Has Michael Moore stopped being American cinema's great agitator? He talks about his latest doco and new-found optimism

It seems hard to believe, but the newest film by American documentary maker Michael Moore looks suspiciously like the work of a man mellowed by middle age.

In the slight but engaging Where to Invade Next, Moore, who turns 62 this month, seems to have lost the pugnacious and angry edge that won legions of fans for last decade's trio of documentaries: Bowling for Columbine (2002), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Sicko (2007).

Notwithstanding its provocative title, Where to Invade Next, which will screen twice next weekend as part of the NZ International Film Festival's Autumn Events programme, is a film of good-news stories, and criticises America only by implication.

Moore visits eight countries to explore policies and ideas that he wants to see adopted in his homeland. In each place, he symbolically plants the US flag in offices and clinics, claiming ideas for the US - a self-mocking if cumbersome shtick that his interlocutors go along with, presumably after having been sufficiently well-briefed not to crack up laughing.

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Along the way we get to see the delicious meals school kids get in France; the generous annual leave given to Italians; the fee-free education available to all comers at Slovenian universities; the humane jails in Norway; the homework-free Finnish education system; the worker representation on big business boards in Germany.

The ursine Moore plays the lumbering innocent abroad, the fall guy in an extended joke of his own making.

"Wait a minute," he will say, in the tone of someone who has just been told that humans can walk on water. "Are you telling me that the company gives you honeymoon leave?"

Characteristically, he's a bit sloppy with the detail: having warned us to distinguish between Slovakia and Slovenia, he leaves the Slovenian president's office and proclaims "I have just met with the president of Slovakia"; he says holiday-loving Italy's per capita GDP is the same as America's (it's about 40 per cent lower and the country's economy is a slow-motion train wreck speeding up); he doesn't mention Norway's oil wealth or high tax and he cherrypicks data unconscionably to highlight disparity.

In short, the familiar polemicist is alive and kicking. But a ruminative, almost happy tone runs makes it his most purely enjoyable film since Roger and Me.

Michael Moore in Where to Invade Next.
Michael Moore in Where to Invade Next.

Speaking from his Manhattan apartment where, perhaps aptly, he's just finished painting his study "a very bright yellow", Moore explains that he had intended Capitalism: A Love Story in 2009 to be his last film.

"I was tired of being the whipping boy on Fox News," he says. "So I challenged the audience to get involved and rise up."

And how did we do? "You did excellently. Two years after that film, we had Occupy Wall St and then three years later Black Lives Matter happened and there is quite a strong uprising of people. Now the majority of people would prefer to elect a socialist over Donald Trump - in the last poll Bernie Sanders is 22 points ahead of Trump in a general election."

It feels churlish to point out that four years after Occupy Wall St, Wall St has changed nothing; and that, to judge by last year's numbers (100 unarmed young black men were shot by police and black men were five times as likely as whites to die that way) black lives don't matter very much at all. But Moore insists things are changing.

"The majority of Americans now understand that the 1 per cent own more than 90 per cent of the country and they are very conscious of class, where there never used to be any [discussion of] class in American politics. We operated under this American dream belief that we are a classless society where anybody can be president, anybody can be a CEO, anybody can do anything. That's all gone now -- with a lot of help from Wall St and corporate America because people know how much supporting the system got them.

"You've got to start somewhere. It's a process. And it is moving in the right direction. Wall St is very frightened of this election. That's why they have put so much money into Hillary [Clinton]. They know that the days of backing the Republicans are over. They have to co-opt the Democrats and the liberals to whatever extent they can."

He points to the public announcement by Disney - a company once synonymous with traditional American values - that it would not film in Georgia if a proposed "anti-gay" law were passed. At the same time, the NFL threatened that Atlanta would never host the Superbowl. "Corporations are learning that if they don't at least look like they support majority opinion, they are in trouble."

Many people here would be aware that Scandinavian prisons, German factories and French school kitchens are models of their kind. But Moore says much of the content of the film would stun the famously insular average American: his crew members, avid newspaper-readers all, were stunned to learn the facts the film traverses.

Moore won't cop to the suggestion, widely aired in American press coverage, that he has lost his edge, though he accepts that his approach is less angry now.

"I would also say that the flip side of humour is often a lot of anger. I still feel angry but I have the benefit of living seven years in a country where Barack Obama is the president. I would be a lot different if the last seven years had been under John McCain."

How much purchase a less stroppy approach will get him is up for debate. The film took barely US$3.8 million ($5.5 million) in the US - about a sixth of what Fahrenheit 9/11 took on its opening weekend (though in the interim, Netflix, online streaming and video piracy have utterly transformed movie-watching habits).

The title's military overtones may be partly to blame, and Moore, stricken with pneumonia, did no press when the film released, which would not have helped.

But it's also tempting to wonder whether his compatriots have got criticism fatigue.

Trump's "let's make America great again" taps into a widespread feeling that the country is sick of apologising for itself. For the record, Moore says the film tested well with audiences and is his "most beloved".

Audiences here may flinch at how New Zealand - with its depressing jails, debt-laden graduates and ill-housed underclass - would fare in comparison with the societies he surveys. Barely a generation ago, Moore might have come here looking for material.

"We didn't go to any Commonwealth countries, including the granddaddy. I get asked a lot why didn't go to UK and the answer is that I have nothing more to learn from the UK.

"England, Australia and to a lesser extent New Zealand want to be like us. And I say, think twice about that, because you don't just get the good, you get all the despair, the inequality and the crime."

Michael Moore casts an American eye over the progressive social policies of other countries.
Michael Moore casts an American eye over the progressive social policies of other countries.

It seems a dire warning for a man to make who says at the end of the film that he feels optimistic about the world. What, I wonder, is there to be optimistic about?

"I am optimistic that people will eventually do the right thing," he says.

"History is full of examples of how Americans, when they know the truth and have the right information, will do the best thing.

"I made this film because people living in ignorance will operate out of fear.

"Americans need to stop operating out of fear and that will happen when they are educated."

- TimeOut

Who: Michael Moore, celebrated American documentarian

What: Where to Invade Next?

When and where: Screening as part of the Autumn Events programme at the Civic on April 15 and 17.