Michael Moore is frustrated. He’s the most commercially successful documentary filmmaker in history. He’s won an Oscar and a Palme d’Or from Cannes. And while the American Dream lies in ruins, he’s become an odd embodiment of it, acquiring fame and wealth by serving as scrappy champion of the poor—capitalism’s Little Tramp, as the New York Times dubbed him. But Moore is getting weary of the role. Two years ago, he made Sicko to expose the horrors of private health insurance, only to see his showroom-perfect new President savaged in a losing battle for publicly funded health care. So last week, as Moore launched Capitalism: A Love Story at the Toronto International Film Festival, he threatened to take his marbles and go home: if the people aren’t going to rise up, he may quit documentaries altogether and do what he’s often been accused of doing all along—make fiction movies.
That’s too bad, because Moore is at the top of his game. Capitalism: A Love Story may be the best film of his career. In all the debate over his politics, Moore’s artistry tends to get overlooked, but this blunt instrument in a ball cap has, in fact, become a highly sophisticated filmmaker—something he feels he gets no respect for. “I never have a discussion with anyone about the art of this,” Moore told me recently, “or how much time or effort I put into trying to make a really great movie. But I’m a filmmaker. I don’t run a political organization. That is part of why I’m feeling this way. I have movies I want to make. I led the charge during the eight years of Bush, and it would be nice to have some help so I can go make that romantic comedy.”
A Michael Moore romcom? Really? Moore explains that he’s speaking “generically,” then refuses to divulge details of the fictional script he’s now writing—his first since the ill-fated Canadian Bacon (1995). But he says he treated Capitalism as if it were his final documentary. Arriving 20 years after Moore launched his career at TIFF with Roger & Me, it does feel like a culmination, spelling out the message that underlies every one of his films. As he says, it’s the “big enchilada.”
By taking on capitalism as a whole, Moore finally has a target to match his bravura ambition. And the timing is perfect. The economic collapse hit while he was in the thick of shooting the film. His notion of capitalist villainy was suddenly fashionable, and in the debris of the recession, he dug up some astonishing dirt. We meet a jolly real estate agent from an outfit called Condo Vultures who flips foreclosed homes for a quick profit. We meet commercial airline pilots who use food stamps and sell their own plasma to supplement their meagre incomes. And he discovers “dead peasant” life insurance policies that corporations take out on employees, gambling that they’ll meet an early death. There’s nothing illegal about Condo Vultures or dead peasant insurance. That’s Moore’s point. Reminding us he’s still a Roman Catholic, he enlists various priests to confirm that capitalism is evil—an almighty casino where “we’ve allowed them to bet on anything.”
Although Moore argues that we must eliminate capitalism, the movie is not as inflammatory, or ideological, as it sounds. Sure, he kicks it off with a surveillance tape of a bank robbery to the tune of Iggy Pop singing Louie Louie, then lends a sympathetic ear to a guy who’s itching to make an armed withdrawal after losing his home to foreclosure. But in the end, rather than making a pitch for socialism, the director seems to pine for a kinder, gentler capitalism, invoking the liberal spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Without resorting to cheap shots or lurid pathos, as he often does, Moore finds a crafty balance between satire and sentiment. He’s become a virtuoso of satirical montage, and Capitalism is full of archival gems that illustrate a long trail of incest between Washington and Wall Street—such as former Merrill Lynch CEO Don Regan turning to Ronald Reagan during a speech and ordering the president to “speed it up.”
Moore, meanwhile, has softened his bully-boy persona, and trots out his trademark guerrilla stunts like an old soft-shoe. When he pulls up to a bank headquarters in an armoured truck to ask the boss to return a bailout, he’s more wistful than angry. Which is funnier. But the Flint firebrand has become the sad clown. He says he just wants to make movies, the popcorn kind. But like that Little Tramp, he’s forever typecast as the lonely underdog, stuck in a movie of his own making.