Drop Everything You’re Doing And Go See Michael Moore’s “Capitalism A Love Story”
I have to admit, when I first saw Michael Moore’s new film a couple weeks ago at a press screening, I wasn’t really all that impressed. The movie felt scatterbrained and poorly edited — I thought it was all over the place without really saying much.
It actually took a second screening — at the D.C. premiere of the film, where I had the honor to meet the filmmaker himself and attend a screening alongside the likes of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — that I really understood the power behind the movie.
I think the reason I wasn’t able to get into “Capitalism: A Love Story” the first go-round is because I was seeing it in a crowd of maybe twenty people, mostly film critics. There was little applause, and little feeling of solidarity. Watching it with a crowded house of D.C. progressive politicos, on the other hand, really made the movie shine. That’s because the film’s central theme — that we’re all being served poorly by an unfair economic system that has fabulously enriched a small minority at the expense of the rest of us — demands a crowd that is willing to invest itself in the film’s stories.
And stories are what the film is all about. Unlike some of Moore’s previous work — most notably Fahrenheit 9/11, which is basically a non-stop assault on former president George W. Bush — this film relies almost exclusively on various narratives that come together to tell the larger story of a savage economic system that has laid waste to the working class of the country.
The film opens with a montage of surveillance footage of robbers looting banks and convenience stores. As the opening credits roll, we watch as the sort of thieves and common criminals you’d recognize in an episode of Cops fill the screen, with one of Moore’s classic ironic soundtrack picks blaring in the background — it’s a sort of foreshadowing, because a much more illustrious set of robbers is showcased later in the film.
Then we’re treated to stock footage of an old documentary explaining the fall of Rome, being interspersed with video clips of what Moore perceives as modern-day America’s own decline: reality-tv shows, YouTube, and his arch-nemesis, George W. Bush.
With this set of comedy aside, Moore then plunges deep into the heart of his movie, moving swiftly between separate narratives describing the calamitous situations created by our free-market economic system. We’re shown the eviction of a family from their home from the inside-out, a man from a company called “Condo Vultures” who brags about how quickly he can turn a buck on others’ misfortune, and the practice of “Dead Peasants” insurance, where companies take out life insurance policies on their employees and then reap the rewards when they die.
As “Capitalism” cycles through different stories of economic ruin and unfairness, it also instructs the audience about the history of how things came to be this way. Moore juxtaposes a stern Jimmy Carter warning about the perils of greed and waste with the rise of Ronald Reagan, whose Merril Lynch-driven cabinet slashed both taxes on the super-wealthy and a whole slew of consumer protection regulations. We’re also shown how corporate America bankrolled the deregulation spree, with its army of lobbyists and stealth advisors inserted throughout successive governments.
All of this culminates into the last third of the film, which starts at our most recent economic crisis. For the answers on the roots of the disaster, the never-subtle Moore turns to 80’s-era regulator and iconoclast William Black, asking him, “What the fuck happened?”
The last arc of “Capitalism” explores that question with the kind of investigative zeal that is rarely seen in American journalism today. A slew of both economic experts and whistleblower members of Congress are called in to explain that, after decades of high-powered corporate lobbying of both major political parties, our economic system basically collapsed due to the weight of its own hubris.
And the most damning part of all this — the fact that history’s most insistent capitalists ran to the government for a bailout — is explained, in the words of interviewee Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), as an “intelligence operation” ran by banking institutions like Goldman Sachs, which successfully lobbied for the enormous, no-strings-attached bailout package last fall.
Yet Moore isn’t cynical enough to make the movie into nothing more than a sermon about what’s wrong with our country. He uses his talents as a filmmaker to highlight much of what’s right. Towards the end of the film, he takes us through tales of families fighting to keep their neighbors from being evicted, workers staging a sit-in when a bailed-out bank refused to provide a loan to let their company keep them on, and the historic election of Barack Obama.
Speaking of Obama, “Capitalism” is largely agnostic about the President himself. Moore highlights Obama’s ambitious words and populist demeanor, yet he also notes that some of the very figures most responsible for the economic disaster have ended up in influential places in his administration. He also notes that the financial institutions at the heart of of the disaster have contributed generously to Obama and other Democrats. But all of this isn’t used to write Obama off. On the contrary, Moore highlights these facts to point out that it’s up to all of us — the people of the country who were so energized and invigorated during the election season — to come together to hold the political establishment’s feet to the fire to do something about all the issues highlighted in the film.
That’s the ultimate message of “Capitalism: A Love Story.” Moore ends the film with one final prank on Wall Street, and he sermonizes about how none of the ills highlighted in the movie are going to be ameliorated all by themselves. Rather, it’s up to the people of the country to help realize the dream of the late President Roosevelt — who Moore highlights prominently with a rarely-seen historical news reel — that everyone in the country would be able to have a good job, decent housing, food on the table, and health care coverage.
In that sense, this really is, as has been said about it, the “culmination” of Moore’s work as a documentarian. His film asks us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to work together to eliminate our common ills, a theme that he has highlighted in every movie he’s made since “Roger & Me.” Whether the people who watch this movie will mobilize to answer Moore’s call to work towards a more just, humane, and fair economic system remains to be seen, but what can be said is that he has crafted one hell of a case for doing so.