At the beginning of his latest film, Where to Invade Next, the director of Roger and Me, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore, lays out his premise: "I will invade countries with names I can mostly pronounce, take the things we need from them, and bring it all back home. Because we have problems no army can solve."
The film's basic pattern is set early, as Moore meets a middle class Italian couple to discuss vacation time. How many weeks paid vacation do they get annually? 6? 8? 10? It takes a while to add it all up. They explain patiently that when Italians get married, they have a right to 15 paid days off. Paid maternity leave? Five months. If an American viewer is now staring incredulously at the screen, their look will soon be mirrored as the Italians try to wrap their head around the idea that Americans are legally guaranteed zero days off.
After Italy, Moore is off to France to share four course, gourmet lunches with schoolkids, where lunch is essentially a class teaching nutrition, social skills, and appreciation of French cuisine. Then to Finland, for a broader look at their successful and humane education system; to Slovenia to check out their free universities; to Germany to consider both their publicly funded spa treatments for people diagnosed with stress, and the way the citizens of Nuremberg confront their Nazi past; to posh prisons in Norway; to Portugal to discuss drug decriminalization; Tunisia for perspectives on their recent revolution; and finally Iceland, to learn about how they prosecuted their bankers after the financial collapse, and how women's liberation has progressed in the island nation.
Quite a bit is packed into the two hour film. What makes it work is that in each case, people are talking about their own lived experiences. They aren't spinning theories or abstract principles, but simply describing life as they've known it. If you and everyone you know spent their school years eating carefully prepared and served lunches at a leisurely, civilized pace, the idea of not doing so is as crazy to you as the French school lunch menu looks to us.
The working people, politicians and executives alike who speak in the film seem to share one fundamental insight: we all get just one life, so why would we want to spend it all working? Why would we take any satisfaction or pleasure in seeing people around us slaving away unhappily or being punished? Why shouldn't we all be enjoying life in the brief time we're here?
You might wonder what the point of watching this film is. Isn't it preaching to the converted if you're already a liberal, and too selective and one-sided an argument to convince a skeptic? Perhaps, but in America today it is hard to believe that the things you see in Moore's film are real at all. They aren't funny theories; they're policies more or less successfully implemented by entire countries for decades. Even if you've read about this stuff and already know it is true, it still doesn't quite seem real. We get Hillary Clinton saying "We are not Denmark" before we have seen or understood what life in Denmark is like.
I'm not sure what Otto von Bismark meant when he famously said "Politics is the art of the possible," but even if you don't leave Moore's film thinking the policies you've seen are the best, you cannot deny that they are possible, because you've seen and heard about them with your own eyes.
Finally, one important point which wistfully recurs throughout the film is that every idea Moore "takes" has roots in the US, from our constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" to progressive education to the labor movement and women's liberation. These aren't foreign ideas at all. They're American ideas. They are our best ideas. We just need to bring them back home.
Where to Invade Next opened in theaters February 12. If you can't catch it in a theater, look for it later this year on whatever system you use to watch movies at home.