Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski doesn't quite love capitalism—she only like likes it.
Our review of Capitalism: A Love Story, published March 4th, 2010, is also available.
"Capitalism is an evil, and you cannot regulate evil."
With the above quotation as its central premise, Capitalism: A Love Story is perennial muckraker Michael Moore's most ambitious documentary to date—not stylistically, perhaps, but politically. His previous pitches for tougher gun control, better health care, and generally opposing George W. Bush have all been easy sells to his supporters on the left, but the conclusions of Capitalism may get even those folks into uncomfortable ideological terrain. Though he's still mostly preaching to the choir, Moore has composed a bolder, more challenging sermon this time around—and the results are impressive.
Facts of the Case
Moore's work has by now developed a distinct formula that Capitalism adheres to pretty closely:
Hot button political issue + offbeat interviews with experts + heart-wrenching footage of the sufferings of the common folk + snarky voiceover + gimmicky stunt that could get Moore arrested—opposing viewpoints = Michael Moore documentary
What changes from film to film is what Moore plugs in to those fixed parts of the equation, and here he's taking on the mothership of all hot button political issues: whether America should be a capitalist country. The centerpiece in that exploration is the 2008 global financial collapse, which Moore dissects fully. Along the way he also touches on real estate foreclosures and the families that they leave homeless, mass lay-offs and employees who have refused to be discarded, airline pilots on food stamps, companies that make a profit from employee deaths, and worker-owned cooperatives. And no Moore documentary would be complete without that gimmicky stunt; in this case, it's Moore driving an armored car up to big banking headquarters and trying to get the American people's bailout money back.
Though Capitalism: A Love Story has a plentiful array of special features, no commentary from or interviews with Moore are offered. I mention that detail at the outset because it prompts consideration of the most important feature of Moore's filmmaking: it's all "director's commentary." That might sound like a criticism, but it's not. Rather, I want to point out that while many people assume that documentaries should, by definition, be unbiased and informative, there are actually lots of different alternatives for making nonfiction films. Moore's are chock full o' bias, but that doesn't disqualify them from the category—it just means that he's working in a more blatantly essayistic mode than audiences are used to. He's got a point of view, like all documentarians; but unlike most documentarians, he promotes it instead of effacing it. That choice brings both benefits and consequences, politically: he's great at riling up the folks on his side and encouraging them to act, but he's terrible at changing minds on the right. Professionally and economically, the choice has been all benefit, as Moore has become America's most well-known and successful documentarian. His films show in multiplexes across the country rather than art house theaters, film festivals, and on PBS.
As I mentioned above, though, Capitalism steps off Moore's beaten path just a little bit by asking the people who already agree with him to agree to something more radical than ever. An anti-capitalism agenda has been simmering under the surface of most of his previous films—including Roger and Me, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Sicko—but now he cuts straight to the heart of America's problems, as he sees them, and takes on capitalism itself. He's not shy about these critiques, asking his interviewees questions like "Don't you think capitalism has failed?" and filling his voiceover with lines like, "I guess that's the point of capitalism: it allows you to get away with anything."
To his credit, he gives this controversial argument a lot of very compelling and moving support. His interviews with smart and important people like Elizabeth Warren and a bunch of congressmen and women are full of passionate and intelligent sound bytes about the failure of our economic system. And his interviews with ordinary people abused by various branches of American capitalism range from deeply sad to totally shocking. We've all heard personal accounts from people who have lost their homes to foreclosure in the past few years, but Moore showcases their plights with a good mixture of compassion and outrage. Moore is great at drudging up the more obscure and shocking variety of American tragedies, though, and he finds some stories for Capitalism that are truly eye-opening. One involves huge, well-known American corporations like Wal-Mart secretly taking out insurance policies on their own employees, especially those with life-threatening illnesses. The result is that when these employees die, the corporation gets a huge payout that the employee's own family doesn't benefit from at all, and often doesn't even know about. Moore convincingly unravels this story to show how distasteful, and how dangerous, it is when big companies exploit a system meant to protect loved ones in the event of a provider's death. The question he rightly asks is, do you really want to be worth more dead than alive to your faceless corporate employer? Another such story is about the privatization of prisons—or in this case, of juvenile detention centers. Moore interviews several teens who were locked up in their Virginia hometown, serving terms as long as a year for offenses as minor as getting in a fight at the mall or making a mean MySpace page about an administrator at school. Why the harsh sentences? Because the for-profit detention center was making big bucks on each teen incarcerated there, and had bribed a judge to keep them locked up. Again, Moore rightly asks, do you really want prisons to have a strong financial incentive for keeping people incarcerated for as long as possible?
