Thursday 23 June 2016

Where To Invade Next (2016) - Movie Review

Bowling For Columbine was one of the first films I can remember watching and it was on heavy rotation in my DVD player when I was growing up. It is also the only Michael Moore film to date that I have seen in full. When dealing with any politically-charged filmmaker, especially one as divisive as Michael Moore, experience is probably helpful. Then again, experience is something in pretty short supply around these parts, so why start now? However, seeing as how it is election season both here in Australia and over in the U.S. and we’re being bombarded by vox pops and spin doctors every other minute of the day, I feel a certain need to soap box that would probably do me good to let out. As a result, I am now breaking my usual rule of abstaining from politics as best as I can on this blog and willingly walking into the hellfire by looking at a very politically-charged film. At least I can get it out of my system and go back to not knowing thing one about my country’s politicians; we’re all screwed regardless of who wins anyway.

The plot: Michael Moore is fed up with how the U.S. is being run. As such, he goes on a cross-continental trip around the world, "invading" them and trying to steal ideas that could help make America great again.

Let’s look at the core idea of the documentary first, because it on its own is actually rather interesting. Under the rather facetious notion of invasion, Moore wants to pool ideas to try and improve the United States as it stands now. Insert your own joke about how little effort it would take to improve upon on the utter nothing that is the current U.S. government, because I will do no such thing. Instead, I want to bring up how this idea of patchwork politics is hardly anything novel. Every society within our curious little species is comprised of the experiences they’ve had with every other society; we’re basically an entire race of mongrels, when all is said and done.

With that in mind, Moore’s mission to "steal" ideas from other countries to improve his own may seem like a very American way of handling things, somewhat lampshaded by how much he intentionally plays up the ugly American everywhere he goes, it is also a very human way as well. With every country he goes to, at least initially, he does so under a veneer of stereotypes that the U.S., and by extension a lot of the Western world, have placed on them. For example, the French are referred to with the usual 'surrender monkey' mentality, as well as their known upper-class culinary tastes and openness concerning sex. As such, Moore looks at the dietary situations in schools, as well as their sex education programs. It's one of the few times that I can see using stereotypes to be in any way productive, as it not only adds to the cynical theft of ideas narrative, but also pans out considering the information discovered ends up revealing some of the roots behind those stereotypes.

Moore is and always will be a rather unwieldy political firebrand: He seems a lot more interested in ideas and notions than straight-up answers. Hell, probably my only real gripe with Bowling For Columbine would have to be that, for as much as it touted the search for answers, it concluded with Moore being rather empty-handed. That, and the ultimate bit of preachiness with his ambush of Charlton Heston, but that's neither here nor there. As such, his approach in solely aiming for ideas has him in his element a lot more prominently. It may lead to a certain amount of grandstanding, in conflict with the usual documentary ideal of 'show, don’t lecture', but on the whole it works out... as far as his intent is concerned.

Early on, he says that he’s plucking the flowers, not the weeds, and you certainly get that impression with how he focuses solely on the positives in each country he goes to. This approach makes sense in terms of Moore’s mission statement for this film, but it ends up reaching the point of unfathomably surreal with what ends up being shown on screen. And no, I’m not just talking about the differences in policy between the countries in question and the U.S. (and, by extension, here in Australia); I’m talking about Moore’s trip to Norway. Said trip involves going to Halden Fengsel, a maximum security prison, which is introduced to us through a promotional video where all the guards sing 'We Are The World'. This isn’t quite as jarring as the Smells Like Teen Spirit sequence from Pan, but it’s damn close.

When dealing with as many social issues as this film does, from education to worker’s rights to political revolution to abortion, it would preferable if each topic was presented on its own terms. Unfortunately, Moore doesn’t seem to do that. Instead, with each new hot button issue that crops up, he keeps making blanket statements in relation to each one. Norway’s aforementioned unconventional prison system, Iceland’s more gender equal political benches, Finland and Slovenia’s education practices; these are all brought up as these great ideas, and admittedly these are all amazing on the surface, but how they were brought about is lightly glossed over in place of just showing how great everything is. As a result, Moore presents these ideas as something that could help through most if not all of America's problems, but only theoretically in terms of making them stick in America.

This gets especially grating when it comes to Iceland and how a lot more women are in parliament, resulting in what I can only describe as ‘femmesplaining’. Hey, if mansplaining is apparently a thing and we’re meant to be about gender equality, why not? It gets to the point where it legitimately starts to look like a flat-out political commercial, utilising images of women standing and staring dead into the camera that has been a common trope of the medium for many a year now. Hell, since it’s election time right now both in the U.S. and Australia, chances are that commercials of that very variety are airing on our TVs as I type this. If this sounds bitter and misogynistic to any of you, understand that this film uses a news clip where the GFC was being blamed on male hormones and how they make men act on the trading floor; I think I have enough reason to slightly miffed.

Slightly miffed, though, because here’s where I show my hand. As I said, BFC is the only other Moore documentary I’ve seen in full and I’m not that political a person by nature. I am a white kid from the suburbs who, all things considered, has been relatively sheltered in terms of the world around me. Bear that in mind when I say that this film was honestly kind of confronting. I remember back when John Oliver did a piece on gun control for The Daily Show and, when he asked gun rights advocate Philip Van Cleave about implementing gun control laws in the U.S. after they worked so well in Australia, Philip described Australia as ‘Planet X’ and the U.S. as ‘the real world’. Holding back my bile for such bullshit, I would still like to bring up how this attitude of “different people, different effect” in relation to policy is very much a side effect of this film as well. Even if does feel a tad too idyllic with how its framed, these policies feel so ideal (for the more liberal of us, at the very least) that it starts to mindfrag on the basis that these policies should already be in place here and it is confounding that they aren’t. Are our countries so different?

Well, we do get to a bit of an explanation as to how these changes came about in their respective countries, and it’s not pretty: A lot of very, very harrowing experiences. Since this film takes us to Germany, that does in fact include the Nazis and they aren’t the only dictatorship that gets brought up. Moore himself seems aware that implementing these ideas in the U.S. would be difficult, unless the next election results in many years of suffering followed by many years of re-building for the better, but then the ending comes around. While it involves a fair bit of patting on the back, as we get a montage of the countries that took ideas from the U.S. in how they got the changes they now benefit from, it also features a moment at the Berlin Wall that, honestly, is kind of poignant. Hell, "hammer, chisel, down" is the kind of motto that revolutions are built from; it will take work, but we got to start somewhere.

All in all, this is confronting, surreal, a bit preachy and above all fascinating. Basically, it ticks all of the boxes for a good political documentary. I may have my own issues with a few of the ideas brought up, and the 'glass is always half-full' approach can make things a little lopsided, but through it all Moore shows that change can only happen with a lot of hard work, and by showing these countries at their best, that change is indeed possible. Or, if that sounds too idealistic for some of you, this film managed to break through my cynicism; it is exceptionally rare for any film to be able to do that, and I certainly wasn’t expecting from the more political realm.

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