For about a year, the word “socialist” has served as an all-purpose political epithet capable of equating the most modest U.S. government program with the worst of Soviet Russia. Don’t expect a cool, collected rebuttal from Michael Moore’s latest documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story. With Moore on one side and the Glenn Becks on the other, America’s national debate on economic systems resembles two factions shouting past each other.
In Capitalism, Moore pushes his anti-corporate views further than ever and asserts that America’s free enterprise system isn’t just flawed or easily corrupted, but evil with a capital E. Priests even call the profit motive a sin. Moore doesn’t have to look far to find evidence of capitalist abuses and the misfortunes of the have-nots: Capitalism’s many powerful scenes involve homegrown economic exploitation.
The inflammatory legal term “dead peasants” comes up when Moore explores how companies can take out life insurance policies on their own employees and declare themselves the beneficiaries: Wal-Mart made $81,000 from the death of a young mother with chronic asthma. Moore links excessive sentencing of minors to a for-profit juvenile detention center's bottom line. Hero pilot “Sully” Sullenberger testifies about the economic hardships of professional pilots, who can earn less than $20,000 their first years on the job.
In what would seem like something out of a leftist paranoid fantasy in a fiction film, Moore digs up a Citibank memo describing the U.S. system as a “plutonomy” for the benefit of the super-rich — that 1 percent of the population that makes more than all of the bottom 95 percent combined. (Yes, the memo actually uses the word plutonomy.) Moore focuses his ire on the mortgage and banking corporations that precipitated the subprime mortgage crisis and suggests that Wall Street actually runs Congress. A former regulator describes the Treasury Department as “Government Goldman” for its preponderance of Goldman Sachs executives in the Clinton and Bush years. Surprisingly, Moore doesn’t hammer the irony that last fall’s $700 billion financial bailout package would seem to run counter to the idea of a free market.
At times Moore treats Capitalism as a 20th-anniversary follow-up to his breakthrough film Roger and Me, using the fates of General Motors and his hometown of Flint, Mich., as a microcosm for America’s overall economic failures. Moore offers wistful home movies of his family’s idyllic middle-class life when his father worked at the ACDelco spark plug plant, and celebrates an uncle’s participation in an auto industry strike in the 1930s.
But the filmmaker remains his own worst enemy, capable of shifting the viewer’s outrage at corporate greed to irritation at Moore’s heavy-handed tactics. His alternately sarcastic and self-righteous voice-over narration seems to be forever saying, “So they did what they’ve always done” or setting up familiar stock footage for comic relief. Some of his jokes fall flat, such as the fear-mongering animation in the background of President Bush’s bailout speech, or redubbing Jesus in clips from old Bible movies. His showboating stunts seem particularly empty, such as his attempts to retrieve the bailout money or make citizen’s arrests at the mega-banks’ Wall Street headquarters. Mostly you feel sorry for the security guards.
Moore’s previous film, Sicko, exposed the flaws of America’s health care system and raised the question, “Who are we?” In Sicko and in his gun-violence documentary Bowling for Columbine, the narrow focus provided Moore with deeper insights into the shortfalls of America’s values. The economic issues of the new film prove too big for Moore to wrestle adequately. Although he makes a strong, one-sided case against capitalism, he doesn’t suggest what he’d replace it with.
Does supporting regulation, labor unions and social justice mean tearing down the American free enterprise system? Capitalism: A Love Story provides inspiring anecdotes of striking workers and employee-owned factories without answering the larger question. Moore’s documentary may leave audiences remembering the old saw that capitalism is the world’s worst economic system — except for all the others.
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