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In Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore lays bare what America gets painfully wrong

Plus: eloquent storytelling around the refugee crisis in Fire at Sea.

Michael Moore has been so effective in documentary that most people have forgotten his solitary excursion into fiction film-making, Canadian Bacon, in which a US president attempts to boost his popularity by waging war against the cuddly Canucks. This idea is partly revisited in Where to Invade Next, which starts from the conceit that Moore has been assigned by his government to storm various countries and steal all their best ideas to compensate for decades of expensive failed military campaigns. Into factories, schools, living rooms and prisons he breezes; he’s large but he moves lightly, like a Hovercraft made of jelly. In his hands is a US flag, which he affects to plant wherever he sees a concept that takes his fancy. By showing in detail what everyone else gets right, Moore lays bare what America gets painfully wrong.

He starts in Italy, where he interviews a creosoted couple who list the extensive holiday time they are permitted by law, as well as the 15 days’ honeymoon and the magical “13th month”, which brings a double salary; Americans, by contrast, might get a week or two’s paid leave if they have a powerful union. In a French school, Moore sits at a tiny lunch-hall table among eight-year-olds and samples the lip-smacking meals that come as standard. Then he shares with his fellow diners pictures of what their US counterparts are eating. “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” gasps one child, gesturing fearfully at a neon blob of sauce, gristle and MSG.

Slovenia is lauded for its free universities, Germany for its workers’ rights. In Norway, he sees the compassionate prison system devoted to rehabilitation. The even-handedness with which the mass murderer Anders Breivik was treated is contrasted with footage of black suspects being routinely beaten by police on the streets of America.

Moore concedes that the countries he visits have their problems. “But my job is to pick the flowers,” he says, “not the weeds.” It’s a neat metaphor, except that in picking flowers one is also killing them – a tacit acknowledgement, perhaps, that a simple replanting of ideas could never work. Besides, who wants to stare at nothing but flowers for 120 minutes? What begins as enchanting or amusing quickly wears thin. No one expects Moore to do anything drastic – say, remove his baseball cap. But Where to Invade Next lacks muscle. Even documentaries need dramatic tension; this one is comprised solely of contented people being informed that their lives are tickety-boo. After a while, you can’t take any Moore.

The inhabitants of Lampedusa, the island that is the subject of Fire at Sea, might take issue with Moore’s claim that “Italians always look like they just had sex”. Gianfranco Rosi spent a year among the islanders for this restrained, humane documentary, which won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival. The main focus is Samuele, a 12-year-old who goofs around with slingshots and firecrackers and seems oblivious to the crisis unfolding around him. Situated between Libya and Sicily, his home has become a stepping stone and pit stop for more than 150,000 refugees a year who are escaping from Africa in overcrowded boats. Those who aren’t dead are malnourished and dehydrated; wrapped in glistening gold foil capes, they could be trembling wizards. The bereaved sob in one another’s arms, if they can muster the energy.

We eavesdrop on distress calls and accompany the rescue efforts scooping survivors from the water. A doctor examines a pregnant woman by ultrasound, then confesses privately that he dreams about these people and their suffering. “It is the duty of every human being to help them,” he says. Rosi is too subtle a director to start tub-thumping but he lets those words hang in the air as an invitation to us. And his editing is eloquent. A signora chops tomatoes in her kitchen as the radio broadcasts news of the previous night’s sinking; “Poor souls,” she sighs. Little Samuele throws up over the side of his father’s boat, behind him a brace of quivering squid. Their wide, frightened eyes look awfully familiar. 

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 09 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe

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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution