MICHAEL MOORE is a filmmaker I associate with high school, the same way members of the previous generation like to namedrop John Hughes and then never shut up about him. The major events of my teenage years were the Columbine shooting in 1999, and the September 11 attacks in 2001, and wow, that's depressing. The films Moore made in response to those events—2002's Bowling for Columbine, and 2004's Fahrenheit 9/11—were, at the time, huge deals. Not just for ticket sales or award nominations, but in terms of what people actually talked about in those pre-social media caveman times. I wasn't even a huge fan of Moore's confrontational edutainment shtick, but he dominated the conversation in a way that few documentarians have before or since. It's worth remembering that Fahrenheit is still the highest-grossing theatrical documentary, and Columbine is in the top 15.
That said, I haven't paid much attention to Moore in the last decade, despite his pretty steady output of issue-driven work. His latest, Where to Invade Next, walks a sometimes awkward line between his articulate political convictions and his distracting antics, but he's still working with the solid toolkit that served him so well in the early aughts.
Structurally, Invade isn't as laser-focused as something like Columbine or Fahrenheit, which is both a blessing and a curse. The titular "invasion" refers to the sort of quip you might overhear at an NPR fundraising dinner: "What if instead of invading Arab countries to take their oil, we invaded European countries to take their progressive socialism?" Visually, this translates to Moore wandering around Europe with an American flag and interviewing people. His previous films covered a single issue with furious intensity, but Invade is more of a greatest hits album—exploring Iceland's finances, Norway's prisons, Germany's industrial middle class, and a dozen other topics. Here, Moore's interviews are a mixed bag: Sure, an Italian couple talks about their vacation entitlements (vacation stories are boring, no exceptions), but it's never anything short of harrowing to hear the words of a man whose child was killed in Norway's 2011 shooting massacre.
For everything that's covered, Invade feels less like a dissertation and more like a primer: Moore's in this game to provide a narrative of complex issues, and to equip adherents of that narrative with as many talking points as they can possibly deploy over drinks or tweets. I'd argue there's a place for this approach in the broader media landscape, but to the academically minded, all of Invade's charts without scale and facts without figures won't be endearing.
But whatever you think about Moore's tactics and politics, he's got an eye for what works on film, and the personal narratives he collects justify any shortcuts, whether it's Iceland's first woman president candidly describing the state of women in international politics or a Tunisian journalist who was pregnant during the Arab Spring describing her formative moment of rebellion. While not explicitly the focus of Where to Invade Next, Moore seems especially interested in how women fit into these complex issues—and, perhaps more importantly, he's willing to step back and let them do the talking. I can't say if the state of the world has improved since I was in high school, but at least women have more speaking parts.