Released on the 60th anniversary weekend of the Chinese Revolution, Michael Moore’s new shockumentary “Capitalism: A Love Story” proves once again how hard it is to be rich in America. Last year, when his net worth finally exceeded that of his old nemesis General Motors, Moore was forced to sit down and have a serious talk with himself. How do you preach about the evils of capitalism when you make roughly $21 million on “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a film trashing George Bush? Any way you look at it, that’s a hefty return on a $6 million investment.
In 2008, serious fans at his film festival in Traverse City, Mich., whined publicly that they couldn’t afford to buy tickets for a Madonna documentary about Malawi children orphaned because of AIDS. And I was disappointed to find that neighbors in my high-unemployment western Michigan hometown of Muskegon needed to drive three hours to Moore’s closest free “Capitalism” screening for the jobless. You just can’t beat the oil companies.
Another potential source of embarrassment comes from people who helped the filmmaker become rich and famous. Take old buddies like Bruce Schermer, the cinematographer who received a whopping $5,000 for shooting 60 percent of Moore’s breakthrough debut, “Roger and Me,” which sold to Warner Brothers for $3 million.
Perhaps these were some of the troubling questions Moore was dealing with in his conversations with priests and bishops who enjoy cameos in “Capitalism.” Although the new documentary’s first weekend in wide release was a small fraction of the opening for Moore’s 2004 “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a $4.8 million start is impressive. As any Hollywood capitalist will tell you, it’s not easy keeping up with serious competition like “Zombieland” ($25 million) and “The Invention of Lying” ($7.3 million).
As Michael Moore’s biographer, I’ve enjoyed the privilege of sorting through some of these contradictions with people like John Pierson, the producer’s rep who made that record-breaking $3 million documentary sale to Warner Brothers and then was asked by Moore to slash his fee 50 percent. (Pierson declined.) I’ve also met many of the beneficiaries of Moore’s largesse, and believe me, he has been very generous to causes he believes in — like the environment and the Traverse City Film Festival near his million-dollar-plus home on the shore of Michigan’s idyllic Torch Lake.
But like Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates, Michael Moore has to deal with the fact that the system that helped make him the world’s most successful documentary filmmaker is also putting a lot of people out of work and forcing them out of their homes in Peoria. To his credit, he has been consistent in his opposition to tax cuts for big business. He refused to apply for generous 40 percent Michigan tax credits for his film at a time when productions with stars like George Clooney, Hilary Swank, Clint Eastwood and Drew Barrymore were doing just that.
Yet for some unknown reason Moore continues to pummel his birthplace, Flint, as an economic basket case. He has yet to say a word about the impressive accomplishments of his old friend and colleague, Dan Kildee, who has created a land bank that is becoming a national model. The Flint treasurer has found constructive ways to prevent foreclosure for hundreds of residents, rehabilitated over 1,300 homes and helped convert abandoned downtown properties into major housing units for students at the University of Michigan campus, where Moore dropped out years ago because he couldn’t find parking.
Why is there nothing about this important Flint success story in a film heavily focused on foreclosure? The answer has something to do with Moore’s diminished interest in the town that made him famous. He’s a lot happier living in a popular resort area where plenty of potential donors share his philanthropic vision for the Traverse City Film Festival and the reborn State Theater.
Paying lip service to the problems of the poor by wrapping ceremonial crime scene tape around Wall Street banks is far easier than giving credit to old friends in Flint who are correcting some of the deficiencies in the foreclosure business. Not giving credit where it is well earned perpetuates the central Don Quixote myth of Moore’s career. Only by accepting the defeat of capitalism will his fans have an opportunity to subscribe to his vision of our future.
In his new film, Moore sidesteps the unfortunate possibility that both capitalism and communism could collapse on the same day. Then where would any of us be?
Moore’s greatest frustrations, such as his failure to straighten out the auto industry with “Roger and Me” or curb excesses of the gun lobby with “Bowling For Columbine,” have led him to the conclusion that capitalism can never work for the masses. But as a major beneficiary of the system, he can never be a totally objective messenger any more than Bill Gates can tell us how to make Windows Vista bug-free.
His cry for fans to join him in reforming the system by replacing capitalism with a better alternative sounds good. I know that all 10 of the people in the theater with me on the night I saw “Capitalism” were grateful for the opportunity to pay for his advice. But as any banker will tell you, capitalist snake charmers, for all their faults, have a tricky way of persuading you to stagger back into the ring for one more round with come-ons like bankruptcy.
If Moore’s thesis is right, he needs to begin anew with the notion that any constructive solution is built around practicing what he preaches. Here’s hoping that Moore will turn his own Dog Eat Dog production company into the kind of employee-owned and operated business he showcases in “Capitalism.” That would be a real blockbuster.
Roger Rapoport is the author of “Citizen Moore: The Making of An American Iconoclast.”