have trouble keeping track of whether annual vacation rights are for four or eight weeks). In France he marvels at the leisurely, luxurious, and nutritious public school lunches. Moore mingles with apparently racially and ethnically harmonious French children in their school. (He might have had a different experience in one of the poorer suburban neighborhoods of Paris in which France’s Muslim youth live in often resentful suspicion.) In Portugal he pretends to be amazed that the authorities have decriminalized drug possession and abolished the death penalty. (In fact, almost all Western nations have no capital punishment.) And so it goes.

Much of this nation-hopping reveals crucially wholesome social and economic programs that Americans must suffer without. This should not be a surprise, but the current Republican presidential campaign indicates how insulated from social realities this country is. But Moore glosses and glides over some other aspects of reality. Italy’s employment-union members have superior benefits but their country is a giant morass of private and public corruption. France has a much higher unemployment rate than this country, and French capitalists have begun pushing back against the costs of the public sector. Indeed, the entire European Union can, from one viewpoint, be seen as a tentative, transnational move toward restricting the continent’s national working classes.

 These developments don’t moot the movie’s striking comparisons, all unfavorable to the US, but a dose of detailed accuracy makes the dimensions of the problem clearer.