In addition to identifying the problems with capitalism, Moore also takes a stab at some solutions. The consequence of taking on a problem as huge as capitalism, though, is that effective solutions are tougher to come by. While the mass revolt of the working classes he suggests might seem a little daunting, Moore does manage to offer some legitimately inspiring ideas on a smaller scale. His segments on Republic Windows and Doors get him back to the good ol' days of his pro-worker, pro-union Roger and Me, showing a group of workers who are treated unfairly and achieve some justice with peaceful protest. Another section promotes worker-owned cooperatives: businesses that share their profits equitably among all their employees rather than using a hierarchy of low-wage grunts and executives who make millions. The cooperatives Moore highlights here seem like successful, efficient businesses full of a truly rare breed of people: happy workers who are kind and fair to each other. Moore makes the cause-effect argument here that these aren't groups of happy workers who decided to try an unusual business model, but rather an unusual business model that creates happy workers. Radical and revolutionary? Maybe. Appealing and inspiring? Definitely.
Moore also puts his directorial stamp on this outing with characteristic humor and stunts. Personally, I'm not feeling that attached to the latter. There are so many good and important things in Capitalism that the scenes of Moore harassing low-level security workers at bank headquarters to "get our money back" feel a bit silly and unnecessary. He's had some inspired stunts in his day—especially Sicko's field trip to Cuba to obtain decent health care for 9/11 volunteers and firefighters—but this isn't one of them. There is some great humor in Capitalism, though, including Moore's "one last visit" to GM headquarters in Michigan, and an opening sequence that juxtaposes an old TV special on "Life in Ancient Rome" with the financial vices of contemporary America. My favorite bit is a bit of associative editing in which Moore's voiceover talks about why working and middle class Americans let the super-rich get away with all their shenanigans. He speculates that it's because we all think that if we just work hard enough, we'll get there someday, too, and the footage that accompanies this speculation is a little dog looking at a plate of food on a high table and jumping up in the air over and over again to try to get it. While not all of Moore's snark works the way it's supposed to, he's a master of this type of witty, politically charged editing.
Anchor Bay does a nice job of presenting Moore's diatribe on Blu-ray. Because this is a documentary that uses both original and archival footage, picture and sound quality vary greatly depending on the source material. Moore's original footage looks fantastic for a documentary: super-sharp with nice color tones. But the contrast between its quality and the quality of the older footage highlights problems with the latter. It also highlights how much Moore relies on stock footage, even for things he could have his crew go out and shoot, like the front of some corporate office in New York. Still, the images looks as good as possible here and I had no problems with sound quality.
The package of extras is also impressive, offering lots of bonus interviews (8 minutes with Elizabeth Warren; 7 minutes with Congressman Elijah Cummings; 9 minutes with journalist Chris Hedges; 11 minutes with Prof. Tom Webb; and 6 minutes with the priest who married Moore and his wife). All of these interviewees have lots more to say than the documentary had time to air, so those who found the film interesting can start to learn more right on the Blu-ray. Topics and tone vary, but I most recommend the brainy and passionate Elizabeth Warren, who has the unenviable duty of overseeing distribution of the bailout funds, and Tom Webb, who gives more background on worker-owned cooperatives. More engaging still than these extended interviews are a handful of fully edited sequences (each around 6 minutes) that didn't make it in to the film itself. In one, we learn more about how to eat ethically from Michael Pollan, CSA farmers, and community organizers who are starting neighborhood gardens in West Oakland. Two others detail some bottom-up and top-down responses to home foreclosures, with an activist in Florida who moves families into abandoned houses, and a government official in Michigan who reclaims abandoned houses from negligent house flippers and gives the land back to the neighborhood. Another showcases an unusual socialist bank, in North Dakota, of all places. And a fifth details the operations of a worker-owned cab cooperative in Wisconsin, opening with an amusing recreation of Scorsese's moody Taxi Driver driving sequences. These ample features are rounded out by 18 minutes of a speech from President Jimmy Carter that Moore excerpts in the film, a digital copy on a second disc (only for PC users, though), and two trailers. The teaser trailer is a hoot, spoofing charity ads with Michael Moore telling the audience collection cans will be passed around for donations to our country's needy CEOs. The one thing I would have liked to have seen with these extras is better organization; rather than grouping the interviews and deleted sequences separately, they're all jumbled together so that you can't really tell that you're selecting from two distinct types of special features.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One wonders, amidst all of Moore's well-intentioned tirades against capitalism and the rich, about the state of his personal finances. For a filmmaker who's achieved vast commercial success in a mode (documentary) not known for its profitability, it seems fair to question whether he's practicing what he preaches. Though I haven't done a lot of research on the subject, a low-budget documentary by a couple of leftist Canadians called Manufacturing Dissent alerted me to some of Moore's questionable ethics (like owning stock in some shady corporations, if I remember correctly) apart from the usual accusations of bias.
Capitalism: A Love Story speaks to Moore's inexhaustible talent for airing righteous anger at just the right cultural moments. His resounding condemnation of Wall Street and corporate greed offers, at least, some cathartic venting for an American public that can feel powerless in the face of these forces. One of the most important, but easily forgotten or frantically contested, aspects of Moore as a political filmmaker comes across loud and clear in Capitalism: he's ultimately a patriot in the truest sense. Whether one sides with him or against him, it's hard to deny that he loves his country by loving its people, even when he doesn't love its government or economic system. That's the "love story" that Moore has been telling throughout his career, evoked in the tense proclamation he makes near the end of Capitalism:
"I refuse to live in a country like this. And I'm not leaving."
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