Colleague Johnson calls Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story “arguably the best thing he’s ever done.” I disagree.
Let’s start by conceding that Michael Moore is the most gifted propagandist of his generation. He understands the power of documentary film, its emotional and cognitive grammar, in a way that other film makers with similar political agendas do not. He is fearless, single-minded, and capable of tremendous empathy for working class Americans – notwithstanding his financial success and his reputation as being a colossal asshole in person.
Everything Michael Moore does is by turns enlightening, infuriating, exasperating, and entertaining, and Capitalism is no different. Also, the usual Moore structure is here: The Victims – poor families from the midwest crushed by the System; the Villains – the agents of the System, from the low-level bailiffs or cops or security guards right up to the Dr. Evil types at the top; and the System itself — an interlocking set of institutions, agencies, and shadowy interests that conspires to keep the Victims down while enriching and empowering the topmost Villains.
The way Moore’s films work is that he shows you some victims in a confrontation with low-level villains. Then he pulls back and tries to show how this confrontation is the product of the system, which is itself controlled by a cabal of plutocrats who maintain their status by ensuring the population is kept in a constant state of fearful immiseration, which is set off by cheap mass-marketed amusements. Then he marches off to confront the plutocrats, which is where the fun usually starts.
It’s a structure that has served Moore well from the very start, but unlike his previous films, especially Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 which, no matter how outrageous, were never dull, this is the first one that bored me, for long stretches.
The best parts of his films are the ones that focus on the individual tragedies of the American condition, shown through the eyes of his chosen Victims: And so we meet a woman whose husband died at 41, leaving her bereft but enriching his employer, who had secretly taken out a life insurance policy on him. Or the family whose farm has been repossessed, and – as a final indignity – are paid by the bank to clean up the house they’re being kicked out of.
The problem is there isn’t enough of this in here – the man who has established himself as the foremost chronicler of America’s underclass has managed to make a movie about capitalism that doesn’t really have many people in it. Another problem is that the stunt confrontations with the top-level Villains – the CEOs, the bankers, the gleeful corporate vultures – are almost entirely absent. There are some half-hearted attempts at making citizens arrests of Wall Street bankers, but when it comes to serious facetime, Moore has struck out.
So instead, what we are left with is a long, dull, and superficial account of the housing crisis, the bailout, and the uncomfortably close relationship between Wall Street and Washington, especially through what has become known as Government Sachs. The thing is, this material is too fresh and too familiar; to anyone who has been paying even casual attention over the past year, the gaps, errors, and misdirections in his narrative are glaring.
The stuff that Brian Johnson mentions — the revelations about “dead peasant” insurance, or the secret “plutonomy” memo – really is juicy, but Moore doesn’t ask the obvious followup questions, the ones that would actually edify the audience. Why would a company buy insurance for its employees? Why is it legal? Is it really a source of “profit”? Moore doesn’t tell us, because he probably doesn’t really care. Why spoil a good story with facts?
Johnson calls this the most sophisticated film of Moore’s career. I call it the laziest.