Capitalism: A Love Story

You don’t have to agree with filmmaker Michael Moore but you should see his movies.

First of all, they’re terrific triggers for great discussions afterwards and isn’t that the most fun thing about movies? Those who love Michael Moore gain enlightenment about nefarious corruptions to rage about and have their suspicions of those in authority confirmed. And those who hate him, usually, absurdly without seeing his films, also learn about something awful to rage about–and surprise, surprise, the two camps often have something in common.

Michael Moore claims his goal is to reach everyone. The truth is he’s polarized audiences so completely that he ends up just preaching to the choir. That’s a shame because there’s much in his latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story that anyone could embrace regardless of where they’re planted on the political spectrum. Proving that no segment of society has any monopoly on virtue, Moore takes them all to task for our current economic woes–Republicans and Democrats alike, Presidents and Congress, misguided Christians, and rich Americans of all ilk.

It’s a misnomer to define Capitalism: A Love Story as a documentary, a term that, rightly or wrongly, implies a non-existent ideal of objectivity. “Documentary” is just the umbrella style of Moore’s films. He wants to dig up and correct wrongs, like a crusading journalist, but Michael Moore also wants to entertain, thus he descends unapologetically into buffoonery, wearing his ragged red baseball cap and his wide-eyed faux innocence. While his agitprop techniques were shocking and half-way amusing in his earlier films, by now they’re old hat.

That’s not to say that Moore can’t still play “gotcha.” The facts he brings to light are powerfully effective. In Capitalism, he doesn’t reveal much of anything that’s “new” (see below for the remarkable exception), but he dishes up so many horror stories at one time that you leave the theatre an emotional wreck. Intellectually, however, you’re unsatisfied–because the too-broad scope of the film ends up being Outrage-Lite.

In this film Moore claims that capitalism is evil. He’s not the first to make such a claim and I doubt he’ll be the last. But does he, who’s made a few greenbacks in this country himself, really mean what he’s saying, that capitalism is evil? Or does he really mean that the evil is greed, especially the kind of deep-seated greed in America that is encouraged by de-regulated capitalism? If that’s what he means, I agree with him.

Except for his silly scenes with annoying actor/writer Wallace Shawn, whom he presents as an economics expert, Moore manages to round up some pretty thoughtful people on his side, including several impassioned Catholic priests and bishops. Like the indignant religious social activist he at heart really is, Moore presents plenty of capitalism’s victims from the recent economic meltdown: heart-breaking foreclosure stories, lay-offs, plant closings, pay-cuts, loss of pensions, the real estate debacle and most pointedly Wall Street greed and its incestuous relationship with Congress.

You can’t help but shed tears to see an Iowa farmer being kicked out of the house that’s been in his wife’s family for 40 years and is now burning his furniture in a bank-enforced clean-up. “There’s got to be some kind of rebellion between people who’ve got nothing and people who’ve got it all,” he says. Armed rebellion characterized the early days of United States–could it do so again?

There are the families who’ve lost loved ones who learn after their death that their employers made a nice chunk of change on their deaths because of an abhorrent policy whereby employees–and not necessarily high level ones–are insured for their deaths. It’s the company, not the families, who are the beneficiaries. These detestable policies are known as “dead peasants” insurance.

Shocking to me was the Congressional testimony of Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III, the US Airways pilot who miraculously landed his plane on the Hudson River. He told legislators how his pay has been cut 40% and his pension terminated. Another pilot reveals to camera how his pay has been cut so much that he’s had to go on food stamps. And we want these stressed-out pilots carrying us several miles up across country?!

Moore blames the excesses of Wall Street for these terrible stories and he wants justice. On what looks like a Sunday morning, since no one is in the streets, he wraps yellow crime scene tape around the New York Stock Exchange. Pretty funny. He tries to perform a citizen’s arrest on the CEO of AIG, but the guards won’t let him into the building. Great political theatre and loud echoes of Roger and Me from 20 years ago.

Don’t despair. Moore presents a few heroes. There’s the bakery that’s worker-owned where everyone makes decisions together–and they all make more money than they would at a traditional employer-owned company. In another company, workers wouldn’t leave their jobsite after being laid off without pay and loss of all benefits and they held the plant hostage until their demands were met.

I was greatly impressed with Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio). She begged Congress not to approve the bail-out and then when it happened, suspiciously close to the 2008 election, with the collusion of the Democrats, she doesn’t mince words. “This was almost like an intelligence operation.”

My reaction to the film is one of those, awkward, I-liked-it-but…

On the one hand, I was in tears several times. I was horrified by the home foreclosures, disgusted by the “dead peasants” policies, terrified by economic pressures our airline pilots suffer, and outraged by the cooperation of Congress with the deregulation of Depression era safeguards that brought about the conscienceless gambling in the real estate market and Wall Street that eventually brought the whole corrupt thing crashing down. And let’s note that nobody in Congress has suffered much. And the more we learn about the bonuses paid after the bail-outs seems like few of the top-rung Wall Streeters are suffering any pain either. I kept asking throughout the film — how do these people sleep at night?

