More than two decades ago, filmmaker Michael Moore escaped the usual obscurity afforded those working in the documentary/non-fiction cinematic world with Roger & Me, a searing, highly personal indictment of General Motors and what he considered its responsibility in the fiscal demise of his hometown Flint, Mich.
Now he’s returned to slashing General Motors among other things in his new film Capitalism: A Love Story, which opens Friday. Only now, Moore has widened his scope and fired a broadside at an entire economic system, particularly its banking and financial ends, plus (on a lesser scale) its political apparatus.
Moore’s angry about the collapse of the nation’s economy over the past couple of years, and cites the widespread greed and profit-at-all-costs mentality he feels exemplified Wall Street’s behavior.
Most directors would take 120 minutes just trying to prove that contention, but that's neither Moore's sole goal nor focus.
Capitalism: A Love Story attacks, derides and criticizes everything from the privatization of prisons to corporations taking out life insurance policies on employees without notifying them, the inability of airplane pilots to earn satisfactory wages, and the conduct of mortgage companies. He provides constant examples of outrageous injustices done to ordinary citizens and juxtaposes them against the specter of executives, stockbrokers and banking employees earning bonuses and big money.
Still, that's just the backdrop buttressing Moore’s ultimate charge, that capitalism at its core is morally bankrupt. He not only gets three different religious figures (two of whom are family friends) to specifically say this, but also inserts late into the narrative select statements from Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin about the evils of unregulated banking and greed as additional evidence.
Moore indicts both Republican and Democrats for either buckling under Wall Street pressure or profiting from their questionable practices (Sen. Christopher Dodd is one of the politicians identified as getting cushy loans from Countrywide, though he was later cleared of any wrongdoing in a Congressional investigation).
Other Moore staples include the ambush interview (he tries to get the head of GM to speak to him on the phone during an impromptu visit), the visual spectacle (putting crime scene tape around a Bank of America, pulling up to AIG in an armored car asking for taxpayers money back, and trying to make a citizens’ arrest at other financial locations), and the heart-tugging interview.
He's a master at getting people to present tragic, poignant stories on camera without looking coached or prompted. The sense of outrage in the packed screening theater (that also housed a largely pro-Moore crowd) was audible and evident as a longtime Wal-mart employee described his outrage upon discovering his former workplace not only profited from his wife's death, but neither paid for her funeral or medical costs.
While Moore concludes the film with a plea for those watching it to join him in citizen action, he's wise enough to know not everyone who'll see Capitalism: A Love Story will buy its premises. Though he’s careful to say democracy is his preference to capitalism, Moore also realizes opponents will deem this film a de facto argument for adopting socialism. His lightweight treatment of the Obama campaign (which he basically leads cheers for) has earned him plenty of online scorn from the right.
Capitalism: A Love Story is a visually superb, phenomenal combination of left-wing polemics and alternately humorous and poignant anecdotes and stories. It also contains some important historical material, most notably FDR's 1944 fireside chat that argued for the adoption of a second Bill of Rights. This measure addressed such specific economic goals as universal medical care and educational opportunity.
Roosevelt’s death a year later prevented that idea from ever gaining traction, and it's highly doubtful anything so radical could be passed in the current environment.
Moore is this era’s ideal filmmaker. He makes movies that tug at the hearts of his followers, outrage his detractors and earn lots of money and publicity for the studios.
Capitalism: A Love Story
Written and directed by Michael Moore
Appearances from a host of politicians, financial figures, priests and others, including Timothy Geithner, Alan Greenspan, Sen. Christopher Dodd and Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur
Time: 129 minutes
Our view: Moore tells great stories and makes no pretense at objectivity or balance. As always, those who love and agree with him will cheer this work, while those who don't will loathe it.