Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Where to Invade Next: A whimsical and revelatory journey

Where to Invade Next (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, asexual nudity, drug use and brief violent images

By Derrick Bang 

Guerilla documentarian Michael Moore has matured considerably as a filmmaker, since debuting with 1989’s Roger & Me. I daresay he also has gained wisdom during the intervening quarter-century.

After learning how an Italian couple has traveled the world and enjoyed fabulous holidays,
thanks to their six weeks of paid vacation each year, Michael Moore, right, symbolically
plants the American flag in their living room, in order to formally "invade" their country
and thus "steal" this fabulous idea.
He’s still mightily dismayed, disappointed and disgusted by the inexorably advancing death of the American dream, but he has gotten much smarter about the way he presents such information. Where to Invade Next is a playfully sly bit of cinematic propaganda, with a message that becomes inescapable through repetition.

In a nutshell: The United States can do better. As a country, as a culture, as a people.

Moore’s new film is, at times, an enchanting travelogue: a trip that centers mostly on Western European countries, with the corpulent and disheveled filmmaker serving as guide, his dryly mordant commentary at times making him sound like an edgier Bill Bryson.

Moore is “invading” these various countries only in a rhetorical sense, as an excuse to highlight and subsequently “steal” socio-economic concepts that appear to work superbly Over There, so that they can be made to work equally well Right Here. His rationale is cheeky but incisive; if we’ve genuinely invaded countries in the past for oil, or illusory political control, why not do so for more rational reasons?

He cheerfully acknowledges cherry-picking from countries that have their own problems, but that’s all right; as he notes, early on, “I’m after the flowers, not the weeds.”

His journey begins in Italy, where a typical couple extols the virtues of their roughly six (or even seven) weeks of paid vacation per year, not to mention the five months’ paid maternity leave granted new mothers. OK, fine; no surprise there. What employee wouldn’t delight in such treatment?

The point is hammered home more persuasively when two different company owners agree with the underlying premise: that well-rested employees work harder, and become sick less frequently. There’s also a genuine sense of bonhomie and mutual respect between workers and owners: a feeling of family.

More tellingly, the owners don’t feel obliged to make themselves obscenely rich, by cutting back staff salaries.

The employee culture in Germany is much the same way, perhaps even more so: If workers at the Faber-Castell pencil factory — yes, still going strong, even in this era of laptops and tablets — start to feel overstressed, a doctor will readily prescribe a stay of several weeks at a health spa ... on the government dime. Again: content workers = superior workers.

Education comes into the crosshairs during several subsequent stops. University education is free in Slovenia, and not merely for its native citizens; the same is true for foreign students (following a token registration fee that Moore neglects to mention). Indeed, Moore interviews a few expat American students, both of whom confess that they simply couldn’t afford college back home.

This one’s a no-brainer, right? Higher education should be free for students. They’re our future government and industry leaders, and God knows we want them to be as intelligent, well-informed and well-rounded as possible, yes?

Moore’s film includes a list of several dozen countries that have figured this out. He also deftly demolishes the knee-jerk shibboleth parroted by America’s conservative wing: that such countries have “much higher taxes” than we do. Well ... no. Yes, the per-person “tax” rate may be higher — slightly higher, in most cases — but we’re saddled with far higher out-of-pocket expenses (tuition, etc.) that simply aren’t labeled as taxes.

That’s just a shell game. And, like the victims who get suckered by street hustlers offering the illusion of victory in three-card monte, we lose.

Moore’s politically motivated jabs aren’t entirely absent, of course. His visit to Slovenia offers a juicy thrust, when he discovers that the local alphabet has only 25 letters, to our 26. Most tellingly, there’s no W ... which gives Moore the perfect opportunity to take another poke at his favorite, much-despised target, George W. Bush. (For the record, the Slovenian alphabet also doesn’t have Q or Y. But it’s still a droll jab.)

