Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 8, 2016)
Did Michael Moore peak with 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11? Though he had success as a documentarian prior to that release, Fahrenheit hit a cultural nerve far deeper than any of his other films. Moore’s films immediately before and after Fahrenheit - 2002’s Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine and 2007’s Sicko - both earned US grosses in the low to mid $20 million range, and that makes them his second and third biggest hits.
On the other hand, Fahrenheit earned a stunning $119 million US, a figure that makes it the most successful documentary of all-time – and by a pretty good margin. Since then, Moore’s films have struggled to find an audience, especially after Sicko. 2009’s Capitalism: A Love Story topped out at $14 million, while 2016’s Where to Invade Next ended up with a mere $3 million, a number that lands it as his second-lowest-grossing movie ever.
I admit that Moore’s brand of filmmaking has tended to leave me cold, but I still felt curious to give Invade a look. I don’t think I’d seen a Moore movie since Fahrenheit, so this seemed like a good time to check out what Moore circa 2016 could do.
In his newest film, Moore travels the world to “invade” countries to find out what they have to offer the US. This takes him to Italy, France, Finland, Slovenia, Germany, Portugal, Norway, Tunisia, and Iceland.
As Moore visits these locations, he meets locals, business leaders and politicians. Moore checks out worker benefits, educational systems, factories and the middle class, unpleasant histories, drug and prison policies, health care, women’s rights, and financial systems.
Like I alluded earlier, I go into Moore’s projects with a skeptical viewpoint. I saw three or four of his prior efforts and found these films to be about Moore first and his theses second. Moore shoved his views down our throats with his egotistical, one-sided screeds.
To some degree, Moore reigns in his tendencies here, at least in terms of how he forces himself on the audience. While Moore plays a key role in Invade, he seems to focus less on himself than usual, so he doesn’t come across like the center of attention in the way that occurred with earlier movies.
That side of Invade feels like a positive, but the rest of the film suffers from Moore’s usual flaws, especially in terms of his refusal to even vaguely attempt even-handed material. Early on, he acknowledges that he’ll ignore negatives in the societies he “invades”, as he tells us he wants to “pick the flowers, not the weeds”.
That’s a cute phrase, but it acts as a cop-out. This approach allows Moore to turn a blind eye to various societal drawbacks that might mitigate his assertions. Moore tends to present ideals and imply that they exist in typical situations, and even when he does acknowledge negatives, he handles the material poorly.
For instance, when in Germany, Moore “confronts” the country’s fascist past and discusses the continuing impact of the Nazis on modern-day Deutschland. This detour fails to fit the rest of the movie, and it also lacks any apparent connection to reality.
Moore appears to imply that Germany circa 2016 has no racism and has moved past all those nasty emotions Hitler exploited. Seriously? It doesn’t take much of an Internet search to learn about current racial/religious issues in Germany, whereas Moore tries to convince us it’s a model society that acknowledged/atoned for its past and moved ahead.
Moore also ensures that he can bash the US in the process, and that includes the perplexing implication that American society has never dealt with its own social issues. Once again: seriously? Does the man honestly believe that there’s been no effort to deal with past transgressions in the US and that no progress has been made? He can’t be that dense, can he?
Probably not, but Moore so desperately wants to fit the facts to his theories that he makes numerous leaps of logic, many of which again come back to his refusal to show any of the negatives that impact the countries involved. Cripes, the man posits Tunisia as a great vacation spot – a place where two terrorist attacks on foreign tourists occurred in 2015 and where the State Department warns tourists to exercise extreme caution!
Moore also ignores/alters material to make the US look worse. He holds up Virginia as a place where voting rights concerns turned the state permanently “red” – which would be awesome if Virginia didn’t currently have a Democratic governor and they hadn’t voted for Obama in two straight elections.
Moore does occasionally make some good points. In particular, I agree with him that US schools “over-educate” kids and leave them with little time for anything other than studying. I also agree that “teaching to the test” sucks and that the US overemphasizes standardized measures.
Unfortunately, Moore takes policies that prosper in small, homogeneous situations and fails to comprehend – or acknowledge – the complexity that comes with the US. I’m not saying none of the ideas in the film could work in America or that we shouldn’t try to improve, but Moore’s refusal to go beyond simple notions exasperates.
Because of this, Invade becomes more of a chore to watch as it goes. It starts with a modicum of promise but as it progresses, it turns more and more into a one-sided, narrow-minded lecture about How Much the US Sucks. Despite some efforts to redeem himself at the end, the movie suffers from too many fallacies and too many flaws to succeed.