October 8, 2009


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Capitalism: A Love Story (R)
Michael Moore shakes his fists at our capitalist system and assorted profit-related injustices in Capitalism: A Love Story, a left-wing Rush-Limbaugh-equivalent rant for liberals jealous of all the rants their right-wing friends get to listen to.

In his sing-songy narration accompanied by 1950s health-class stock footage, Moore explains how life was once grand for workers of America. His union-member dad had paid vacation, sterling health care, a salary that allowed his mom to stay home, which the family could easily afford, and send the kids to college. And the country was happy and healthy as well, with dams and roads and other cool infrastructury stuff paid for by the 90 percent income tax levied on the rich. (Yes, you sticklers-for-historical-perspective, Moore does make mention of racial injustice with a clip showing a crackdown on a civil rights protest that is at least two seconds long.)

Then Reagan and Co. came along and broke unions, cut rich people’s taxes and deregulated everything. Rich people got richer (with CEO pay skyrocketing while worker pay stagnated) and working people found themselves increasingly in financial peril, with jobs and pensions fading away and “wealth” coming almost entirely from credit, including that “put it all on red 17” financial instrument, the home equity loan.

People being evicted, workers treated horribly by their employees, kids wrongly imprisoned in for-profit prisons, real estate speculators wringing money out of foreclosed properties, government officials enacting rules to benefit the banking industry at the expense of the public — financial wrongs great and small get an airing with wacky soundtrack and la-dee-da narration as we build to Moore’s grand thesis, which is: Capitalism is evil. He even gets a couple of Catholic priests to weigh in on exactly how immoral and evil our financial system is. (And because the dramatic irony of this actually hurts my brain, I’ll let you take a moment to think of your own response to being lectured about the evils of a financial system by representatives of the Vatican.)

Moore throws everything at the wall to indict “capitalism.” The movie is marketed for its coverage of our most recent financial crisis but all sorts of spit-balls are launched. There’s the bailout, the impact that Greenspan had over the years on the banking industry, the laws Congress (Republicans and Democrats) enacted that removed regulation. These things are presented as having equal weight with other oddities, like the weird insurance policy that allows companies to cash in on employees’ deaths and a long-running bit of fraud and injustice that had corrupt judges sending kids to a for-profit prison so that the prison could collect more money. These things, which Moore presents as “proof” of the evil of capitalism, are weird and creepy but not terribly germane other than that they involve greed. I suspect socialism (or whatever Moore would replace capitalism with) might solve the health care problem but I don’t know that it will end greed.

Of course, Moore would say that I’m captured, a dupe of the corporation-run government which has spent decades convincing us that democracy and capitalism are two sides of the same coin and that both systems are holy. Either I join in with the singing of “The Internationale” (which is given the loungey Frank Sinatra treatment over the closing credits) or I prepare to be destroyed by the coming revolution. In Moore’s universe we must choose — With Us or Against Us.

Hmm, I could have sworn I’ve heard that kind of black-and-white reasoning somewhere before….

And here’s what I found most irksome about Moore’s movie. Every argument is simple. Every situation is good vs. bad. Every person is a halo-ed angel or a horned demon, a robber baron or a dust-bowler. There is no room for complex problems, for nuance, for mistakes, for human weakness. Us on the non-rich-people side of the line are never responsible and Them, the swells, are always stealing from our pockets. Everything is presented with soap opera melodrama and condescending sorrow. And Moore is never more condescending or sorrowful than when he tells us as the end of the movie that he’s tired of fighting the Good Fight on his own and he wants Us to help.

But plenty of “us” ran up credit cards and spent money we didn’t have on SUVs and fancy home renovations; plenty of “them” lost money in the crash. I couldn’t help but think about This American Life and its financial crisis coverage while I watched this. In their first show, “The Global Pool of Money,” there were people with bad motivations, good motivations, greedy motivations — human people with a bundle of motives as well as different national and international trends that lead to the collapse in the real estate market. It wasn’t a white-hats, black-hats story. It was gray, messy, complicated. And even if every fact Moore presents here is true, not just in letter but in spirit, it’s not nearly as convincing for his argument because he doesn’t allow for the complications and other-sides-of-the-story that are part of any situation. I like a good story, I even like some of the razzle-dazzle with which Moore has presented previous arguments about gun control and health care, but I need to believe that even opinion has at least some connection to real life.

Michael Moore is here a perfect foil for Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, as angry and mushy in his arguments for the left as they are about their arguments for the right. He has moments of entertainment, even moments that are laugh-out-loud funny (there’s a hilarious faux promotional video for Cleveland and a fascinating bit of speech from Franklin D. Roosevelt where, late in his presidency, he proposes a post-war dedication to a second bill of rights, which includes health care). But most of the time, his gimmicky attempts at making a citizen’s arrest (where is his sympathy for those most beleaguered workers, the security guards?) or his Barbara Walters-style attempts at getting regular people to cry are just grating. He pushes just as hard to cram us all together in one factory-job-having, union-joining box as the Sarah Palin fans and the tea-bag-types do to separate us with fear. They should argue it all out, these edge-of-spectrum right-and-left-wingers — health care, bailouts, the whole megillah. And they should do it in a soundproof room with a lock on the outside and give the rest of us some time to consider these complicated issues without all the hyperbole. C

Rated R for some language. Written and directed by Michael Moore, Capitalism: A Love Story is two hours and seven minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Overture Films and Paramount Vantage.