Michael Moore has been prodding and provoking the American economic and political establishment since his 1989 movie Roger and Me marked him as one of our era's most important documentarians. In the years since, his first-person aesthetic has been adopted by filmmakers like Morgan Spurlock, and he's turned out a series of controversial docs targeting America's obsession with guns (Bowling for Columbine, 2002), the war on terror (Fahrenheit 9/11, 2004), health care (Sicko, 2007), and the economic crisis (Capitalism: A Love Story, 2009).
His latest project, Where to Invade Next, premieres Thursday, September 10, at the Toronto International Film Festival and takes an in-depth look at the US's state of perpetual war. VICE sat down to talk with Moore about America's place in the world, how it feels to walk around carrying a giant US flag, and why he's actually optimistic about the future.
VICE: How did you come up with the title Where to Invade Next? Is it a ploy to get people's attention?
Michael Moore: When people would ask, "What are you working on?" and I would give them the title, what was interesting about their response was that knowing look, and the nervous laugh. Like it's a funny title, but it's only funny because it might be just so true.
"Ignorance is the most important ingredient of fear. And fear is the most important ingredient of hate. That's the equation."
I think when the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended, I had the feeling of a real sense of relief, that all this arms buildup and massive spending budgets for the Pentagon was all going to go away now, and we were going to live in this peaceful world. But no, we have to have another enemy. And because so much of our economy and so much of our power structure is set up with that at the core of it—the very thing that Eisenhower warned us about, the military-industrial complex—it was like, Oh, I get it, we're going to be in a state of perpetual war here. There's always going to be a new threat, a new bogeyman. And so the title is, in its own way, a satirical attack on what seems to be an actual, real thing. And sure enough, when one thing starts to wrap up, they start talking about Iran or somebody else we have to gear up for, somebody else who is going to kill us, and they know how easily frightened people are, especially Americans. When you isolate yourself, when you don't know the world's cultures—ignorance is the most important ingredient of fear. And fear is the most important ingredient of hate. That's the equation. You start with ignorance, which leads to fear, which leads to hate, which leads to violence. But you gotta get the ignorant part down, you gotta keep the public ignorant, and that way you can tell them that Iran's the new thing that's gonna kill you.
Is that where this next election cycle is heading?
Well, I think that the people who like to propagate war and fear are definitely going to attempt to do that. They've got a big problem, though, which is that the younger generation, the 16- to 35-year-olds, have had a good decade or two of the internet. So they may not have passports and they may not be able to go see the world, but they have access to information that means the younger generation simply isn't as ignorant and can't be fooled as easily. And I think that that's going to be a big problem for anybody who wants to run a campaign based on that kind of fear. So I'm actually somewhat optimistic that it won't work to run and get elected on this anymore.
The film begins with you reciting a litany of US military failures over the years. How do you think the Pentagon sees those wars? How does it see itself?
Well, in the first minute of the film, I'm saying something that doesn't get said in the United States, which is: "We lost the Vietnam War. We lost the Korean War. We lost the Gulf War." We've basically allowed the Pentagon and the right wing to define what winning a war means, but I think winning a war means that you defeat the bad guy on the other side and the bad guy is no longer in power. And that's not what happened in Korea. The analogy to that would be like if at the end of the American Civil War, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis ran everything south of Maryland, and we claimed victory.
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There's this powerful idea late in the film, which was this sense of embracing national history—the good but also the bad. We understand the damage of PTSD—there's an alarming rate of suicide among veterans—but are we blind to a more subtle nationwide trauma after years of conflict?
Oh, absolutely. It's one of the reasons that I titled the film this way, and why I get the reaction that I get when I tell people the title. Because they just know it's all too true. They know that those in charge are not done using our young people as fodder for whatever crazy idea they have next. And frankly, I think that there's a national PTSD problem here. I'm not talking about the troops, but rather a country that hasn't figured out what's going on, where people are nervous about everything. It's never good to live in fear. If you have a child who's afraid to go to sleep at night because he or she thinks there's a monster in the closet, the way that you get the child to go to sleep is open the closet door in the bedroom and turn the light on. In other words, when the ignorance is dispelled, they are then able to relax and fall asleep.
"In America we keep saying, 'We're number one, we're number one,' and it's at the point now where we need to think about who we are really trying to convince."
But don't you also think that the country has to be open to introspection? The narrative of American exceptionalism—the idea that this is the best, bravest, most free country ever—to me suggests a culture that is not introspective. Do you think Americans are introspective?
Well, I think that American exceptionalism will be the death of us. It's almost like saying we don't really need to find a cure for cancer 'cause we're big enough and brave enough to suck it up and get through it. It's the sort of belief that we're on top when we're not.
What do you think politicians are trying to say when they talk about American exceptionalism?
They're trying to make people feel good, who deep down inside don't feel good… In America we keep saying, "We're number one, we're number one," and it's at the point now where we need to think about who we are really trying to convince.
The facts don't bear it out. We're not number one in education, we're not number one in mass transit, we're not number one in health care, we're not number one in… name it, you know?
So is your film documenting the death of the American dream?
I think you could say that about my earlier films, but I think that that so-called dream is already dead. And people know it. But they also really realize that it's also just what it says it was: a dream. It wasn't the American reality. It was a dream. And the dream has become a nightmare for millions of people because they're not going to get the life that their parents had, and they know their kids are not going to get to have the life that they've had.
There doesn't seem to be anything that forces the American worker out into the streets anymore, in the way that they would be taking to the streets in other countries. What happened to that spirit of protest?