The funniest segment, by far, comes when Moore visits the massive kitchen of what appears to be one of Michelin’s five-star restaurants in France. Ah, but this is a public grade-school kitchen, preparing nutritiously well-balanced, multi-course lunches for children: sumptuous main dishes that change daily, accompanied by fruit and cheese — always cheese; the French adore their cheese — and dessert.

As to the beverage, the kids drink water. Lots of water. No sugar-laden alternatives of any kind, whether fruit juice, milk or oft-maligned sodas. Moore gets considerable mileage out of the “contraband” he sneaks into the classroom: a can of Coke. He offers tastes; most of the kids express little or no interest.

Granted, they could have been coached, could have recognized that this was a gag.

But their reactions definitely aren’t feigned as they grimace with disgust when shown photographs of typical American school lunches, dominated by unappetizing, indefinable glop that shouldn’t even be served to dogs.

Again, a no-brainer. But not here, apparently.

Finland, which once languished in the school system basement — right alongside the United States, in terms of first-world public education — today boasts the world’s best-educated students. Finland tried something different a few decades ago, and it seems to be succeeding. School work stays in school; homework is rare. Teaching methodology focuses on the panoply of subjects, from civics and science, to art and sports.

Most emphatically, no standardized testing. Which, a collection of Finnish teachers insist, “teaches” students only one thing: how to pass a standardized test. Which isn’t a life skill.

As for the absence of homework ... well, the theory is similar to the approach taken with Italian and German workers: A rested, happy student is more likely to excel during class time. Seems to be true.

Thus far, Moore’s tone has been light, his “flowers” sensible and reasonable. (Well, they certainly seem reasonable, although I have no illusions about quick implementation on these shores.)

Things get both more fanciful, and more serious, in the film’s second half. Norway’s benevolent prison system seems to depend upon bad guys — even acknowledged murderers — who promise never to do it again. While there’s no question that America’s often sickening guard-on-prisoner brutality — and this film offers numerous video examples of same — contributes to an increased potential for riots and other violence, I rather doubt that our worst gang-bangers and meth addicts could be housed safely in Norway’s comfortably appointed “studio apartment” prison cells.

At the same time, Moore begins to offer some intriguing theories. Isn’t it interesting, he suggests, that America’s so-called “war on drugs,” which from the beginning has disproportionately targeted and jailed people of color, was implemented just as those same people had successfully marched, demonstrated and agitated for their God-given civil rights?

And isn’t it ironic, on that same topic, that said incarceration strips voting rights from those same people of color ... which, in effect, affords historically racist states the same opportunity to “control” access to voting, much the way they did prior to the intervention of folks such as Martin Luther King, as we’re reminded in recent films such as Selma?

Moore offers another cogent theory during a visit to Iceland, whose economy crashed catastrophically during the recent global financial crisis. Only one large financial institution didn’t fail: the lone bank run by women. Moore therefore wonders if banking and stock market downturns might be exacerbated by the arrogant, testosterone-fueled irrationality of Wall Street’s almost entirely male risk-takers.

Interesting thought.

Oh, and Iceland also jailed its financial criminals. The guys at the top. Scores of them. Obviously, they’re no longer in a position to do that again.

We didn’t jail any of ours. Worse, they’re still in a position to do it again. Indeed, they already are doing it again. And they’re complaining about how recent legislation, weak as it is, interferes with their doing it again.

We can do better. We really can.

Actually, we must.

Moore saves the best irony for last: the fact that most of these “great ideas,” which he wishes to “steal,” have a common source.

Where to Invade Next runs a bit long, at two full hours; it’s a lot to absorb, all at once. Moore maintains a brisk pace, and his commentary is never less than engaging, as are his exaggerated reactions of disbelief. Unlike past films, notably Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, his agenda isn’t nearly as blatantly partisan, and his tone isn’t nearly as shrill.

If he has learned, finally, that he’ll more likely attract us with honey and gentle guile ... so much the better. The message here is no less important.

Six weeks of paid vacation? Restorative spa visits?

Sign me up!

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