A film review by Craig J. Koban October 7, 2009

CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY jjj

2009, R, 117 mins.

 

A documentary written and directed by Michael Moore

Michael Moore’s ironically entitled CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY centers squarely on the very recent economic crisis in America that has occurred over the last year, but he vehemently argues that the roots of this dreadful predicament can be felt even decades earlier.   

Early in the documentary the baseball cap wearing rabble-rouser reveals – in one of his trademark voiceover narrations that feels ingenuous, soft spoken, and scathing at the same time – that America represented a more equalitarian nation where it looked promising for just about anyone to secure a place for themselves in Capitalistic ideal of earning a good living, having a great family, and owning a decent home.  A stark change in the 1970’s was immediately apparent when President Jimmy Carter rather bluntly and bravely addressed the nation with his "Crisis of Confidence" speech to warn its citizens of the allure and dangers of consumerism run horribly afoul (in pure hindsight: Carter had balls).  Beyond this moment, the election of Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s – ushering in a whole new era of more positive, but far less pragmatic, thinking when the rich got richer at the expense of the poor – all but destroyed the essence of the once attainable American Dream.   

Moore steadfastly pontificates that it was the emergence of this disparity in wealth between classes – where the richest one per cent of Yankees had more wealth than the bottom 95 per cent combined – all but sealed the country’s fate.  That, and the oftentimes disturbing relationship between political forces that plead to be making a difference and the special interest financial groups that have them in their back pockets.  The nature of capitalism, at least what I learned in school, revolved around the principle of free enterprise and profit; regrettably, Moore’s documentary is an acidic indictment of how the essence of it has become a mutated and cancerous growth on American society as a whole.  The only truth of capitalism is pure, unmitigated runaway greed that has reduced regular people to living standards that can best be described as Third World.   

CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY, at least at a cursory glance, deserves mention as a very effective bookend piece to Moore’s rookie documentary effort (and some argue his finest), ROGER AND ME.  His breakthrough 1989 film, for the uninitiated, focused on a newly unemployed and very little known Moore desperately doing everything in his power to hunt down the corporate crooks at GM Motors that shut down and laid off thousands of workers at his home town plant in Flint, Michigan.  It was not so much the layoffs that disturbed and angered the then fledging filmmaker, but more the fact that the company did so during a period of record profits.  The hostility that Moore felt towards the gluttony of GM – and Corporate America on the whole – can certainly be felt yet again in CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY, but this time Moore’s aims his hostile, satiric crosshairs not at any one business, but on the whole warped nature of capitalism itself.    

The difference between the two films – and perhaps the source of one of my largest complaint with CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY – is Moore himself.  When ROGER AND ME was released the Michigan-born son to a factory-working-class father seemed like the ultimate everyman, blue-collar hero of the people.  Uneducated, jobless, and without much hope in the world, Moore forged ahead with his guerrilla documentary in hope of squaring off with GM Chairman Roger Smith and getting some answers.  Now, twenty years later, Moore is not so much the everyman-hero: he has made several films, has won an Oscar, has been the toast of the Cannes Film Festival, and has been a multiple best selling author.  The central irony of his new documentary is that he is the very by-product of the system he is lambasting.  There is no denying that corporations, driving strongly by free enterprise and profit, backed his literary and film success.  It could be easy to argue that the Michael Moore we all know and either love or hate would have never had a career without working within the capitalist structure.  It is that very paradoxical shadow that sometimes overwhelms the effectiveness and sincerity of Moore’s film: has he not made a buck – and a fair one at that – from his film exposes?  It is one thing to attack one capitalist-savvy corporation, but to attack the entire system that has helped sustain you?  Hmmmm.... 

 

Yet, one thing is positively clear in CAPITALISM as was so even in ROGER AND ME: Moore seems to genuinely care.  He cares about his working class roots and the proud working class heritage that he grew up in.  More importantly, he – more than just about every other documentary filmmaker – probes the issues that are plaguing his country and tries to find answers.  As a result of his devotion to his tender subject matter, he has often be criticized for lacking objectivity in his films, but the crucial thing to remember is that he is a populist editorialist, not a journalist.  He’s emotionally invested to the core and wants the audience to feel equally invested in the people he places on camera.  For example, we always hear about home foreclosures in the news, but in CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY Moore shows the faces of the people that are suffering as a result of it, and the results are a sweltering storm of emotional despair.

The film opens with a masterful juxtaposition: We see an old classroom film discussing the reasons for the rise and fall of the Roman Empire that is superimposed with images of last Presidential administration (the similarities provide some cheeky laughs, but under closer scrutiny, they are eerily alike).  Following this Moore settles in and goes on the offensive as he straddles between being fiercely critical of the emerging capitalist system of the 1980’s to the present, the various portraits of ordinary people that have suffered under it, and eventually on the recent economic meltdown and the controversial bailout policies that he paints as one of the biggest robberies in recent history.  According to him, the larceny perpetrated on the American people began with Reaganomics and terribly culminated with the recent bailout, which Moore believes to be the highest point of seedy betrayal.   

