DVD Review: Capitalism: A Love Story
To call Michael Moore a polarizing figure is an understatement, but his latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, is simultaneously his most provocative work yet, and also his most understated and least hyperbolic. Which sounds like a contradiction, but Moore has learned the lessons of his past few films (and, more specifically, the reaction to them), and focuses more on hard facts and real-life anecdotes like he did in Sicko, as opposed to bending the truth to make his point like he occasionally did in Fahrenheit 9/11 (which Moore himself admits is less of a proper documentary than it is a “filmed essay”), and the result is a movie with the emotional power of his early work like Roger & Me and the best parts of Bowling for Columbine and the more mature, quasi-journalistic style of the better-regarded Sicko. Examining the collapse of the American economy, Capitalism: A Love Story is in many ways the film Moore has been building to for his entire career, to the point that it’s almost a sequel to 1989’s Roger & Me, and it sees Moore continuing his shift from political agitator to activist. Unlike some of his previous films and TV series, in Capitalism, Moore is less interested in making fools of his subjects or getting easy laughs from the audience (though the movie is also very, very funny) than he is making a point about what he feels is wrong with America, and it’s a wise move. The lack of cheap-shots makes the film seem more like a legitimate documentary (albeit one with a definite point of view, which is something most documentaries have nowadays) and less like a political screed, and given the importance of the message Moore is trying to convey, it’s a canny decision, and short-circuits much of the usual criticism his movies garner.
Capitalism sees Moore at his best as an advocate for the working class, and as much as I realize that he’s probably a millionaire a few times over himself, he’s toned down the rhetoric in this film, so there’s less opportunities for him to come across as disingenuous when he discusses the plight of blue-collar folks. He may not be a middle-class guy himself these days, but his anger at the fact that the secure, middle-class lifestyle he enjoyed when he was a kid has basically vanished from America seems very real, and he’s hell-bent on exposing what he sees as the corrupt political and corporate forces that are eroding the middle class. Moore, a former seminary student, returns again and again to the moral implications of capitalism, repeatedly asking whether Jesus (or any other religious figure) would be on the side of the tiny fraction of Americans that control most of the country’s wealth (who also seem to invoke Jesus’ name quite a bit) or on the side of the underpaid, exploited masses. In past films, Moore’s moral outrage can seem like an act, but I totally bought it this time around.
Moore is angry in this film, but he doesn’t make himself the centre of the proceedings. He’s learned the lessons of Sicko (that sometimes it’s easier to get your point across without all the histrionics), and it seems like he’s internalized some of the criticisms against him, particularly after Fahrenheit 9/11. He barely appears in the film other than in voiceover (he still appears onscreen several times, but he’s nowhere near as much of a presence as he was in Fahrenheit or Columbine, and it’s a wise decision, particularly given the politically sensitive nature of the subject matter and how divisive a figure he is). Moore’s smart enough to realize how politically touchy it is to basically make a documentary about how American capitalism has failed and destroyed much of the country, both literally and figuratively, especially in America, and he constructs the film wherever possible as a simple presentation of facts. Moore sniffs out examples of capitalism run amok (like teenagers unjustly thrown in juvenile detention, sometimes over the objections of probation officers, because a local judge had cut a deal with the private company that built the for-profit detention center to keep the flow of kids coming so the company could make more money with more inmates), and in contemporary America, it’s not hard to find examples of lower-middle class people getting screwed over by the horribly broken system. It would be tough to argue against the points Moore makes in Capitalism: A Love Story without resorting to partisan name-calling or talking-points or just blind devotion to a system that any reasonably intelligent person can see is simply no longer working. The only arguments against Moore’s thesis in the film, which is basically that capitalism has gone too far and replaced democracy in America (as opposed to remaining just an economic system that runs alongside democracy) are either that no, everything’s actually just fine (which probably means you’re one of the 1% that controls the vast majority of the wealth in America) or that it’s unpatriotic or sacrilegious to even begin to question the sanctity of the capitalist system, which is the propaganda that those in power have been selling for years.
