Capitalism Revisited
Not Angry Any Moore?

Capitalism: A Love Story is classic Michael Moore… which is to say, this is not his best work. It is unevenly entertaining, hopelessly skewed, yell-at-the-screen infuriating (for a number of reasons), and yet still largely compelling, just like the vast majority of Moore’s films. As Jeff noted here at PtP in his review of the theatrical release, “there’s no denying [Moore] knows how to make his case in a strong and entertaining way.”

The case that Moore makes this time out (or rather, the starting point for the film, which he then bolsters with selective case studies) is that capitalism is evil, and that it became a runaway train thanks to America’s embrace of Ronald Reagan as a sunny alternative to Jimmy Carter’s dour prescience. And just to show us how seriously Moore takes the topic, his framing touchstone in Capitalism is actor and raconteur Wallace Shawn. A familiar actor who Moore tells us has done a lot of thinking about economics. Nice.

In taking another look at Capitalism for its DVD release, however, I’m not going to pick Moore apart for the ways in which he weakens his argument—as a means of tearing his argument down. Instead, I intend to suggest ways in which Moore actually short-sells his topic. In many ways, this is Moore’s weakest film to date. The subject deserves a bare-knuckle brawl and Moore instead dons kid gloves. Three of Moore’s angles of attack, in fact, demonstrate that he’s really just not angry about the situation. And a bitter Moore is a better Moore.

The usual GM reception for Michael Moore, in Captialism: A Love StoryFirst is my suspicion that the laddie doth protest too much. Several times, Moore inveighs against capitalism as an evil. Not damaging, or corrupted, or having been perverted by greed. No, pure evil at its very core, a rotten foundation upon which a leaky dam has been built. It’s no wonder all the greedy bastards around you are shafting you, he tells us. As one of Moore’s vintage propaganda clips aver about the shopkeeper down your street, “He’s in business to make money,” not look out for your best interests.

Now, is Michael Moore giving away his movies? Of course not. And Moore is one of the most shameless manipulators of fact in the documentary filmmaking business. He is also the most successful. And if anyone believes that Moore is entirely free of the dreaded “profit motive,” well, I think Moore’s next project ought to be a scathing expose of film finance and distribution. Moore’s producers, after all, don’t appear to have turned down Michigan State government tax credits to film production companies. And Moore’s own website is strangely silent on the subject. So I will just point out to Mr. Moore, as They Might Be Giants once noted, “you can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.”

For my money, the documentary Maxed Out really nails the greedy-bastard angle without coming off as self-righteous, focusing not on Wall Street per se but the credit card industry.

Second, Moore makes a strong appeal to the Catholic Church in Michigan to bolster the notion that capitalism is basically evil. He talks to the priest who presided at his own wedding, the priest who presided at his brother’s wedding, and the Bishop to whom those two priests report. All three concur: the principles of capitalism are not, as Cold War-era propaganda asserted, right in line with the laws of God and justice. And I have no quarrel with that.

But this isn’t a line of argument that Moore’s constituency is exactly gonna swallow—being, rather, convinced that the Catholic Church is just a haven for pederasts and their protectors. Why should I buy the Church’s line on capitalism if the Church is just a bunch of evil bastards anyway? Again, I’m being sarcastic here; but the self-undermining choice demonstrates that Moore is just desperate to make his case and not at the top of his game.

By contrast, in the documentary I.O.U.S.A filmmaker Patrick Creadon makes a much better moral case against Federal fiscal irresponsibility—and at a completely secular level. I find the argument much more satisfying when framed in secular terms, given our nation’s commitment to the separation of Church and State.

Finally, Moore’s optimism about the implications of President Obama’s election—“in an instant, a farewell to the old America…”—completely confirms that his own objectivity is blown. At that point in the narrative, Moore trots out a couple of very valid and very admirable populist revolts—at a window manufacturing plant in Chicago, and at a bank-owned home re-occupied by its evicted tenants—as proof that some kind of general rebellion is under way.

Uh. No. This is not protest. This is not revolt. This isn’t even a crack in a dam. Real victory would have been for some capitalist to see that those window factory workers were motivated enough to be part owners of their own company! Moore’s own film is more on the mark when tracking repo vultures who are only too eager to prey on the defenselessness of their neighbors. As Moore just this week has demonstrated with his own open letter to Obama, hope may remain—but change has not yet been demonstrated. America is still largely populated by citizens who are out for themselves, and Washington hasn’t budged (or budgeted properly). If anything, the recession has honed self-centeredness and a sense of entitlement, in spite of the Obama Miracle.

The Hillsong United documentary We’re All In This Together, made by novice filmmakers, makes a better case (and provides a more solid foundation) for a call to global action of a truly revolutionary nature.

Despite Moore’s claim that “we all deserve FDR’s dream” of a Second Bill of Rights—a notion that I deem misguided, as nothing in this life is guaranteed, and our sense of “rights” and “deserving” should be pared back as much as pride, ethnocentrism, and patriotism will allow—I am nonetheless certainly glad about his conclusion: “I refuse to live in a country like this, and I’m not leaving.”

I’m with him on that score, one hundred per cent. “You cannot regulate evil,” as Moore notes. But you really have to take evil seriously, too. Neither Moore, nor Obama, nor Congress—or you or I—have gone nearly far enough.

Capitalism: A Love Story is certainly worth seeing; but it only tells part of the story. If you like what you find here, take the next step. Get serious. And remember: Michael Moore is an entertainer at heart. And that, my dear friends, is he (and the rest of us!) likes Wally Shawn.

Capitalism: A Love Story is rated R for “some language.” I agree with Jeff. The language here doesn’t at all warrant an R.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of Capitalism: A Love Story. The disc’s Special Features are unremarkable.