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Capitalism: A Love Story

Less Moore

I am sorry to have to report that Michael Moore’s new film did not ruin my day. We are on the same page politically, and over the years his movies have served the purpose of pointing out, often in devastating and painful detail, things about life in America that are not right: the callousness of corporations to their workers (Roger and Me), the willful use of fear to keep us under control (Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11), the shameful state of the American healthcare system (Sicko).

It’s not that he didn’t have an appropriate target. After the last year, has the average American ever been more primed to look at our economic system with a clear eye instead of the rose-color optimism we were raised with?. Unfortunately, Moore has bit off more than he can chew. Capitalism (the subtitle A Love Story is merely sarcastic) tries to gather under one umbrella examples of corporate malfeasance and ordinary people suffering economic hardships (most often losing their homes). But Moore doesn’t have a strong central thesis, or even a very clear one, to tie all of this together.

Really, he needs to be back on television, ether with a new show or a revival of TV Nation or The Awful Truth. Many of the segments here are powerful in and of themselves, like the case of the privately owned juvenile detention center kept filled with teenagers who really didn’t belong there because local judges were in collusion with the owners, who were paid by the country for every kid incarcerated there. Or the systemic underpayment of airline pilots, one of whom recalls being told when she got her wings not to wear her uniform when applying for food stamps. Or the Citibank memo noting (approvingly) that America is no longer a democracy but a plutonomy, where the rich are in charge and will remain so as long as the other 99 percent of us don’t exercise our voting powers against them.

On television, these stories could have been fleshed out. Most baffling to me was a long segment on companies who profit from insurance policies taken out on their employees when they die. Sure, it’s shamelessly opportunistic and downright creepy. But I didn’t see where it demonstrated anything other than bad taste until I called the attorney whose Web site Moore references. He explained to me that not only was insuring these employees illegal, but that in certain cases it led to behavior that demonstrated at least callous indifference to the safety of those people, and possibly legally actionable behavior. Again, it’s a story that would have had much more impact as a stand-alone segment on a TV news magazine.

I wanted Capitalism to be, like Moore’s best films, a strong piece of agitprop, a counterbalance to the inexcusable horseshit clogging the public discourse these days that has given us the teabaggers and the birthers and every other deluded citizen who votes on the basis of what they hear on Fox News. Fighting fire with fire is no way to run the world, but when the other guy has a big torch you don’t have much choice.

But Capitalism really doesn’t do much to fire you up. It’s embarrassing to watch Moore replaying old tropes, like trying to get past the security guard at General Motors’s office building so he can talk to the chairman of the board. (He’s no longer the unknown who did that 20 years ago in Roger and Me.) His use of music verges on the parodic, as when he underscores a montage of the Ronald Reagan era (source of so much of the deregulation that we’re now paying the price for) with Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” the most overused piece of music since “Born to be Wild.” And too often his camera lingers on the tears of suffering people, a sad sight but no substitute for a rational argument against bad policy.

At the same time, there’s too little of the black humor that used to be the strongest tool in Moore’s belt. A sequence in which an old film about the life of Christ is redubbed to have Jesus spouting free-market slogans falls flat. The funniest thing in the film comes under the end credits, a Frank Sinatra-ish rendition of the labor anthem “The Internationale.”

Moore ends his film with footage he recently uncovered of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, delivering his last State of the Union address, calling for a second bill of rights, a promise that every American has the right to a job that pays a living wage, a home, medical care, a decent education—in other words, basic security. We didn’t get it, unlike the countries we defeated in World War II when their new constitutions were written. This is strong stuff, showing that we haven’t progressed much in the last 60 years. Moore doesn’t lack for instances of what has gone wrong with our country, or of ways to address those problems. But he needs to find a more regular forum instead of trying to cram them into one feature film every few years. Somebody, put this man back on TV!

Watch the trailer for Capitalism: A Love Story

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