In New Michael Moore Doc, a Socialism-Free America Doesn't Fare Well

In his latest documentary, Michael Moore tells U.S. generals he'll help them decide "where to invade next." Robert D. Ward/Where to Invade Next

In the opening shots of Michael Moore's new film, Where to Invade Next, the filmmaker wears a Castro-esque getup of olive drab and announces that he's going to help America's generals figure out which nation to invade next. The generals, he says, have called him in for advice—"Michael, we don't know what the fuck we are doing"—because they've lost every war since, he intones, "the big one, W-W-two."

Moore's advice: Let me handle it.

Soon he's at the helm of an aircraft carrier steaming across the Atlantic to invade countries "populated by Caucasians whose names I can pronounce" to seize not oil but good ideas.

So begins Moore's grand tour of 21st-century Europe—land of free college, free health care, great schools, happy prisons, legal drugs and women in charge. Toting an American flag, carrying his huge body on flat feet clad in the sine qua non of the Midwestern tourist—white tennis shoes—Moore is the central character in the film: affable, sloppy, the perfect American Everyman for the job.

He washes up first in Italy, a country where, he immediately notices, "everyone looks like they just had sex." He spends time with a sexy middle-class couple (he's a cop, she a buyer for a department store) who explain how they, like everyone in Italy, have eight weeks' paid vacation annually. He talks to Italian factory owners about this. The manager of a Ducati factory tells him, "There is no clash between the profits of the company and the well-being of the people."

Oh, and Italian mothers get paid maternity leave—a benefit, he says, women enjoy in all nations "except for two that can't afford it"—Papua New Guinea and "this one"—he intones over a clip of a monster truck crushing cars under a giant USA sign.

Then it's off on the bullet train to France—a suburb of Paris where the best place to eat in town is the public school at lunchtime.

Moore squeezes into a seat at a table full of French kids tucking into their customary four-course meal, including a curried scallops appetizer, lamb and chicken on couscous, a cheese course and dessert. He tries to get the kids to sip from his Coke (he notes that he couldn't find a vending machine on the premises and had to send out his assistant for it), but no takers. He then goes into the kitchen and shows the chef pictures of unidentifiable American public school food slopped on plastic foam.

"That's not food," the French school chef opines. "Ces pauvres élèves." Those poor students.

"You know it's bad when the French pity you," Moore says.

The scene switches to American TV clips of Cato Institute experts and Rush Limbaugh criticizing Europe's crushingly high taxes. Moore puts up a graph showing that Americans do pay slightly less than the French, then lists what the French get for their money. The list goes on and on, including national health care, maternity leave, great public transportation and child care, which, when available in America, cost individuals or the public far more than the public programs in France. Moore points out that more than 59 percent of Americans' income taxes go to the military, though.

The movie is classic Moore shtick—lots of laugh-out-loud moments threaded into serious progressive agitprop. He goes from France to Finland (three-hour school days, highest-ranked education system in the world), Slovenia (free college), Germany (ongoing national soul-searching about Nazi genocide, in contrast to what Moore sees as America's refusal to fully acknowledge slavery), Portugal (decriminalized drugs), Norway (country club prisons built on rehabilitation principles) and finally Iceland, where women are more likely than anywhere else to run the government and corporations.

Americans who spend any time at all in Europe return to America stunned at how comparatively underserved we are for the taxes we pay. Moore's movie reminds us that long vacations, paid leave and free health care are all considered basic building blocks of middle-class life in Europe, while in the United States, in the current political discourse, a powerful force not only resists discussion of these benefits but has actively rolled them back over the past few decades.

There are a lot of laughs in the film, not least of all from Moore himself, waddling around Europe with his great jowls and unkempt hair stuffed under his USA baseball cap, looking like a Whopper away from a heart attack. As a representative of white America, he is also a sad clown whose degraded physical state is a manifestation of new statistics showing the death rate among white, undereducated, middle-aged Americans has risen steadily since 1999. The white American middle-age die-off is a mass demographic event the likes of which hasn't been noted since Russian men started dying in large numbers after the fall of the Soviet Union. The statisticians blame suicide, alcohol and drugs, but the phenomenon is occurring with economic decline and inadequate health care as larger trends.

As the 21st century dawned, the mostly white men and women of the rich European nations managed to thrive by building a social welfare net that American conservatives call socialism, and this film makes clear that their counterparts in equally rich America have not fared so well. Moore critiques America by comparison and sometimes loses his way. He veers off into a theory about how American drug laws effectively re-created slavery by filling prisons with cheap black labor—an idea worth exploring but not particularly relevant here. He concludes the documentary with a treatise on how putting women in charge can save the world. He doesn't explore whether the difference between Europe's homogeneous nations and our immigrant-based society, mobility and atomistic, self-reliant ethic might have something to do with the comparative ease with which they instituted more communitarian policies.

In the end, for all its laughs, this is the saddest of stories. This white American Midwesterner in unhealthy middle age staking the American flag around a utopian Europe is the bloated, lost, 21st-century version of the corn-fed, self-reliant GI Joe we sent over to Europe in "the last war we won," WWII.