Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore, 2009)


Directed by Michael Moore. Rating: 12. Running time: 127 minutes.

It may not be novel to highlight the flaws of our world, especially when your subject is the age-old problems stemming from the commodification of everything from land to humans. But as I argued in the case of Fahrenheit 9/11, that a film’s material is obvious and barely news breaking is besides the point. If it can show those messages in a new way that bolsters their impact, then for a documentary, that should just about do.

As it happens, Capitalism: A Love Story doesn’t just pass this test (with what I must add is astounding ease); there’s also a strong argument for saying it digs up dirt worthy of a front page exclusive in The New York Times any day of the week. Who even knew about the existence of ‘Dead Peasant’ life insurance, never mind its meaning and horrific nature, before Moore flagged the issue and showed us its effects in action: namely, Wal-Mart making $70,000 out of the death of a young woman it employed, whilst her husband who was now a single father struggled to make ends meet managing her ultimately futile medical bills.

It doesn’t get much better as we’re given example after example of a system gone senile. Free enterprise, market signals efficiently determining prices and the best historical record for lifting people out of poverty sounds like capitalism is a gift from heaven (though Moore even takes time out to note what was probably true: if Jesus was alive today, he’d be a socialist). Yet the little remembered flipside is, of course, a world of people who’ve allowed their identity to get tied up with nothing but money-making, as Jimmy Carter warns us about the dangers of in an archived Presidential address. He was soon out, of course, and in came Reagan, who Moore seems to prop up as his nemesis: the archetypal dollar-driven leader of the American consumerist ethos. And as we watch the cases Moore uncovers pan out, from this almost unreal kids for cash scandal, through to the gravely irresponsible and manipulative subprime mortgage and refinancing programmes that led to the current conditions, and an internal memo from Citigroup announcing that America is a plutocracy (rule by wealth) which needs to watch out for the power of the ballot box… you realise somewhere down the line the picture of capitalism as the means to the pursuit of happiness went sickeningly wrong. Nothing quite sums it up like footage of a bank – that screwed everything up – paying their CEOs million dollar bonuses whilst seizing a family’s home, and even stooping to the level of paying the evictees themselves to clear out their furniture and burn it. I was reminded of that Rousseau quote that predated even Marx, and which sums up the situation quite aptly in noting that we have no choice but to realise we have constructed a monster, when our social world allows a select few to ‘gorge themselves on superfluities, whilst the multitude lack necessities.’

At bottom, then, old news indeed, but a timely reminder all the same. There’s a lot of silly stuff here that I’m growing less keen on every time I watch a Moore film: the stunts involving him on screen trying to make a citizens’ arrest of bankers for theft and turning up on Wall St with crime-scene-investigation tape and big bags to get the bailout money back doesn’t quite muster the desired effect, if only because we know how pointless it is. In that respect, Capitalism has no Fahrenheit moment analogous to a Congressman being asked to send his kids to die in Iraq.

The message, though, is definitely not an all-out negative one – there’s plenty of businesses discovered here with a variety of original and beautiful corporate structures: from bread bakers to taxi firms whose managers share all company profits almost equally, so all contributors really do feel the benefits, and it’s not a case of the ground-workers on peanuts whilst the men in suits take everything. It’s not merely a case of altruistic sacrifice in the name of an abstract socialist cause being implemented on a microscopic level: you can see in the faces of those involved that all of them feel the better for it. As one of the managers says, there’s only so many cars, holidays and meals out you need. When you earn over one hundred times the wages of people at the bottom of your company, is there any name for it whatsoever except unrestrained, ugly greed?

This is the best Michael Moore film I’ve seen. It doesn’t feel as scathing as Fahrenheit or as emotional as Bowling for Columbine, but it’s better than both of them insofar as the faux-omniscient voiceovers are toned down and the anger equally implicit but more composed; the result is a quieter but stronger picture, and probably, in the scheme of history, the most important he has filmed.

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