A gentler, more optimistic Michael Moore arrives in Toronto

ScreenerBlog

When the title of Michael Moore's latest documentary provocation, Where to Invade Next, was first announced, the natural assumption was that this would be a furious indictment of America's poorly planned and sometimes unjustified military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, with speculation about what part of the globe the world's de facto policeman would become mired in next. But that title is playfully deceptive: Moore's latest, which debuted here at the Toronto International Film Festival, is more in the vein of the prankish conceits he often devised on his TV series. Apart from an opening salvo at America's military track record since World War II, Where to Invade Next is more concerned with making the case for progressive ideas, usually practiced in Europe, that will strike most Americans as nothing short of radical. The joke (which, frankly, is rather belabored) is that Moore is "invading" these enlightened nations with the goal of co-opting their social successes and claiming them for America.

Unexpectedly, Where to Invade Next is probably the least angry film Michael Moore has ever made. As he journeys from Italy to France to Germany to Norway and beyond, the activist filmmaker seems genuinely nonplussed by what he discovers—in essence, societies that value quality of life, personal fulfillment, leisure time and compassion for others over the pursuit of the dollar. And, he argues, the structures they've created are not just sustainable, but profitable.

Where to Invade Next is full of factoids that will make most Americans' jaws drop: the average eight weeks of annual vacation time most Italians enjoy (helping them to live four years longer than the typical American); the gourmet meals that are served in the cafeterias of even the poorest neighborhood schools in France; how Finland has become number one in the world in education by eliminating homework and shunning standardized tests; how Norway's pampered treatment of its prisoners has resulted in a 20% recidivism rate (compared to our 80%); how Muslim-dominated Tunisia, of all places, has become a beacon for women's rights.

There is some anger here: Moore posits that soon after African-Americans became more militant about asserting their rights in the 1950s and '60s, the crackdown on inner-city drug use resulted in a huge black prison population who are today's slaves in all but name. And Moore notes how German schools and the nation in general emphasize the horrors of the Holocaust in a way America has never confronted its legacy of genocide and slavery.

Where to Invade Next is also a decidedly feminist film. Moore notes that the one banking firm that survived Iceland's financial meltdown was the one run primarily by women, and he speculates that many of the world's woes could be conquered if more women, with their nurturing interests beyond themselves, were in positions of power.

Most gratifying of all, the film ends on a surprisingly optimistic note, as Moore recalls how the Berlin Wall once seemed a permanent blight and the notion of the legitimacy of same-sex marriage was crazy talk. Many of the radical ideas he sets out to steal actually have their roots in the American experiment, he notes. America may have lost its way, but Michael Moore, that radical dreamer, hasn't given up hope.