'Where to Invade Next': TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto Film Festival
An engaging invasion without the usual rabble-rousing.

Michael Moore sets off to invade Europe, aiming to bring home solutions to U.S. social problems.

Six years after Capitalism: A Love Story called for audiences to revolt against the evils of free enterprise, filmmaker Michael Moore returns to the screen in a far mellower mood with Where to Invade Next.

Fans accustomed to his harsh critiques of health care, the educational system and gun control in the U.S. may be a little surprised, but not disappointed, at this almost happy film full of LOL moments. Instead of ranting over the conspicuous social failings he sees in the U.S.A., he humorously finds solutions to its ills by “invading” various countries and bringing back the victor’s spoils, which are simply other people’s good ideas. Funny and always on topic without going overboard, it’s an engaging film that could broaden Moore’s fan base. Its premiere in Toronto was greeted with eager laughter and frequent applause.

It is also a film that overturns the expectations raised by its title, which suggests some kind of military critique. The opening scene actually feeds this idea with a funny piece of business using archive footage, one of the film's comic staples. Filmmaker/protagonist Michael Moore has been summoned before the Joint Chiefs of Staff for advice. They are at their wits’ end after losing every war they have fought since World War II: Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq again … So Moore pledges to take over the invasions from here on out and "do better."

Read more: Will Michael Moore's 'Where to Invade Next' Contend for an Oscar?

Instead of heading for the Middle East or Asia, Moore embarks on a whirlwind “invasion” of Europe with his camera crew. As he goes around interviewing ordinary people, he highlights some particular advantage of foreign life, making it seem amazing and extraordinary, and leaves it up to the audience to make its own mental comparisons. His simplified language can sound like he's addressing high schoolers, and the viewer is given little choice but to marvel over what's being presented and agree with him.

His first stop is Italy. A young working couple he talks to explains that in their country, people have from 30 to 35 days of paid vacation each year. This is not including national and religious holidays, which add up, or the standard five months of paid maternity leave that mothers are entitled to, or 15 days of paid honeymoon for those who get married. How is this possible, he demands? The CEO of Ducati motorcycles confirms there is no contradiction between company profits and the well-being of the workers. The conclusion to be drawn is that maximizing sex and vacations makes a country more productive.

This has a farcical ring, given the dire economic straits Italy has been navigating for years, but clearly Moore is not a stickler for details. As in Sicko, the film it most resembles, where the U.S. health care system was compared to that of France, the U.K., etc., it’s the gist that counts.

His next visit is to France and a five-star restaurant in a small Normandy village. This turns out to be a normal school cafeteria, where the head cook creates menus full of healthy, exotic ingredients that entice the children’s palate while teaching them how to eat, all at a smaller cost per meal than in the U.S.  Moore eats with the kids and the skeptical expression on their faces when he offers them a Coke is priceless.

The good mood extends to his invasion of Finland, where the education system used to be abysmal, on the level of the U.S., in fact. No more: a revolutionary new approach has raised the country’s school system to No. 1 in the world, while the U.S. comes in at No. 29. What’s their secret?  No homework. As a clutch of educators explains and students confirm, they need more time to enjoy life, socialize and be with their families. When Moore asks for advice to take home, they suggest that standard exams like the SATs be junked. There are no private schools in Finland, and he concludes that rich parents have a vested interest in assuring the public schools work.

Read more TIFF: Michael Moore Teaches America Lessons from Abroad at 'Where to Invade Next' Premiere

Wherever he travels, he finds some almost unbelievable aspect of society that works so well it’s worth importing. Slovenia, for instance, has a free university system that actively caters to foreign students, to the point of offering courses in English, all free of charge. Germans employed at the Faber-Castell pencil factory work 36 hours a week on a 40-hour salary and are sent to a spa to relax whenever they feel stressed. Yet the factory prospers. Nor do German schools attempt to whitewash the Holocaust, the way America sweeps slavery and the genocide of First Nation people under the carpet.

Meant to stupefy, these little-known facts also raise the suspicion that things are being misrepresented in some way. While Moore asks journalistic questions, he clearly has an agenda and the film never allows any contrasting fact to interfere with it. A non-believer could easily find it infuriating on this score.

The film is most convincing when it just listens to what people are saying. After Tunisian journalist Amel Smaoui talks about the role of women in the revolution, the story builds to a long final segment set in Iceland, where women have achieved parity with men in public life, businesses, banks.  It leads Moore to reflect, with inspirational optimism, that the impossible can happen, and in a very short time.

A North End Films presentation in association with IMG Films of a Dog Eat Dog production.
Cast: Michael Moore, Amel Smaoui, Jenny Tumas, Pasi Sahlberg, Halla Tomasdottir
Director, screenwriter: Michael Moore
Producers: Michael Moore, Tia Lessin, Carl Deal
Executive producers: Mark Shapiro, Will Staeger, Rod Birleson
Directors of photography: Richard Rowley, Jayme Roy
Editors: Pablo Proenza, T. Woody Richman, Tyler H. Walk
Sales Agent: William Morris Endeavour
115 minutes