Greed Is Good? He Begs to Differ
Michael Moore gets a less-than-warm welcome when he visits General Motors headquarters in “Capitalism: A Love Story.”
By MANOHLA DARGIS
September 23, 2009
Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” is anything but — something you, I and everyone who has ever watched him shamble into action, megaphone to mouth, know from the start. He might have had a crush on capitalism early on, yet anyone who thinks that the two have been on friendly terms for a while hasn’t been paying attention. After years of needling big business in movies like “Roger & Me” (about the auto industry) and “Sicko” (health insurance), and giving voice to the disempowered, he has finally decided to go after the system that, in his words, is dedicated to “taking and giving, mostly taking.”
His timing couldn’t be better, as the headlines and innumerable journalists, politicians, bloggers, tea partiers, talk-show bloviators and millions of unemployed, underemployed, fed-up and freaked-out citizens are making clear. It’s the morning after in America (where one of the big movie hits of the year is titled “The Hangover”), and Captain Mike is here to explain it all or at least crack jokes, milk tears, recycle the news and fan the flames of liberal indignation. Along the way, because his heart is in the right place even if his images aren’t always, he also makes room for other voices, including those of striking workers and members of one family in foreclosure who videotaped the police breaking down the door to evict them.
Nothing if not direct, Mr. Moore cuts right to the point or rather the queasy joke, opening the movie with surveillance shots of citizens partaking of a favorite pastime: robbing banks. He then introduces some wittily culled clips from a movie titled “Life in Ancient Rome,” which looks and sounds like one of those educational flicks you tried to sleep through in school and which he juxtaposes with more recent totems of American power, including the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center draped in the Stars and Stripes. (The New York premiere of the movie on Monday was at Alice Tully Hall, the main site for the New York Film Festival. Mr. Moore isn’t in this year’s lineup, but still grabbed some of its spotlight.)
America, in other words, is headed straight down the historical toilet, along with Nero and his fiddle (or rather Dick Cheney, who’s anointed with a throwaway reference to the “emperor”), a thesis that Mr. Moore continues to advance if not refine with another hour and a half or so of alternatingly entertaining and distracting found footage; some stirring archival images of Franklin Delano Roosevelt; snippets from charming home movies; and assorted weeping, gloating, pontificating and sensible talking heads. Some of those heads are baffling (the actor and author Wallace Shawn, enlisted to explain free enterprise); some of them are sharp, welcome, bracing, provoking, mostly when they’re able to talk without too much interference from the comically mugging, slack-jawed Mr. Moore.
Despite the waggish invocation of ancient Rome, the story in “Capitalism” more truly begins where and when its director did, in Flint, Mich., after the end of World War II. In broad strokes Mr. Moore, who was born in 1954, positions himself as an Everyman whose family reaped all the usual rewards of postwar middle-class prosperity. This collective dream begins to disintegrate rather fuzzily (cue the Vietnam War), coming to a bummer climax in the 1970s (cue an unsmiling Jimmy Carter in a cardigan) and culminating in the ascension of the Smiler in Chief, Ronald Reagan, whom Mr. Moore introduces as a “spokesmodel for president.” Tax cuts, union busting and household debt ensue, as does some protest, notably in the form of “Roger & Me,” Mr. Moore’s first movie.
Mr. Moore doesn’t just refer to “Roger & Me,” which involved his attempts to speak with Roger Smith, the chief executive of the floundering General Motors; he also includes some nominal highlights from that 1989 movie. A lot of performers like to replay their early hits, so it isn’t surprising that Mr. Moore, a practiced showman, recycles images of his younger, slimmer self engaging in one of his trademark moves: trying to enter a building to speak truth to power, only to be turned away by security guards. It was faintly amusing theater then, especially if you didn’t think too hard about the fact that he was hassling working people just trying to do their jobs. It’s less amusing when he repeats the same routine in “Capitalism.”
He’s on far firmer ethical ground when he doesn’t use other human beings as props. Some of the more effective scenes in “Capitalism” involve his straightforward, journalistic interviews with people who have been abused by the greed of their employers. In one segment he visits with a widower whose wife was unknowingly insured by her company — a sleazy practice colloquially known as dead peasant insurance — which earned it a chunk of change when the woman died. (Even after death, your boss can exploit you.) Like many of the stories Mr. Moore pulls together in this movie, dead peasant insurance might not be a revelation to those who follow the news, but it makes for infuriating viewing.
In the end, what is to be done? After watching “Capitalism,” it beats me. Mr. Moore doesn’t have any real answers, either, which tends to be true of most socially minded directors in the commercial mainstream and speaks more to the limits of such filmmaking than to anything else. Like most of his movies, “Capitalism” is a tragedy disguised as a comedy; it’s also an entertainment. This isn’t the story of capitalism as conceived by Karl Marx or Naomi Klein, and it certainly isn’t the story of contemporary American capitalism, which extends across the globe and far beyond Mr. Moore’s sightlines.
Neither is it an effective call to action: Mr. Moore would like us to vote, which suggests a startling faith in the possibilities of social change in the current political system. That faith appears to be due in some part to the election of President Obama.
As it happens, the most galvanizing words in the movie come not from the current president but from Roosevelt, who in 1944 called for a “second bill of rights,” asserting that “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” The image of this visibly frail president, who died the next year, appealing to our collective conscience — and mapping out an American future that remains elusive — is moving beyond words. And chilling: “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” It’s a brilliant moment of cinema both for the man delivering the speech and for Mr. Moore, who smartly realized that he’d found one other voice that needed to be as loud as his own.
“Capitalism: A Love Story” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Strong language.
A Love Story
Opens on Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles.
Written and directed by Michael Moore; directors of photography, Daniel Marracino and Jayme Roy; edited by John Walter and Conor O’Neill; music by Jeff Gibbs; produced by Mr. Moore and Anne Moore; released by Overture Films. Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes.