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Michael Moore is back: 'Where to Invade Next' may be his most optimistic film yet

"Where to Invade Next" is one of Moore's most sprawling films, touching on a broad cross-section of topics -- all with a heavy dose of his trademark humor.
Filmmaker Michael Moore attends an event on Nov. 7, 2015 in Hollywood, Calif. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty For FYI)
Filmmaker Michael Moore attends an event on Nov. 7, 2015 in Hollywood, Calif.

Watching a Michael Moore film can often be a Kafkaesque experience for progressives. Whether he's plumbing the depths of America's obsession with guns (in "Bowling for Columbine"), indicting our nation's preoccupation with greed ("Capitalism: A Love Story") or exposing inequality in access to quality health care ("Sicko"), his movies can leave viewers feeling dispirited and furious. So it may come as a surprise to his fans that his latest film, "Where to Invade Next," despite its ominous title, may be his most optimistic vision yet.

The film, his first documentary in six years, made its New York premiere at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn on Wednesday and was greeted with warm laughter and a standing ovation. Its satirical premise is that Moore, a self described "one-man army," will "invade" countries outside the U.S., steal their "best ideas" and bring them back to the country. What follows is something akin to a travelogue (largely though Europe) which provides unexpected emotional resonance and ultimately tells American audiences more about themselves than the rest of the world. "The American dream seemed to be alive and well everywhere but in America," Moore says in the film.

According to Moore, who participated in a Q&A with writer Nelson George following the film, the genesis of the project began when he spent two months backpacking around Europe when he was 19 years old. He found himself marveling even then at certain social institutions that foreign countries had in place and thinking "that's such a great idea -- why don't we have that." Flash forward to today -- "Where to Invade Next" is one of Moore's most sprawling films, spanning eight different countries and touching on a broad cross-section of topics including school lunches, prison systems, education, labor, women's rights, and drugs laws -- all with a heavy dose of the director's trademark humor.

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"I'm one of the few people on the left who's been able to reach a wide mainstream audience," Moore said, crediting the fact that "people like to laugh" as a significant factor in his crossover appeal (his "Fahrenheit 9/11" still ranks at the most financially successful documentary of all time), but also called it a "powerful political weapon." "The greatest comedians were the angriest," Moore said, citing Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Groucho Marx as his idols.

The film focuses exclusively on the positive aspects of countries like Finland and Tunisia, and their "we"-first instead of "me"-first ethos. "I went to pick the flowers, not the weeds," Moore said, undercutting the inevitable criticism that "Where to Invade Next" paints an unrealistic, rosy picture of nations abroad. "I don't want to live in any of these other countries. I like it here," Moore added. The point of the film is not to simply suggest that America is lost, but instead that it needs to find itself again.

This is by far Moore's most mysterious production, and, according to the director, he intended it to be there way. He used a much smaller crew than usual, did not promotion and were able to travel in relative secrecy because the director said "American news agencies have closed all their foreign bureaus." 

Moore's approach was to go into countries without any preconceived notions to record his honest reaction to the sometimes surreal cultural institutions he discovers -- like a idyllic maximum security prison in Norway, where the residents are greeted by a music video in which the guards sing "We Are the World".

"I want to experience it as you're experiencing it," Moore told the audience at the premiere. "That 'what the f***' look I have -- it's not acting."

Anyone whose seen Moore's canon of films will find many familiar themes revisited in "Where to Invade Next," from the ineffectual use of our military to America's stubborn refusal to acknowledge its own sordid history on race. Where the film is a departure is its refreshing emphasis on the positive role women play in the fabric of societies around the world -- as peacemakers, as business people and as guardians of human decency. "Where women were true equals -- people were better off," the film concludes.

"I've turned into this kind of crazy optimist," Moore says at one point in the film, and he does appear to be an older, wiser, more ebullient version of his usual self in "Where to Invade Next," but that doesn't mean he's turned into a softy either. There is a lot of righteous anger in the movie, too -- over police brutality, over our nation's failure to prosecute white collar criminals -- that will be cathartic for any Moore aficionado. Prior to attending the film's premiere, Moore was nearly arrested for standing in front of Trump Tower in New York holding a sign which read "We Are All Muslim," a testament to his ability to still stir the pot and capture the spotlight.

The question remains though -- will there still be an audience for what Moore is selling? Six years is an eternity in the film business, and although "Where to Invade Next" will eventually expand to theaters nationwide, its lack of a timely hook and virtually non-existent promotion could hinder it from reaching a wider audience. Moore declared "we're the majority in this country," alluding to liberals, and pointed to the nation's willingness to elect an African-American president twice and embrace of same-sex marriage as proof that the U.S, that progressives can still make change happen. And despite the film's often demoralizing dimensions, it does end on a note of hope that also functions as a call to arms.

"Where to Invade Next" will open in select cities on Dec. 23 to qualify for the Academy Awards. It will open nationwide in February of 2016.