This review was originally published in September 2015 as part of our coverage for the Toronto International Film Festival 2015.
On the eve of Jon Stewart’s departure from The Daily Show last month, i09’s Katharine Trendacosta binge-watched Stewart’s entire run on the Comedy Central staple and wrote about the changes she noticed in both the show and host over the course of their 16 years together. The series started off goofier than she remembered, with silly jokes about George W. Bush’s whimsical concept of proper vocabulary and empty celebrity segments, before it turned into a beacon of hope and humor in the face of unbearable tragedy and righteous indignation after 9/11.
But Stewart’s snarky optimism was no match for the onslaught of suffering that the United States has faced and perpetuated in the proceeding years. Toward the end of his run, particularly after the attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Stewart came across as increasingly defeated. “Stewart made the miserable bearable,” Trendacosta concluded. “But it’s finally too much for him to stay.”
The essay raises some interesting questions about the state of political satire in America’s current climate. Is it possible to create politically minded comedy or clever political commentary on a regular basis without increasingly giving into cynicism? Was Stewart’s shifting attitude an inevitability in the face of such forces?
After his last film, 2009’s frustrated and frustrating Capitalism: A Love Story, it certainly seemed like Michael Moore was on a similar, albeit angrier, trajectory. The famed documentarian who once delighted in a mix of joyful rebellion and pointed activism (Roger and Me, TV Nation) and displayed such a knack for righteous but witty indignation (Fahrenheit 9/11) was getting noticeably crankier and more strident. And the quality of his unique brand of cinematic opinion piece was suffering as a result.
His latest film, Where to Invade Next, shows almost no hints of what was ailing Moore six years ago, though. It’s a refreshing return to form both in terms of ethos and artistic merit.
The film begins with an almost entirely unnecessary but goofily fun premise: After decades of failure, the Joint Chiefs of Staff summon Moore and admit that they have no clue what they’re doing. Then they ask him to plan their next war. Moore suggests giving the troops a well-deserved break. He will travel to various countries across the world, wage a series of one-man invasions, and claim all of their best resources in the name of the good old US of A.
Moore has toyed with similar ideas before. There was a popular segment on TV Nation in which he more literally assessed the various costs and risks associated with declaring war on various nations. While this film maintains the playful but opinionated tone of that piece, its thesis statement is a little more metaphorical. What Moore is really interested in this time around is stealing other country’s best ideas.
In Italy, he interviews a series of laborers and business owners, and concludes that he should steal their strong unions and healthy work/life balance and take them back to America. He pilfers France and Finland for their innovations in education and school lunches that actually resemble food. In Slovenia, he helps himself to their take on government-funded college. In Germany, he takes the country’s willingness to face up to and learn from its dark past. And in Tunisia and Iceland, he claims their forward-thinking approach to women’s rights.
Much like he did in Sicko, Moore displays a bit of rose-colored romanticism of other countries and their policies in the interviews that he conducts with politicians, industry leaders, educators, and the general public. But there’s also something else at work in his exploration of these ideas. This isn’t so much a film about what other countries are doing better than America as it is a look at how they got to that point and what the US can learn from their efforts to take better care of its citizens. It’s also about the influence that American ideals played in many of these situations. And, ultimately, it’s about Moore’s newfound – or rediscovered – belief in his own country’s abilities to return to those ideas.
“I’ve turned into this crazy kind of optimist,” Moore confesses to a friend at the end of the film, and it shows in his work. Where to Invade Next is far from a perfect film. It continues to betray a typical Moore-ian bias, and who he interviews and what he asks them is still occasionally in service of his arguments as much as it is in pursuit of accurate representations, and the conclusion borders on Pollyannaism. But it’s a very good op-ed in favor of America’s ability to live up to its potential and build itself into a country that actually represents the idea of liberty and equality that it’s espoused for so long. Thanks to the humor with which it’s presented, it’s also a pretty decent testament to the potential future of the country’s satire.