The most distressing scenes to me were those in which believers claim that the Bible supports capitalism and that Jesus himself is our main model of a good capitalist. It’s sickening to see the same text that tells us to “feed the hungry,” and “clothe the naked” twisted into grab-the-money-and-run wealth ministries.

On the other hand, I can’t help but want less theatrics, some of which are downright silly, such as cartoonish animation behind President Bush as he gives a speech on our financial security. His words are enough. We are adults. We don’t need cartoons to get the point.

Michael Moore’s films provoke such wide reactions that it seems unfair to the film to present only my opinion. Thus I invited four of my friends to a press screening. Yes, liberals all; my conservative husband refused to attend. I asked each of them to email me their reaction to the film afterwards so I could share their comments with readers.

“The first word that comes to my mind…is ‘vultures.’ People make money on the pain and loss of others. Michael Moore paints the distress in widescreen broad strokes–filling our vision with sad and sorrowful faces, resigned sighs, and greedy, shallow hyena-vultures laughing their way to the bank.

‘Many pundits say that Democrats don’t reach the hearts of the people–we go for facts and reason, while the conservative Republicans feed us sound bites and fear. Michael Moore is our link to the hearts of the middle class. He shows us what we should fear–but then gives us visions of what people have done, and can do, to make a difference.

“[The film] is filled with fond memories of the past–pastel-colored smiling faces, big cars and kids with cowboy hats. It brought back nightmarish memories to me of the Reagan era, when I suddenly lost my college grants and heard scary stories every day on the news about our new Star Wars program and the evil Soviets. Even then I knew better. Hopefully Michael Moore can continue peeling the wool off the eyes of middle Americans–at least the few who haven’t figured it out yet for themselves. ”
– librarian Carla H.

“…I noticed the symmetry between the foreclosed home-owners recording their own eviction at the beginning of the film and the call to action at the end of the film. The film came at me almost like a series of electrical shocks and the effect was meant to be just that shocking; it takes something that dramatic to wake up a sleeping and complacent populace and make them realize it is time to take matters into their own hands. As Michael Moore said himself at the end: ‘I refuse to live in a country like this and I’m not leaving.’ I can’t wait to see it again.”
– writer Roxane C:

 

“There is a certain duality (some might say schizophrenia) to Michael Moore’s work that makes all his films both fascinating and maddening. Nowhere is that more evident than in Capitalism: A Love Story. Moore is masterful at skewering those who abuse authority but his moral outrage, however well placed, is too often subverted by his own tendency to place himself front and center. When he examines the incestuous relationship between Wall Street and the Federal Reserve he is at his journalistic best; when he attempts to execute a citizen’s arrest on Chief Finance Officers and heads of corporate boards he both trivializes his own actions and, more tellingly, the crimes they so wantonly perpetrate.

“All of which makes his films–and Capitalism is certainly no exception–mixed bags. It benefits greatly by his purposefully giving himself less screen time but when Moore does assert himself, he frequently undermines his own message. He’s a gifted documentarian who unintentionally comes across as the lonely, nerdy kid who wants desperately to be loved.

“From the start, Moore has been a lightning rod for those at both ends of the ideological spectrum; it’s a role he embraces and, at times, shamelessly exploits for his own benefit. But despite such misgivings, there is one constant in all his films. The man is genuinely compassionate and deeply patriotic. He fiercely loves his country and remains steadfast in his desire to see it fulfill the grand promise of its inception, and in that his motives are beyond question.”
– teacher, critic, lover of the arts, James C.

“My preference would be that you write it without input from me. I’m in the middle of a bunch of stuff.”
– community activist B.J.:

So goes the myth, I hope, that all liberals march to the same drummer, even to a Michael Moore film.

The most remarkable part of Capitalism was the surprising last segment. Moore’s researchers discovered a segment of film, part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s last State of the Union speech in 1944, that may never have been shown before. In this speech, a weakened yet still charismatic President calls for a Second Bill of Rights, one for workers, to be brought about not by a change in the U.S. Constitution but by political means. This bill of rights would guarantee workers “useful and remunerative job, “a decent home,” “adequate medical care, “a good education,” “adequate food and clothing” and “the right of every business, large and small to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.”

The speech is so astonishing that widespread interest has been revived in it as well as other programs that FDR proposed. One of the greatest accomplishments of Capitalism: A Love Story may be that Moore has created a new hero for a nation in need of one, and he may be a former president who died 65 years ago.

“People who are hungry and out of a job,’ the war-weary President reminds us, “are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” God help us to listen and remember.

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