BY BEN LEHMAN My last experience with a Michael Moore documentary was in 2004 when Fahrenheit 9/11 was released. I remember watching the film as a 10 year old with my Republican family in the context of the early days of the Iraq War. My parents were quick to dismiss the controversial film; like many Americans in those days, they firmly stood behind President Bush and the invasion of Iraq. The film was provocative and controversial, which are terms one often associates with Moore. But for his latest creative endeavour, Moore chooses a less controversial and more lighthearted approach.
The film begins with a montage of all of the wars the United States has involved itself in since World War II, and how each and every one of them has been a failure that has only led to more war. This is when Moore stands in front a fictional gathering of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to tell them, where should America invade next? And thus begins the journey around the world.
Moore travels to a handful of countries across Europe and North Africa, meeting locals and learning about their culture and values. We learn how all of these countries provide free healthcare, education, paid vacation, and have zero gun culture. Moore “invades” all of these countries, leaving an American flag in each, and decides to bring their brilliant ideas back to the US.
Instead of directly criticizing the United States, Moore allows the comparisons with other countries to speak for themselves. The film brilliantly juxtaposes images from European countries with some from the United States. A Norwegian prison that looks more like a resort is intermixed with clips from American prisons where the inmates are brutally beaten. A school in France where the children eat a four star meal for lunch is contrasted with American lunches, which are grotesque in comparison.
Moore zooms in on the contrasting values and priorities of European and American social contracts. Europeans believe in acting for the good of the whole, not just in their own self-interest. Moore sits down with the owners of a clothing manufacturing company in Italy, and after having learned how much vacation their workers receive, he asks why they do it when if they offered less vacation they would make more money. The owners are visibly baffled, and retort, why do we need more money? What is the point in being more rich? To an American, an idea like that is blasphemy. Acting in the best interest of society also means higher taxes and the Europeans are fine with that. In Europe, healthcare, education, maternity leave are basic human rights, not privileges that have to be earned. “It’s not communism, it’s good society,” says a female CEO in Iceland.
This is something most Americans just can’t wrap their heads around. It is deeply ingrained in the American psyche that each person must pay his own way in all areas with no help, and those who can’t are just lazy. This is the land of freedom and opportunity, and we’re the best. We work for a living and we don’t take handouts. All taxes are bad, and welfare is a dirty word. But not to the Europeans.
The underlying point Moore is making is that we invest so much money (59% of our income taxes) into our military to fund unnecessary wars while neglecting our problems at home. But all hope is not lost in the end. Moore reminds his audience that many of these ideas originated in the United States. The fight for workers’ rights, for fair wages, were all fought here. The film ends with an intentionally sappy metaphor comparing the United States to The Wizard of Oz. It’s a great country, Moore is saying, we’ve just lost our way and need to get back to Kansas. After all, there’s no place like home.