Michael Moore sets out on his quest
Jeb Bush tweeted: [this is] America [and he’s proud to belong to a country epitomized by this image]
Donald Trump: he will cut billions in taxes from the wealthy, eliminate the Affordable Care Act; he is for privatizing everything possible, but he will not let anyone die in the streets; he seems not to understand the nuclear deterrent system of the US; he will re-institute systematic torture; he will gut the 4th and 8th amendment; he will limit free speech, control the internet; he will invade Iraq and take “the oil;” he would shoot Muslims with bullets covered with pig’s blood and require all Muslims to wear a sign identifying themselves as Muslim (if he cannot forbid them entry); he derides a disabled reporter, wants to punch in the face someone in the auditorium who has dissented from his views; he has the police throw out protesters; he sues anyone who exposes him …. here are the values and norms he will inculcate and follow if he becomes the United States president ….
It’s uncanny how often Michael Moore’s films are spot on timely because he must plan them ahead. Maybe the public political scene in media does not move as fast as we assume it does. Or perhaps given a limited budget he pitches, writes, directs, and shoots his films in quick time.
The quest of Moore’s fictional adventures this time is: The Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon call Moore in to ask him to invade aany other country around the globe he wants in order to take from the people whatever they have of value to the US. We see him set forth in a boat with an American flag determined to visit countries we as US citizens have some knowledge of, share a linguistic base (we can pronounce the names) and enough common customs (like school lunches in elementary schools, family vacations), and less so but enough cultural assumptions to grasp analogies with our way of life and theirs. This is a ploy or allegory by which Moore delivers such a stinging critique of US norms and what our gov’t doesn’t do and does in the last fifty years that if he stood and made a sermon out of it, most people would walk out. He does point out or has his subjects point out how the idea they are now following, or the good lawyer they are using comes from the US. But it’s clear the idea has no purchase in the US today widely (or at all) and the lawyer rarely exercises his knowhow in the direction he is using say for Iceland in the US.
The story-line: Moore goes and talks to ordinary or significant people in European countries, mostly western and northern, a couple in Africa (Tunisia) who tell him how wonderful this or that set of customs, norms, laws the people enjoy as a matter of course — from decent vacation time, to wages high enough so no one need work more than one job, to health care, to humane prison sentences, programs for rehabilitation in prisons; we see disciplined policing contrasted to videos showing (many of these, so many) US policemen beating Americans as they assembly, as they protest, savagely destroying the bodies of black people, humiliating them, killing them. So many of these scenes — montages of them.
A few quiet ones, like of the continual evictions of US people all over the US (engineered by banks, nothing whatever done to help these people: “Kicked out in America,” Jason DeParle’s review of Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, NYRB, March 10, 2016 issue). We see beautiful lunches served children in schools in France. Women in charge in Iceland. CEOs of banks sent to jail. One particular reality comes across repeatedly: high violence, especially of police towards blacks, but also towards any protester, and gun violence of US citizens. We see abysmal slums across the US, prisons into which refugees are placed.
The problem is the conversations Moore has with the people he has set up meetings with is not believable: they just go on in this exemplary way praising their own country as if it were just this pastoral paradise. Is it true that this rich French factory owner is glad that his workers are getting good incomes? We do hear from some union representatives who say if the unions were not strong and did not strike, they would not have this decent way of life but that’s not connected back to what we just heard. These are such simple minded dialogues, the watcher wonders if the people are just saying that for the sake of the cameras. It’s clear this is not the whole truth about their country. And it’s done in this jocular manner. A kind of goofus or faux naive stance. He would say “wow!” how can this be? How can your country afford this? Do people like this? I found it grating, and felt at first the whole movie was misconceived. He was leaving himself open for mockery and understandable dismissal. As with other of his movies, these scenes are all set up; they are not someone filming life as it goes on (Frederick Wiseman does this).
But as time (the film is two hours) went on 1) I began to see the audience was amused. Whether laughing at the conversations or Moore or I don’t know what. Myself I dislike people laughing at what is not funny in a movie audience, but if this important message he has to put before us, brings them in, all power to him. 2) the tone turned more somber and towards the end he had clearly mounted up a list of all sorts of needed things US people could do and need and do not (like have decent trains). He repeated and showed by tapes we used to honor these ideas and that some of what these foreign countries do we used to do.
