Capitalism: A Love Story
Director : Michael Moore
Screenplay : Michael Moore
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2009
It should be clear by the subject of his latest documentary, which is nothing less than the very bedrock foundation of the United States’ and much of the Western world’s economic system, that rabble-rousing documentarian Michael Moore has not mellowed in the slightest. However, in our brave new world of Glenn Beck-style paranoia, anger, and histrionics masquerading as political discourse, Moore’s sarcastic mugging seems very nearly quaint. For those who are raving mad at the Right, Wall Street, and everything else that smacks of big business and its profits-ahead-of-everything mentality, Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story may feel almost too restrained, even though the film pulls no punches in arguing that capitalism may very well be evil.
Like his two most recent documentary-polemics, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Sicko (2007), Capitalism: A Love Story is particularly well timed--ripped right from the headlines, you might say. Even though many will disagree with Moore’s leftist-populist political bent, not to mention his approach to the material, it is hard to deny that he has his finger on the national pulse. After the stock market crash last year and the bail-outs of massive Wall Street companies and then much of the U.S. auto industry, even the most conservative of Americans can’t be blamed for wondering if something is wrong with the system. Moore’s answer is that it is the very system itself that is wrong, although the title of the film is somewhat misleading: It is not so much capitalism that Moore puts in the crosshairs as it is a particular kind of corporatism that allows massive corporations to basically run amok with little legal oversight and virtually no ethical guidance. As he did in Sicko, Moore’s fundamental plea is essentially an ethical one: After all, how much wealth do the wealthy really need?
Moore goes right for the throat in the film’s first moments, segueing from a sarcastic opening credits sequence that cuts together surveillance footage of people robbing banks (read: desperate times call for desperate measures) to the first of several ironic uses of old film footage, this one being a cira-1950s educational film about the fall of ancient Rome that Moore juxtaposes with images of current events, thus making the not-too-subtle point that we are on the brink of the kind of catastrophe that turned Rome from the greatest power on earth into a historical object lesson about the perils of wealth, greed, and complacency. Moore then illustrates the damage the capitalist system is doing with a cross-section of real Americans who have been particularly brutalized, including a couple who is being evicted from the farm that has been in their family for decades, a woman who discovered after her husband passed away that the company for which he worked had taken out a so-called “dead peasant” policy that allowed them to profit from his death, and a group of workers at a window manufacturing company who staged an old-fashioned sit-in after they were fired and not paid for their previous weeks’ work. Moore uses these as both examples of the pitfalls of our economic system--essentially, how it stomps on the little people so the wealthy and powerful can stay that way--and as emotional hooks to tie his central thesis to hard-working realities.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Michael Moore film without some well-placed snark, and Moore has plenty to offer, most memorably when he mocks the idea that capitalism is somehow Christian (an idea that the Right has been particularly effective in conveying) by taking scenes from Franco Zefferilli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and dubbing Christ’s voice with greed-is-good proclamations that are clearly contrary to the message of the Gospels. Moore’s hijacking the Son of God to make his anti-big-business point with likely infuriate many conservatives, but it’s hard to argue with the logic. Of course, it is precisely such cutesy sarcasm that Moore’s critics have seized upon, so he certainly does himself a favor by letting some things speak for themselves, particularly never-before-seen film footage of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, less than a year before his death, declaring the need for a second Bill of Rights that would assure all Americans the right to homes, jobs, education, and health care.
Moore also inserts himself into the film wherever possible, including his own blue-collar, middle-America life story, which he weaves into his summary of post-World War II economic development to highlight how his own family has been affected. He later restages an attempt to get into the General Motors headquarters from his first film, Roger & Me (1989), which traced the effects of the auto industry on his crumbling hometown of Flint, Michigan. This ploy gets the point across that those in power don’t want that power questioned, but it also presents one of those slightly queasy moments where Moore is clearly using people (the poor security guards just trying to do their job) to make his point. He also stages some silly theatrics in which he rents an armored van and drives it up to the front of the Wall Street banks and brokerage houses that took billions of taxpayer bail-out money and, bullhorn in hand, demands that it be repaid. It’s a grabby stunt right out of the Michael Moore playbook, and if it doesn’t quite work, it’s only because it’s too obviously what we expect from him. By the end of the film, when he is wrapping Wall Street in crime scene tape, it is clear that Moore is in a groove, even if he doesn’t really have any tangible answers to the problems he is so adept at highlighting.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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