The film has many individual vignettes that give Moore’s incisive rhetoric some strong credibility.  Just consider a section that focuses on airline pilots, many of whom make under $20,000 per year, a slave wage especially if one considers that these people hold hundreds of lives in the palm of their hands on a daily basis (Moore rightfully argues that managers of fast food restaurants should not be earning more that these people).  Then there is one remarkably shocking section that is almost too pathetic and sad to be believed: Moore chronicles one example of the horrible effects that privatization has on people in the way a Pennsylvanian juvenile detention center was being crammed with kids (often with crimes so petty that a grounding by one’s parents would have been seen as overkill) because a local judge made the center more profitable and successful with each new conviction.   

From here Moore delves in the highly confusing study of the nature of “derivatives,” which had calamitous influences on the banking system collapse.  Yet, just what the hell are derivatives?  Well, at times in the film, Moore himself is hilariously befuddled when even experts he bumps into cannot cogently explain it to him.  In one montage Moore shows a mathematical formula for derivatives that even "Good" Will Hunting could not solve: it is beyond convoluted.  However, Moore does dissect it down to its core: derivatives are essentially a form of gambling – it involves Wall Street betting on the chances as to whether on not hard working Americans will default on their mortgages.  In essence: Wall Street is just like one big Las Vegas Casino, and the house lost in September of 2008…big time…which lead to the federal government’s gigantic bailout, which Moore decrees, as stated, as a sanctioned robbery.

There are two sections that are unforgettably powerful:  The first involves a truly distressing segment where Moore highlights how some of the largest and most profitable companies in the world (ahem, Wal-Mart) actually take out life insurance policies for their employees and actually profit from their deaths (this policy has been coined as “dead peasant” insurance, which disgustingly allows lucrative companies to earn millions when their workers prematurely die, and worst of all…the companies hope that they do so).  The second segment – the film’s most ominous, revelatory, and sobering - shows newly unveiled archival footage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt – less than a year before he died – calling for a Second Bill of Rights for Americans, which would involve rights to homes, jobs, education, and, yup, health care.  The president was, at the time, too gravely ill to deliver his speech to Congress in person, so he did so via radio, but news cameras did shoot footage of the dying President, and his solemn visage and grave inflections seem, in pure hindsight today, both illuminating and hauntingly prophetic.   

At his best – and with all of his films to one degree or another – Moore has successfully blended teeth clenched moral outrage and despair with nail biting and scathing comedy.  Moore is arguably as blisteringly pissed off as he’s even been in a film with CAPITALISM: pissed off because the current fragility of the North American economy was preventable; pissed off because the nation’s leader’s did very little to protect their nation and its citizens from it; and ultimately pissed off because the promises that the capitalist system made to honest Americans in the 50’s and 60’s is all but a fantasy now.  Moore reaches a feverous crescendo where he passionately explains that unchecked Capitalism is a vile, repugnant, and evil freak of economic nature. 

His solution: we all need to revolt and kill it. 

Ummmm….okay.

If you think that the message here is more than a bit hopelessly naïve, then you’re right.  Moore scores huge points for giving viewers a convincing argument, but the central weakness of CAPITALISM is with the solutions that he wants us to initiate.  What are they?   Democracy, Moore declares…. but not much else.  If Moore’s lack of probing for real solutions to the heart of this larger than life problem is not disconcerting enough, then his peculiar stance towards Barack Obama is even more awkward.   One implication by Moore is that Obama ran for and won the presidency on a platform of being the ultimate reformer (which certainly holds water) and that the economic crisis and the unavoidable bail out stunted his reform efforts.  Yet, Moore’s whitewash of Obama in the film feels trivial.  Moore seems to conveniently omit Obama’s staunch defense of the bailout package that he labels as being a crime and only marginally slights the president for the corporate campaign contributions he received while running for office.  There's too many unavoidable contradictions to the current Commander-in-Chief that Moore sort of lazily glosses over.

Then there are the obligatory stunts that Moore engages in, like plastering the New York Stock Exchange with crime-scene tape, or using a bullhorn at the front doors of banks that received bailout money so he can demand the tax payer’s cash back, which certainly are funny, sensationalistic, and part of Moore’s legacy as a more than willing showman.  However, these stunts have become increasingly perfunctory and have perhaps have lost much of their scandalous impact (surely, the sheer scope of the film’s thought-provoking and endlessly polarizing material trumps just about any meaningless set piece Moore engages in).  Moore may not come off as the ultimate poster boy of the poor and underprivileged anymore – at least with the same fire and brimstone that he did when ­ he himself was poor and underprivileged during ROGER AND ME ­ but in CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY the fist-pumping fury and his scornful finger pointing at his targets still score a successful bullseye.  He’s mad-as-hell and looking for someone to blame for our current economic vulnerability, and perhaps Moore is the only director with enough fearless ambition and hutzpah to proclaim capitalism as the ultimate villain itself. 

Now that’s kind of ballsy. 

 

CrAiGeR's other

M I C H A E L   M O O R E

DOCUMENTARY

Reviews:

 

SICKO  (2007)  jjj1/2

 

FAHRENHEIT 9/11  (2004)  jjjj

 

 ROGER AND ME  (1989)  jjjj 

 

 

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