Billed as “A New Comedy,” Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next is ungenerous and condescending. Those unfunny characteristics typify propaganda just as they also describe the sorry state of contemporary political humor, which has declined in this millennium, and Moore is largely to blame. Since his first distorted documentary, Roger and Me, in 1989, he’s used stridency, partisanship, and snark to despoil an art form and demean political discourse.
Moore’s jovial pretense is immediately divisive. He starts with a satirical proposition about American foreign policy: “On January 2, I was quietly summoned to the Pentagon to meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Each branch was represented: the Army, the Air Force, the Marines. ‘Michael,’ they said, ‘we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing.’” His casual anti-military jibe introduces the film’s premise: Moore, the bumptious American, visits global sites of bloodless social revolution: Finland, Norway, Iceland, Italy, France, Slovenia, Tunisia, Portugal. He seeks counterpoints to what the United States has repeatedly done wrong. Where to Invade Next is millionaire Moore’s goofball imitation of President Obama’s 2009 European trunk show, which has been described as an apology tour.
Moore has used stridency, partisanship, and snark to despoil an art form and demean political discourse.
No matter that Moore’s anti-Americanism turns into sentimental patriotism at the film’s other end — both positions are shallow, and neither is credible. Moore’s only distinction as a maker of documentaries (mockumentaries, really — mocking the idea of journalistic fairness and thorough reporting) is that he doesn’t care to be convincing. Like his imperious TV progeny Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver, Moore preaches to the choir. Contrasting European and North African social programs and protests with feckless American styles of protest is no more illuminating than a TV-studio applause sign.
Moore’s button-pushing is a sign that the polarization of American politics and media that started with the 2000 presidential election has set in so deeply — bolstered by such events as 9/11, Bush’s 2004 reelection, and Hurricane Katrina — that it goes unquestioned and has become the new New Journalism. Such chucklehead political satire operates by a different sort of “logic”; argument and proof are less important than self-righteousness and a sense of snide superiority.
Media mogul Roger Ebert’s dangerously derelict praise of Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 (“This film has a point of view, and that’s okay”) was as much an oversimplification of a documentary’s purpose as the thoughtless attitude that ad hominem derision is also okay because Moore’s ultimate goal is to mock ideas and people.
Despite his humble front, Moore’s arrogance doesn’t stop. At his most offensively patronizing, he interviews a father whose child was killed in the 2011 massacre of Norwegian schoolchildren. Moore heartlessly goads the forgiving parent. He turns the screws on the audience so that our wincing is relieved only by the father’s grace. In a specious gun-control diatribe, part of Moore’s strategy is to mislabel the Norway atrocity as “terrorism.” Moore ignores the truly remarkable mystery of the grieving father’s human nature and what it says about Scandinavian pacifism.
As scattershot as Spike Lee in Chi-Raq, Moore then idealizes how other countries build spa-like prisons, and he uses scenes of brutal American prisons and vicious guards as counterpoint. There’s no investigation into the what, how, and when of European crime. This lackadaisical, dishonest storytelling satisfies Moore’s polarized studio audience, who only want him to cheerlead their distaste for the problematic United States. Moore’s romanticizing of Europe goes unchallenged by facts or even statistics. (There’s a clip from a promotional film of Finnish prison guards singing “We Are the World.”) He never asks how these Utopias were achieved, but he’s in slack-jawed awe at the different social systems — like a naïve college student: “Gee, Ma, they don’t have to wash their hands or say grace before dinner!”
In Portugal, Moore films a trinity of cops who pontificate on how “human dignity is the most important thing in life,” and another Portuguese official boasts that the country has resolved both its African-immigrant and drug-addiction crises. Apparently, Moore hasn’t seen last year’s astonishing Horse Money, Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s film about the miseries of Lisbon’s impoverished, drug-addicted black immigrants.
Moore uses satire dishonestly, hoping to achieve small-minded ideological power.
Where to Invade Next offers no information because Moore is uninterested in modern Europe’s difficulties as depicted in the best European art films, like Rade Jude’s Aferim!, which traces Romania’s dystopia to its historic, Buñuelian roots, a philosophical view of a kind. Rather than empathize with those suffering from the vexing social conditions of class, crime, and unrest in America, he hits all the leftist high points, from Occupy to Ferguson to Free College for All. For a summation, Moore asks one European woman to lecture America on its lack of charity. And to patronize politically correct feminism, Moore features a montage of cherry-cheeked Caucasian women posing outdoors to somehow illustrate the notion that women make better rulers than men. Rich and comfortable enough to devote his “comedy” to shaming the United States, Moore deliberately misrepresents — and misunderstands — how the melting pot boils.
Moore’s apology tour is a trip through liberalism’s Cloud Cuckoo Land. He’s a purblind tourist who avoids looking at the personal and sociological issues that result in crime and make court and penal systems necessary across the globe. Essentially, Moore has no interest in examining human nature. Portrayals of our common humanity, citizenship, and morality are what’s missing from today’s me-against-you political satire. Moore and the Maher–Stewart–Colbert gang are only interested in assigning blame to their American opponents. Thus, contemporary political satire has become both self-flattering and hate-filled. Such polarization defies the idea that we all share a polity. Moore uses satire dishonestly, hoping to achieve small-minded ideological power.
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Smarter-than-thou movies didn’t start with Michael Moore and the partisanship he popularized with Fahrenheit 911, but they are a symptom of millennial elitism. Smarter-than-thou movies can be traced to indie filmmakers working outside the major studios’ commercial concern for broad appeal; instead, they sought a specialty market that prided itself on its “sophistication” based on class and cultural bias as much as on political leanings. This is the hallmark of an American Eccentric director like Alexander Payne (Sideways), who has taken on a second career as an impresario of overlooked 1960s Italian films like Antonio Pietrangeli’s newly re-released 1965 I Knew Her Well.
#related#Typically moralizing about Sixties cultural change, Pietrangeli follows starlet Adriana (Stefania Sandrelli) in her career and bed path. The combined pathos and prurience suggest Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria mashed up with Darling. Every man Adriana meets is more predatory and desperate than herself, while she remains an irredeemably pathetic country mouse blinded by the bright lights of Cinecittà. This cliché is not a humane truth but an early example of the cynicism that Payne himself purveys in Nebraska and The Descendants, where viewers are cued to realize how much smarter they are than the sadsacks onscreen.
Sandrelli’s working-class charm anticipates that of Jennifer Lawrence — a resemblance that helps explain critics’ class-based rejection of Joy. American Eccentric David O. Russell never condescends to his capitalist, gun-toting, family-loving heroine. Pietrangeli’s ultimate condescension tosses Adriana to her fate. Payne and Pietrangeli are “smart”; Adriana is reduced to cultural stereotype. Not every overlooked foreign film is a masterpiece.
— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.