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Our review of Capitalism: A Love Story (Blu-Ray), published March 9th, 2010, is also available.
"I refuse to live in a country like this, and I'm not leaving."
Capitalism: A Love Story is a film that represents Michael Moore at his very best and very worst. Tying together a handful of themes Moore has been working with over the years and launching a full-scale attack on the very foundation of the American economy, Capitalism: A Love Story is by turns enthralling, enraging, fascinating, and idiotic. My general feeling toward the film is a positive one, as I find Moore to be an entertaining rabble-rouser and I personally concur with a lot of the points he is attempting to make. On the other hand, at times the film reminds me of a favorite quote from Daniel Dennett: "There's nothing I like less than a bad argument for a view that I hold dear."
While the solutions to our problems proposed by Moore are a little hazy and inconsistent, there are moments in which he masterfully manages to illustrate the problems themselves. I've always found Moore best when he focuses his efforts on finding ways to illustrate the plight of the oppressed common man (which is part of why I feel Sicko is his finest effort to date), and there are numerous sequences in Capitalism that remind us of why his films can be so very effective at times.
One of these sequences involves Moore exposing a horrific practice in which companies purchase what they refer to as "dead peasant insurance." A corporation will take out life insurance policies on many of its employees, calculating how many employees they expect to pass away within a certain period of time. When an employee dies, the corporation gets a nice pile of cash. Meanwhile, the grieving family members receive nothing from the company. It's a disturbing for-profit exercise that essentially allows corporations to benefit considerably from the death of their employees. Even more disturbing are reports from various companies complaining about the fact that not enough employees were dying to justify the cost of purchasing "dead peasant insurance."
Moore also successfully digs into many other negative side effects of capitalism, from predatory lending to unethical stock market dealings (a sequence focusing on the complexities of derivatives is particularly strong stuff) to the political sway financial institutions hold over many modern-day politicians (Moore proves to be an equal-opportunity offender in this department, taking harsh swipes at Chris Dodd and numerous members of the Obama administration as vigorously as he attacks conservatives throughout the film). He shows us portions of powerful speeches from Jimmy Carter and Franklin D. Roosevelt that presciently forewarn Americans of capitalism-induced problems while proposing socialism-driven solutions.
Alas, every now and then things have a tendency to go south. Moore has a wide variety of damning facts at his disposal, so why does he insist on so frequently making arguments that appeal to the emotion rather than to the intellect? While I realize that an argument of, "We should do this because it's morally correct," is more powerful from a dramatic perspective, why bother when you have something so persuasive as, "We should do this because it's logical and it makes perfect sense." Moore's cinematic grandstanding becomes a little groan-worthy at times, particularly when he pulls out his "crime scene" tape and wraps it around financial buildings while proclaiming that he is about to start making a citizen's arrest. These moments are less about condemning capitalism than they are about bolstering Moore's image as a champion of the people. In such lesser moments, Moore's emotion-driven populism almost begins to resemble the senseless appeals of folks like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.
I also grow weary of Moore's false naivete. After having seen Moore in his films and in countless television interviews, I know for a fact that he is a very intelligent man with a strong grasp of why things are the way they are in this country. That's why it starts to get grating when he will attempt to place himself on the level of the average viewer by responding with gasps and exclamations at each new fascinating fact he uncovers: "Gosh…I mean, gee whiz…you mean that capitalism, that thing that we all love so much, is actually BAD for this country? And socialism can actually be GOOD? That struck me as really weird. I had to learn more!" I realize that there's a knowingly jokey tone to all of this, but after a while one begins to wish that Moore would just stop the pointless self-condescension and level with us about things.
Is the movie worth watching? You bet. There's a lot of compelling stuff contained with Capitalism: A Love Story, and like all Moore films this one is endlessly watchable. The filmmaker continues to demonstrate his skills both as a master of ceremonies (where he usually comes across as warm and appealing) and as an entertainer (Moore loves using melodramatic film music selections to underscore the absurdity of much of his stock footage). Still, one gets the sense that this could have been one of the great, important documentaries of the decade. The ammunition is there, but Moore misfires and misses during moments when he should be lining up his targets and knocking them down like ducks in a row.
The DVD receives a perfectly solid transfer, warm and detailed during the new footage and the usual mixed bag in terms of the older archival footage. Audio is excellent, as Moore does a nice job of mixing his own narration and his colorful soundtrack. The supplements are mostly the equivalent of deleted scenes, but there's a lot of good stuff to be found in the mix:
• Sorry, House-Flippers and Banks—You're Toast in Flint, MI (5 minutes): Moore chats with an old friend about efforts to prevent neighborhoods in Flint from falling apart due to the thousands of foreclosures that have taken place in that area.
• Congressman Cummings Dares to Speak the Unspeakable (7 minutes): Moore sits down for a chat with Maryland congressman Elijah Cummings, who suggests that perhaps the system of capitalism ought to be discarded.
• NYT Pulitzer Prize Winner Chris Hedges on the Killing Machine Known as Capitalism (9 minutes): Exactly what it sounds like; an impassioned and precise attack on the self-destructive nature of capitalism.
• The Rich Don't Go to Heaven (There's a Special Place Reserved for Them) (9 minutes): Moore chats with a Catholic priest, who offers the opinion that Jesus would most definitely be a socialist and would regard capitalism as a sin.
• What If, Just If, We Had Listened to Jimmy Carter in 1979? (18 minutes): Snippets of this speech are contained within the film, but the speech is included in its entirety here. It's a remarkably frank and truthful address that refuses to pat American citizens on the back and tell them how great they are. This speech is certainly one of the finer moments of Carter's presidency, if not exactly a boon to his popularity.
• The Omnivore's Dilemma—It's Capitalism (6 minutes): A look at how food that's bad for the human body tends to be particularly profitable for corporations, along with a discussion of organic alternatives.
• Commie Taxi Drivers—"You Talkin' to Me?"—In Winsconsin (6 minutes): Some taxi drivers talk about the benefits of participating in a workers' cooperative.
• How to Run the Place Where You Work (11 minutes): Another examination of employee-run companies and why they tend to function on a higher level than many other companies.
• The Socialist Bank of—North Dakota? (5 minutes): A North Dakota bank explains how their system operates differently from most other banks in America.
• The Bank Kicks Them Out, Max Kicks Them Back In (11 minutes): A profile of an attorney who fights to make sure that families who are foreclosed upon get to stay in their home.
I enjoyed Capitalism: A Love Story, appreciated its essential point, and would recommend that you give it a look. Still, I remain a bit heartbroken about the areas in which the documentary fails. Here's hoping that next time Mr. Moore delivers in that spectacular way that only he can.
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