Capitalism: A Love Story (United States, 2009)

September 28, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Capitalism: A Love Story Poster

Perhaps Michael Moore missed his calling. He could have been a preacher. And not any kind of preacher - a fire-and-brimstone, Jonathan Edwards sort. His movies ooze passion and come across like two-hour sermons. He doesn't just believe in what he's saying; he wants everyone who sees his movies to feel his outrage; whether or not they agree with it is another matter altogether. He's a propagandist and his movies are more like cinematic op-ed pieces than conventional documentaries, but that's alright. No one ever said there was no room for showmanship in non-narrative filmmaking. Capitalism: A Love Story is the latest chapter in the Gospel of St. Michael, and it's a distinct improvement over his last two movies. Fahrenheit 9/11 was a muddled "exposé" of the Bush administration's foreign policy sins and Sicko was an oddly low-key rant about health care. Capitalism seems to be coming more from the heart. There's a simmering anger here that hasn't been present since Moore first burst upon the cinematic world with Roger and Me.

Capitalism: A Love Story is vintage Moore, which means that it will enthrall many and enrage an equal number of viewers - not because of the subject matter but because it's Michael Moore. For better or for worse, that's what happens when you're a lightning rod. Capitalism works not because (a) it is more accurate, or (b) it takes fewer liberties with the facts, or (c) it provides the result of deeper investigative journalism than Moore's earlier films. No, Capitalism succeeds because it has the capacity to fuel thought and spur argument. This is something to be seen before dinner, not afterwards. One does not leave this movie benumbed and feeling as if two hours of special effects have dulled the mind. Moore's goal is not to have legions of sheep parroting his words but to generate discussion. And, at least on this occasion, his attacks cross party lines. This isn't an all-out frontal assault against the G.O.P. Moore takes aim at Democrats as well. In fact, his thesis states that the U.S. Government from the Reagan era on (including Clinton) has systematically betrayed the American public, with the highest point of this betrayal coming via the TARP bailout. He places the blame for that squarely on the shoulders of George W. Bush and the Democrat leaders in the House and Senate. (Pelosi and Reid, this means you!) And he lambasts Chris Dodd (D - Connecticut) with charges of hypocrisy most foul.

Moore is not beyond showing a little favoritism, however. He implies that Barak Obama entered the White House as a reformer but the purity of his mission and message of Change was quickly defiled by the money being tossed around by the denizens of Wall Street. This charge, which is never explicitly stated, is not pursued. Moore appears unwilling to make a statement that could be construed as an outright condemnation of anything associated with Obama. It is not mentioned, for example, that Obama was a fierce backer of the bailout and touted the familiar line that it was "distasteful but necessary" (a position that Moore vehemently opposes). So, although one can argue that Capitalism is as close to non-partisan as Moore has gotten during the course of his filmmaking career, his hands-off approach to Obama opens him up to criticism.

Moore's thesis, reduced to its essence, argues that capitalism, at least in its current "greed is good" incarnation, is evil. The love of money over all else is the root of everything foul and corrupt. This brand of "capitalism" makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. It uses taxpayer money to bail out banks and corporations that were in peril because of their own poor management and gambling. It results in salary decreases to workers, massive job cuts, and pay raises to CEOs. And the government is complicit in all of this with many of the people working to regulate the markets being former employees of the companies being regulated. Even discounting Moore's penchant for hyperbole, Capitalism paints a damning picture, and that's because there's really nothing new in the film. Moore is drawing from mostly mainstream sources: ABC, NBC, CBS, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, etc. And it's pretty compelling when two Catholic priests and one Catholic bishop declare that capitalism is immoral and against the teachings of Jesus.

Moore's movies follow a template and this one is not substantially different, although the filmmaker restrains himself from too many on-screen appearances and his grandstanding is held to a minimum. The trailer highlights scenes of Moore approaching the corporate headquarters of various recipients of TARP funds and asking for the taxpayers' money back, but that's a minor sideshow - shtick that plays well in a commercial but absorbs about 2% of the actual running time. He still employs shock tactics and fires off the occasional cheap shot (he takes more than one at Reagan), and the gallows humor is never far from the surface. Moore manages to mix outrage and comedy better than most stand-up comics. At the heart of it all is, of course, a serious message and, regardless of whether you worship the director, despise him, or are somewhere in between, it's hard to disregard his central question. So, while Capitalism: A Love Story is unlikely to change anyone's opinion of Moore as a filmmaker and rabble-rouser, some of the content may result in a deeper consideration of the influence that Wall Street has over Washington D.C. This is an important movie; it paints a bleak picture of the systematic destruction of the middle class, and it may be the first entry in the director's filmography to echo the concerns not only of liberals but of conservatives.

Capitalism: A Love Story (United States, 2009)

Director: Michael Moore
Cast: Michael Moore
Screenplay: Michael Moore
Cinematography: Daniel Marracino, Jayme Roy
Music: Jeff Gibbs
U.S. Distributor: Overture Films
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2009-10-02
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1