The unfortunate thing, in America at least, is that there’s a lot of truth, ugly, harsh truth, in what Moore is saying in this film, but because of his reputation I’m sure a great many people who should see this film and be moved by it, won’t. As much as I agree with Moore on a lot of issues on paper (I’m Canadian, and I’m probably further to the left of the political spectrum than he is), even I find his style a bit grating and disingenuous at times (in particular in Fahrenheit, and some parts of Bowling for Columbine are a little too over-the-top for me), but Capitalism: A Love Story really isn’t a political movie in the left-right/partisan sense (Moore’s as hard, if not harder, on the Democrats than the Republicans, particularly in the section covering the bank bailout, one of the film’s strongest – and most infuriating – sequences). It’s about justice and what’s right, and it’s about a broken system that’s still sold as being “for the people” despite the fact that it isn’t. But Moore, sadly, has positioned himself through his career in such a way that people already predisposed to disagreeing with him will just ignore Capitalism as another tirade against America, and that’s too bad.
Overall I was quite blown away by Capitalism: A Love Story, and I went into it expecting to agree with just about everything Moore had to say in it (and I pretty much did); if I have a knock against the movie it’s that Moore seems to scale back his argument near the end, I guess to avoid being seen calling for the complete dismantling of modern American society, and I can understand his reluctance to take his argument to its logical conclusion lest he be seen as an insane radical or worse, something approaching a terrorist. Capitalism: A Love Story is a film that, in an ideal world, would be seen by just about everybody in America, and other parts of the world as well. It’s not a political rant, but rather an incisive, street-level breakdown of exactly what went wrong with the American economic system over the last several decades. It’s a film about how we got where we are, and it’s a heartbreaking, infuriating journey. Moore ends the film with a call to action, his most explicit appeal to his viewers since Fahrenheit 9/11 (a movie that existed purely to try to hamper George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004), and, as much as it pains me to say it, I think he’s barking up the wrong tree. Either way, Capitalism: A Love Story is an important, and remarkably well-made documentary that just about everyone should see. Highly recommended.
The extras on the Capitalism: A Love Story DVD are good and plentiful. The strongest, in my opinion, are an extended version of Moore’s interview with Congressman Elijah Cummins (D-Maryland) in which Cummins breaks down while describing the plight of the working class, and an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Chris Hedges in which he discusses ‘The Killing Machine Known as Capitalism,’ essentially (and with terrifying rationality) laying out the argument that unfettered capitalism, in addition to causing a great deal of pain and misery (for example, the huge and politically influential corporations that make insane amounts of money off the current wars in the Middle East, and so it’s therefore in their interests that war and destruction continue), unregulated capitalism is destroying America. I realize that on paper that sounds like the ravings of a fringe intellectual figure, but listening to Hedges calmly explain his position is incredibly unnerving.
There’s a ton of other interesting stuff on the DVD, including the full version of Jimmy Carter’s infamous Jul7 15, 1979 address to the nation, in which he warns of the dangers of self-indulgence and the worship of material goods (Moore uses a piece of it in the final film to segue into his hilarious and depressing segment on Ronald Regan); it’s chilling to watch in its entirety, and sort of mind-blowing to consider the political ramifications of an American president just talking honestly to the people (the idea of, say, Barack Obama doing the same thing today is nigh-unthinkable). There’s also a bunch of little profiles of different business models (a piece called ‘Commie Taxi Drivers’ looks at Wisconsin cab drivers that operate as a worker’s co-op, and another looks at a “socialist” bank operating out of North Dakota). The result is an assortment of extras that run the gamut of righteous indignation and angry reaction to real alternatives and examples of how some smaller companies and communities are making things work without screwing over or taking advantage of workers. A great DVD for an excellent documentary.
Labels: documentary, DVD review, politics