Portrait of an American Hero (Pt. II)
It is difficult to think of a more villainized figure in the world of documentary than Michael Moore. Of course, he is especially reviled in America, since he repeatedly positions himself antagonistically, not only against our presidents, but against a number of American policies, including those involving gun control, healthcare, and foreign policy. He has lost enormous amounts of respect for his failure to adhere to journalistic standards of “objectivity” in the subjects he presents; he egotistically jumps into his own picture, manipulates our emotions, and engages in heated polemics while cherry-picking the information that suits his narrative. Above all, his documentaries are entertaining, whether you’re outraged or amused at his self-assured lampooning of conservative values. And that has been a sin.
The strange thing is, America, we’ve never collectively sought the same level of “objectivity” in the proliferation of entertainment that doesn’t feed into our national narrative. Where is the big money criticizing American violence rather than capitalizing on it? Where are the studios spending millions on radical shifts in perception of gender, race, age, or sexuality? Why doesn’t a film like Beasts of No Nation get the same budget, publicity, and distribution as The Martian or Black Mass? Because it is too important for us to be happy, to be distracted—to focus on the cheese. So how has self-criticism become the enemy?
This is the question Moore asks in his latest film, Where to Invade Next. After spending a long hiatus from the world of documentary, Moore has returned to reveal that he has actually been spending that time travelling the world in order to put together a new project that criticizes America yet again. And this time Moore has turned his lense to—[gasp]—socialist European countries! What could they possibly have to offer the greatest democratic nation in the world?
The answer, as it turns out, is our own values. Over the course of 2 hours, Moore reveals the failures of America and American policy to address the issues that they have set out to address, and the far greater success of various European countries in dealing with those same issues. The kicker is, every idea that they have that works is one of ours. We’ve just forgotten it.
And yes, Moore openly admits, and relishes in, the fact that he selected the best aspects of each country he visited while ignoring their problems—or, as he puts it, “I picked the flowers, not the weeds.” Moore wants us to bring back those working ideas and give them a shot. And that turns out to be the best and most surprising aspect of his entire enterprise. He is not just critical of our self-government. He is not just fetishizing European values. He is reminding us that they are our own, and he is hopeful that America can regain a sense of human dignity, a new kind of glory, a new source of power.
After the moving screening, through restless murmurs that this was perhaps the man’s best and most deftly realized work, Moore spoke quietly to his audience through tears in total frustration at the senseless deaths and other injustices that plague us, especially the ones we have the power to change. He reminded us that each time there was such a threat to their dignity and happiness, the people of each of these countries rose and fought. They rallied. They screamed. They got off their asses and did not let up until they could not be ignored. It caused some death, some violence, some heartbreak. It took time—but it worked every time! And Moore’s audience responded. There was an electricity in the air as we, the people, stood in thunderous applause repeatedly at the idea that we could better ourselves, our industries, our policing, our gender inequality, our eating habits, our schooling, our work environment, our stress levels, our satisfaction and our general fellowship. For a few minutes, it felt like the center of a revolution, a seed of change.
We decide what we tell ourselves about ourselves. We decide what we’re capable of. With our own money, we vote for the messages we are fed. We choose our heroes. So it’s up to us, America. Will we continue to embrace the image of ourselves as the exception to the rule? Or will we take a step back and accept a healthy level of self-criticism that could lead to a period of enormous growth? Will we choose overwhelming power, or maturity?
Who is the real American hero?