We think of Michael Moore, in his antic disheveled way, as a warrior – an embattled grizzly bear of a satirist stalking the rich and powerful in their office lairs, armed with spitball witticisms and damning statistics and, just maybe, some distortions about everything that’s wrong with the United States. Yet as this flame-throwing veteran of theatrically combative nonfiction has grown older – he’s now 61 – he has begun to get in touch with his inner flower child.

The title of Where to Invade Next, the new Moore documentary that opened the Toronto Film Festival on Thursday, makes it sound as if Moore is taking a swipe at  post-9/11 attempts by the US to police the world. But that title is deceptive; the movie isn’ta jokey riff on military colonialism. Its central gambit is that Moore himself ‘invades’ one by one a dozen countries in Europe, Scandinavia and North Africa, looking for examples of how things operate there so that he can ‘conquer’ those ways and bring them back to the US. Many of the ideas hinge on government policy  – statutory holiday leave in Italy, the legalisation of drugs in Portugal – but what Moore is really looking at is less political than cultural.

His message is that US citizens live life at each other’s throats

As portrayed in Where to Invade Next, these nations have based their way of doing things on a social contract: the belief that we’re all here to look out for each other. Moore is saying that the US used to think that way too, but that it no longer does, because the hands of its compassion have been tied by bureaucracy and greed. His message is that US citizens are now organised – by their leaders, their habits, maybe something in their hearts – so that they live life at each other’s throats.

A better way to live?

The theme of the movie – and its structure as well – echo those of Sicko, the 2007 health-care documentary that is arguably Moore’s finest achievement. In that film, as he toured nations that offered government-sponsored health care, you could quibble at moments with the details of what he uncovered, but the movie’s ultimate subject was the spirit behind those policies: the attempt to cover everyone.

Moore unearths that same spirit in Where to Invade Next. He starts off in Italy, a land of long lunches where, as in most countries in the world, paid holiday leave is a universal policythe– and the  Italians he shows us enjoy the pace of their lives. The French school lunch programme that Moore spotlights, in a modest district outside Normandy, is an embodiment of enlightened values: there’s no US-style ‘mystery meat’, just honest lamb and couscous and cheese, and the children have a solid hour to consume and share it. Then Moore travels to Finland, which has become a top global performer in education, in large part because its system eschews standardised testing and gives children very little homework. The education there isn’t painful, it’s organic, and it gives kids room to breathe. That’s why they perform well.

Moore boxes open your perceptions

Moore keeps the comedy coming in his asides, and in his double takes: he can scarcely believe that no one in Slovenia is saddled with college-loan debt (all universities there are free), and when he tours a maximum-security prison in Norway that looks like a middle-class apartment complex, he just about chokes on his chortles. At times, Where to Invade Next risks presenting Europe as a series of utopias, as if Moore were saying, “Look! Everyone there leads shiny happy lives!” But that’s not what he’s doing. He’s really asking a profound question about the US – about whether it no longer works as a society because there’s too much distance between its citizens, and also between its ruling elite (political and corporate) and everyone else.

There’s one flagrantly unconvincing sequence, in which Moore lionises Germany for being honest about coming to terms with its Nazi past in a way that, he claims, the US has failed to do with its own racial demons. Yet in most of Where to Invade Next, Moore boxes open your perceptions. In the end, he frames the big-picture issue as the feminisation of politics in Europe: women moving into power and bringing empathy to politics and institutions. Moore has always been a guerrilla filmmaker, but in Where to Invade Next, his provocations dig deep below the surface of politics. He has made an act of guerrilla humanity.

★★★★☆

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