I think that people give up before they try. And they give up because they have enough examples of when you do protest, nothing happens. I mean look at one month before the Iraq War started, how many millions across the country, across the world, took to the streets on that day in February? Largest demonstration in the history of the world. And four weeks later? Fuck it. [Bush] is bombing Baghdad.
Would you say then that, essentially, the American public has been beaten down and are hopeless? Isn't that a sad thing for you as an American?
Well, yes and no. I think historically people have felt beaten down many times in the past and things change and things do get better. You know, 11 years ago in the 2004 election, when all those [state] constitutional amendments were passed banning gay marriage, that looked like the end of that for our lifetime. And it was a big "fuck you" to anybody who was gay, and I remember a lot of people who were gay feeling like, What's the point? Why don't we move to Canada because Canadians accept us and they'll marry us . But, that's not what happened. What happened was, people picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and started the fight anew. It wasn't so much a political movement, it was a personal movement. I think what turned the country around was that in those ten years, gays and lesbians and the people that are not accepted by the heterosexual majority came out of the closet more and more to their friends, their neighbors, their classmates, and co-workers. When it's your daughter who says, "I'm a lesbian," when it's the little old lady who lives next door to you who says, "I'm a lesbian," it becomes harder to hate. So I think gays and lesbians made this happen themselves, and the hate kind of peeled away, once more and more people came out.
I actually feel that there is going to be a revolution of ideas and a shift in public opinion soon that will require politicians to get on the bus or be thrown under the bus.
"The majority of Americans know that as a country, we are not thought well of these days."
While you were traveling around the world to make the film, did you confront a lot of anti-Americanism?
Yes and no. The most uncomfortable parts of the film were walking around this planet carrying a big-ass American flag. I was walking down the Champs-Élysées in Paris with this massive flag on a pole and I'm like, Why have I painted a target on my back?
Did you really feel like that? Was it a little bit awkward holding an American flag?
Not awkward, I wouldn't say awkward, I would say it was a little disconcerting in the sense that I knew I had to be prepared for somebody coming up and hitting me, spitting on me, if somebody had a weapon…
Why did you fear that?
Because I think the majority of Americans know that as a country, we are not thought well of these days. Now, as people, we are beloved—people love being around Americans. They really, really do like us.
So did you experience any real hatred over America's foreign policy, for instance? Did anyone confront you over that?
I would say certainly three-quarters of the people I interviewed in the film on their own brought up American foreign policy and the wars. They would say, "If you want to do something for the world, stop invading. Stop starting wars, stop being belligerent, stop being a bully, you know, 'cause you're actually really cool and you're really good, and you've got a great belief system, and you've got a great constitution, and we'd like to be like you, but you make it really hard because you allow your leaders to do some pretty awful things."
The last 25 years—with the emergence of globalization, cheap labor markets elsewhere in the world and the movement of labor—have caused America to become kind of xenophobic, wouldn't you say? And how is the xenophobic public going to go to a film called Where to Invade Next?
Well whenever I say the name of the movie, I always add the sentence: "It's a comedy."
You want people to know that right?
Yes I want them to know that. I want them to know that what they're going to get is not necessarily what they think they're going to get, and that's going to be part of the fun of the movie and part of the surprise. I'm only attempting to do what any filmmaker does, to give you some moments of great laughter, great tears, and make a few of you leave the theater thinking about things.
"The crew had their own title for the movie, which was Mike's Happy Movie."
This feels like a patriotic film, it doesn't feel like the caricature of Michael Moore as a mad-as-hell liberal. Where are you at in your heart and how much of you is there in this film?
I've had my own shifts in my life in the last year or so. My father died in 2014. And I got divorced and I think I had sympathy for middle America, and that sense of feeling both hopeless and helpless. And when both of your parents are gone there's that sense of being an orphan. But it wasn't bad. It had a weird effect on me—I was sad, I wasn't depressed. In fact I was really encouraged and watching him pass away gave me I guess maybe a different—respect isn't the right word— enthusiasm for life and the possibility of what could be.
That comes through, the film is very life-affirming.
The crew had their own title for the movie, which was Mike's Happy Movie.
Are you trying to put positive vibes out in the world? I mean, you're talking very optimistically about a revolution of ideas…
Yeah I think it is going to happen, it's going to be led by young people. It's going to be led by African Americans, it's going to be led by women. And they're already doing it. And some of these movements are also the children of Occupy Wall Street, that a few years ago showed the population that people would actually speak out against the issues of economic power and economic injustice.
So a nonviolent American revolution of ideas around our social contract, the basics of any liberal democracy, you think will happen within the next five years?
Within the next two or three years.
How eager are you to get the film in front of Americans and talk to them about it and your ideas?
I took Fahrenheit 9/11 across the country—I did 60 cities in 42 days. I hope to do something similar this time across the country. We've already checked into how could we get one of those rock-and-roll [tour] buses and just firestorm the country with this movie and show it in as many cities and hamlets as we can park the bus in.
Is that part of the joy for you in the release of a film, and this one in particular?
I like getting out there, I find people fascinating, this is an amazing country, I love this country. I know it pretty well, I've crisscrossed it many times and I think that I have—I'm trying to think of how to put this into words… There's a place that love holds in all of this, you know, real love, not the Hallmark-card love. I'm talking about a real empathy and love and inner core that feels very connected, and I love that feeling.
Where to Invade Next debuts Thursday, September 10, at the Toronto International Film Festival.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.