A friend of mine, Diane Reynolds, summed the content up succinctly:
I also appreciated “Where to Invade Next,” a male-directed film but one that leaned heavily on women’s contributions in building more humane societies, especially in Tunisia and Iceland. As most probably know, Moore’s conceit is to “invade” countries that are doing social welfare well and take away their best ideas. His cornball antics can irritate, such as planting an American flag in countries he was “invading,” as can his distortions, but I very much resonated with his focus on the humane legislation and working conditions in other countries: ample vacation time in Italy, a law in Germany that forbids employers from e-mailing or calling employees when they are off, plus the civilized 36.5 hour work week which leaves people time to meet for coffee and enjoy leisure, the excellent education system in Finland, the chef cooked school lunches in France served on china, the extraordinarily humane prison system in Norway. We saw all these countries at their best–but their best is what s hould be celebrated and highlighted. I felt more dismayed than ever over what has happened here, especially the shots of prison and police brutality juxtaposed with talk from Portuguese police and Norwegian prison guards about no death penalty, humane treatment of prisoners, etc. I feel more impelled to get involved in prison reform, as it really is unutterably shameful here. Moore ended with noting what many of the people interviewed said: that their “best” ideas originally came from America. I hope this country get somehow gets back to normal … what I saw were countries that don’t loathe their own people and that are willing to spend a little extra money and time to make life better for people.
The question is, what happened? How did we get here? If we originally followed humane ideals or norms to some extent, where did they go? Moore doesn’t much say. He makes a couple of connections: at the time of the civil rights bill to extend voting rights to African Americans and all minorities, to stop systematic discrimination, the war on drugs began and with that the first mass incarceration of black men. No coincidence he says. In the 1990s the punitive system by the courts was set up. A sizable percentage of black men now can’t vote since in most states once declared a felon you lose your right to vote forever. He offers a map whereby if black men down south could vote more places would go liberal democrat.
The film ends symbolically by the wall in Berlin today (interspersed with footage of it in the past and when it was crossed, the celebrations too). Moore is walking alongside the wall with a friend who was with Moore in Berlin in 1989 when the wall between East and West Berlin was broached, and the people around it stopped killing those who tried to cross. It is now a site for grafitti; a site de memoire, in places a crumbling hulk. The allegorical inference: at one time people said this wall would never come down. Well in a few days its power vanished. So maybe things can change back or again too. This is feeble as a solution. The ending feels so melancholy. Moore looks grim, unshaven, not in good health as he and his now aging friend walk together.
Where to Invade Next has a cumulative effect. Moore says to his audience, Look at these places where ordinary people live good lives, have good things of all sorts, where criminals are treated humanly and helped to rehabilitate when they can. He asks, What’s wrong with us? He says explicitly there is no reason we could not behave like these other countries. The wealth is here (if now kept in a few hands). The knowhow (if now mis-used). He has pictures of unsafe bridges and people protesting for good drinking water. Alas, there are very few longer reviews: Harry Barnes of The Guardian understands and praises it.
This recent photo of Donald Trump running for President is strongly reminiscent of Adolph Hitler rallying his fan-mobs — it fronts a periodical containing an article from the Southern Poverty Law Center “The Year in Hate and Extemism”
We are at a serious junction in US politics today: a fascistic, hate-mongering intolerate ignorant man who advocates violence, overthrowing the constitution in effect, may win the Republican nomination for president. (Read Roger Cohen’s Trump’s Il Duce Routine, the New York Times, Feb 29, 2016) Four score and seven years ago Lincoln said some 150 years ago can a nation so conceived — come together in this rational planned way, not something grown slowly over centuries — long endure? It seems to me we are again at a breaking point. The Republicans will not disqualify a man who openly says he will not obey law, will not obey his constitutional controls — while they are disobeying the constitution themselves: they will not allow Obama to exercise his constitutional power to appoint another member of the supreme court (they have abrogated and thwarted him for 7 years now). They want to destroy the gov’t; they don’t want it to work except for the 1% and themselves. They have come to power based on exploitation of bigotry (racism heavily) using hidden billionaires, and are beginning in various states to dismantle democracy altogether (see my Flint Redux, Snyder’s war on the public, Scalia’s enabling role and the Koch Dark Money). Read Juan Cole in Bill Moyers’ Journal.
Michael Moore does not make the argument that engineered poverty or imposed violence is leading to majorities of the Republican electorate voting for Trump. He insists we look at the values behind what we do. His insistence that American values lie behind some of the good things he sees in other countries seems to me a front which helps enable him make a superficially cheerful (and therefore possibly widely-seen) film. He is suggesting to us the actuating core of what’s happening in in the US come out of US values and norms. The countries he visits have alternative values and norms and he asks us, do we not want these? The grim heart of the film, never acknowledged, is maybe not. Moore does not say maybe we don’t want decent prisons which try to rehabilitate people. he avoids saying maybe this is a deeply religiously punitive, violent (see film on “aggravated assault and rape” in the US today) and racist society by not giving us history, by not making the connections of how we got here in 2016 (see Richard Steigman-Gall’s “It’s Not Just Trump”).
To turn to the timeliness of the film: Moore never mentions the current election: we could infer that majorities in the primary electorate of the Republican party vote for Trump because they share his values, norms, and aims and approve of violent punitive harsh religiously exclusionary, want racist institutionally-backed behavior.