Films I Neglected To Review: Michael Moore's European Vacation
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/11/16 17:29:10
Please enjoy short review of the Oscar-nominated Danish drama "A War" and Michael Moore's latest rabble-rousing documentary, "Where to Invade Next"
For this year's Academy Award for Foreign Language Film, the smart money seems to be on "Son of Saul," a Holocaust drama that has received extravagant praise from most quarters but which I found to be a missed opportunity in which the flashy visual style (with the camera mounted practically on the shoulder of the central character, an Auschwitz prisoner, throughout, it feels like it should be retitled "Schindler's GoPro"). Another nominee that is far more worthy of consideration is the Danish entry, "A War," a powerful drama set around a different conflict - the current war in Afghanistan - that conveys itself through a compelling narrative and strong performances instead of visual glitz. The first half of the film offers up the parallel stories of a Danish commander (Pilou Asbaek) who tries to treat the men under his command with dignity and respect and his wife (Tuva Novotny) back home trying to raise their three children practically on her own. After a major miscalculation on his part during a firefight results in heavy civilian casualties, he is sent home to face trial and finds himself faced with choosing between sticking up for his hard-fought integrity and dignity or the needs of his struggling family. This is a smart and engrossing story - the screenplay by writer-director Tobias Lindholm is notable for the ways in which it avoids all the expected cliches and forces viewers to confront some hard and uncomfortable truths - that is further buoyed by powerful performances from the entire cast. This may not prove to be ideal Valentine's Day viewing by any means but it is easily one of the best and most riveting films about the conflict in Afghanistan to date.
Although the title suggests an exploration/expose of the military-industrial complex along the lines of such previous efforts as "Roger & Me," "Fahrenheit 911" and "Sicko," "Where to Invade Next," the latest work from documentarian Michael Moore, takes viewers in an entirely different direction. Instead, he heads overseas to visit a number of foreign countries to look at the best aspects of their respective ways of life and present them as things that the U.S. could do to improve the lives of its own citizens. In France, he goes to a public school - and not a particularly elite one at that - and shows both the stunning quality of the food served to the students at lunch at minimal cost and a practical approach to sex education that has helped to greatly reduce the number of teen pregnancies and STD outbreaks. In Italy, ordinary factory workers received decent salaries, reasonable hours and eight weeks of paid vacation a year without unduly affecting the bottom line. In Germany, he shows how the country has dealt with the darkest chapters of its past by grappling with it head-on instead of trying to sweep it under the rug. In Norway, he shows how the prison system is more interested in rehabilitation than in mere punishment and in Portugal, he shows how the decriminalization of drug use has not resulted in violent anarchy.
Critics of Moore will no doubt complain that he is cherry-picking the best aspects of the countries he is visiting while ignoring their more troubling aspects - Moore himself pretty much admits that at one point. No, the actual problem with the film is that it lacks the strong central focus that has been the hallmark of his best and most compelling works - it feels more like a collection of "Daily Show" segments strung together - and without that, his films have a tendency to be a little too scattershot for their own good - there are some great and powerful moments (including one in Norway where one of the victims of mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik talks about how he feels no need for personal vengeance or retaliation despite Breivik's 21-year sentence (the highest possible allowed by law) and another where a Tunisian woman talks about how the U.S. exports its culture throughout the world but seems relatively uninterested in other cultures) and then bits that just kind of run on a little too long. For his part, Moore seems to have cut back considerably on the cheap shot tactics that have given pause to even his most ardent supporters over the years - no on-camera ambushes or things of that nature - and the result is a more benign work than usual for him. It is still kind of interesting and anyone who sees it will no doubt find at least one aspect of foreign life that they will wish could be imported here. However, as a film - especially one from a director who has built his entire career on provocation - it just comes across as a bunch of individual bits that Moore hasn't figured out how to pull together into a truly compelling whole.