I haven’t seen all of Michael Moore’s documentaries but I have seen a majority of them, and the only image that retains any clarity in my memory is of a working-class mother in his 2007 film Sicko as she details the humiliation and rage of dealing with the United States health system. It is a moment of stillness when nervous-tic editing doesn’t undermine the subject and where Moore is off-screen. Her testimony is the most chilling and effective truth revealed in the film.
It is often one of the most frustrating aspects of Moore as a filmmaker: that he seems hell-bent on sabotaging his greatest skill, his ability to win the trust of people who are not the usual media-savvy subjects. In his new film, Where to Invade Next, there are fascinating and at times unexpected insights that emerge quietly from the various interviews: Portuguese policemen, clearly uncomfortable with the gaze of the camera, shyly asking if they might express something about ethics to their US colleagues; initially diffident Icelandic feminists imagining for us what a truly inclusive society might look like; a Tunisian journalist bravely explaining the fear and shame of compromise. We want to hear more from these people but too often Moore cuts away for a tired visual gag or to give us his own response to what we are hearing in the guise of his usual persona, the shambolic and innocent “ugly American”.
Where to Invade Next has as its premise that the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, overwhelmed by their failures in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East, have given Moore the responsibility of travelling overseas to “invade” the society of various countries and bring back ideas that might prove useful in restructuring American democracy. It is a limp premise and there is no coherence to the choice of destinations, which are largely western European, except for brief forays to the Balkans and North Africa. The film isn’t an investigation of the nations he visits but rather an opportunity to reflect on the failures of US civility and society over the past quarter-century. The title is possibly misleading, in that it is with US domestic issues rather than military policy that the film’s focus lies. The title is ironic, too, in that what Moore clearly wishes for is that practices and ideas associated with social democracy might invade the US. Maybe the best way to make sense of the film is as a long-form campaign ad for Bernie Sanders.
Moore has never shown any evidence of being interested in structure and formally the film is a mess. It is a major weakness that the most amateurish and woolly-headed sequence comes first, when he travels to Italy. There is no apparent reason for the choice of the working couple he interviews and I suspect they happen to be friends of friends. The montage that introduces Italy is silly and stereotyped, and for anyone who has recently visited that country there is something queasily disturbing in it being extolled as a workers’ nirvana when the devastations of the Great Recession have been sclerotic for the country. The film does get better after that clumsy misstep, largely because of the choice of interviewees.
Though it is made with a US audience in mind, there are undoubted fascinations for Australian viewers, as we ourselves straddle a welfare-state past with a free-market future. The sanity of drug decriminalisation in Portugal, the success of educational policy in Finland and the courage of Norwegian incarceration policy can’t help but challenge us to rethink our own contemporary failures. However, even though I am thankful for the insights, they don’t justify the misshapen and lazy editing. We want to hear more from the teachers, students, police, prisoners, politicians and activists, but though Moore can win trust he cannot interrogate. He is shockingly indifferent to history, except as nostalgia or in its recycling as popular culture, and that scuppered his most successful film, the dismal and overwrought Fahrenheit 9/11.
This new film is nowhere near as smug but its premise keeps dampening our interest. Every time we become immersed in a subject we are whisked off someplace else, and we are subjected to another clichéd travel montage. It could be that Moore needs to abandon feature films and move into television documentary instead. He isn’t concerned with formal questions of cinema and it is evident that he is ignorant of the history of documentary filmmaking. Where to Invade Next might have worked as distinct TV episodes, where each nation and each policy direction was given its due, where the subjects could speak beyond the rudimentary. Even then, though, it would require a documentarian interested in examining contradiction and process, one who hadn’t made up his mind before he had begun shooting the film.
This certainty of vision, this unwillingness to examine one’s own political mythologies, is fundamental to the propagandist but a limitation to the most revelatory or illuminating of documentarians. The cul-de-sac of cultural Maoism that nearly destroyed documentary film in the immediate post-1968 era, in both the developed and developing world, led to a critical rethinking that reintroduced humanist reflection in even the most radical of documentaries. I think this is more than simply a refusal of didacticism: it is also a positive avowal of tentativeness and ambiguity. I am thinking of some of the documentaries I cherish most of the past quarter-century, be it Chris Marker’s The Last Bolshevik, Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I or Frederick Wiseman’s Boxing Gym. These are all filmmakers who, like Moore, are investigating the social ruptures of a globalised world. But in none of these films do I believe the filmmakers knew what would emerge before they picked up the camera.
It is troubling that righteousness and certitude have come creeping back into documentary, even in the best of recent work, such as the films of Alex Gibney. At the end of Where to Invade Next, Moore and a friend reminisce about the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the gobsmacking sense we have is that they don’t seem to have a clue how this cataclysmic event might have thrown into crisis some of the politics and ethics they most cherish – the efficacy of socialism itself. At no point in his film does Moore take on the deleterious choke of class privilege in Europe or ponder the bad faith of the approach to multiculturalism in the countries he visits. He never asks what one might assume should be the initial question: Can I compare these various societies to my own?
Halfway through watching Where to Invade Next, I started thinking of the films of John Pilger. On the surface, they could not be more different. There is the deliberately nerdy Moore, a friend to everyone, and the authoritarian and stern Pilger, who declaims our wickedness with the urgency and fury of an ancient Israelite prophet. But they both approach their filmmaking with an equivalent righteousness and an equal disdain for aesthetic value or purpose. Of course, they might both, in their different ways, Moore with a shrug and Pilger with a sniff, retort that the art of documentary isn’t what is important to them, that they are after changing people’s hearts and minds. I don’t think that is an unimportant pursuit, and the tension between advocacy and aesthetics in documentary can’t be easily resolved. But what scares me is that their films do the opposite of what they claim for them. I come out of the new Michael Moore, as I did from the latest Pilger, feeling less informed than when I went in. These are radical filmmakers who close the mind.