The American present. Commercial pilots are living off food stamps or working in donut shops. A Pennsylvania private juvenile detention centre cuts a deal with the county and keeps kids locked up for months on end for talking back or smoking weed. Corporations take out secret life insurance policies on their employees making the corporation the sole beneficiary when the employee dies, while the family of the deceased spirals into debt trying to cover hospital and funeral expenses. Financial institutions ask for bailouts—you may have heard about this one—while suddenly laid-off workers can’t even get paid for their final shifts. How can such corruption be tolerated? Is there a single overwhelming force facilitating all these aberrations from the Western democratic ideal? Michael Moore has an answer, and it’s a whopper. Let’s just say Francis Fukuyama was soooo wrong.
Coming 20 years after Roger & Me, Moore’s celebrated debut as documentary filmmaker, Capitalism: A Love Story displays much of what makes Moore’s films powerful and enduring in their way. The dumpy, tirelessly muckraking son of a Flint, Michigan autoworker, Moore is the self-appointed spokesman for disgruntled blue collar America, not a theorist with a cushy university post but a resourceful and ambitious people-guy who seems to genuinely like talking to people. (Should they be willing to talk to him, which is not always the case.) What Moore has to say is impassioned, funny, highly entertaining, shamelessly tear-jerking, sometimes insightful, and not especially coherent. In its loosely related assembly of true stories of economic injustice, Capitalism is an engaging and compassionate cri de coeur. In its layman’s explication of certain mystifying financial trends and baffling feats of white collar crime, it goes some distance—a short, but still admirable distance—toward making issues of vital importance to everyone a little more accessible. In its attempts to diagnose the singular underlying cause behind all of these stories the film isn’t just an over-simplification but a confused and opportunistic reading of what ultimately feels like an ideological bogeyman. It’s funny. I’m fairly sure I’m on Moore’s side. I’m not sure I know what the hell he’s getting at.
The messiness of Moore’s argument is evident in his roping of everybody from Roosevelt to Obama to Wallace Shawn to Jesus into his back-up band. He actually gets a bunch of priests to say that capitalism is un-Christian!, which I guess might make sense if interpreted as a bald play on the spiritual conscience of the Christian Right—hardly a terribly Catholic bunch—though I have a hard time seeing them in line at the multiplex. When Moore finally gets around to ideological alternatives his discussion of socialism is equally vague and inclusive, offering no clear positive examples of other nations making a sustained go at it and mostly just falling back on championing labour unions. The examples he offers of average Americans overcoming economic injustice are truly inspiring, but they don’t actually show how capitalism in its essence is an inherent obstacle. Still, you should see the movie. You’ll have a good time with it and quite possibly learn something from the details. Just don’t expect to walk away with a thesis. The theorists were always better with those anyway.