[10 March 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
America is currently up shit creek, and leave it to Michael Moore to figure out where and when we dropped our collective paddles. Of course, his conclusions are bound to piss people off—the documentarian hasn’t made a more polarizing film since he suggested that Cuba, Canada, and part of Europe offer better health care to your average US SiCKo. In Capitalism: A Love Story (new to DVD and Blu-ray from Lionsgate), Moore calls out the current corporate mindset, and it’s one helluva criticism. You’d be angry as well if you were considered a money-grubbing amoral jackass readily taking advantage of the working poor and vanishing middle class of this once great country.
As with his previous films, it’s not a question of taking sides. Moore may not have all the facts straight or 100 percent accurate, but his points are so cogent, so clearly logical and readily rational that to argue them seems futile. As a leading member of the nu-media, he is part of the solution and the problem. He’s eager to expose wrongdoing, but can’t help but get overly involved in the pronouncements. Truthfully, such hysterics can’t be helped. After all, how exactly do you calmly explain a bank that bets on the deaths of its employees with secret life insurance policies or raiders who demand government bailouts only to use said cash for whatever their avarice-laced hearts desire?
The aforementioned acts are just two of the gnawing, jaw constantly on the floor examples given in Moore’s latest sermon on the motion picture mount. Focusing on the recent economic fiasco that has left millions out of work, dispossessed, and more or less lost for a next step, the Oscar-winning pundit takes on the title philosophy, debating its relationship to the needs of 95 percent of the populace. As with all such dissections, Moore begins by arguing that one percent of our country controls more wealth and fiscal power than the other nine-tenths of us combined. He then puts on his shoulder shrug façade, wads up his workingman resolve, and wanders the bleakest of all wasted landscapes—the Midwest—to follow the sickening stories of foreclosure, corporate criminality, and slick Republican partisans who agreed that such a set-up was the peachiest of deregulatory ideals.
Don’t be mistaken—Moore is definitely out to get the Grand Old Party this time. What he couldn’t accomplish with Fahrenheit 9/11 he hopes to achieve here. From the days when Ronald Reagan applied his ‘trickle down” economics to a country desperate for more proactive answers to a Enron-based business model that functioned like Las Vegas on shareholder steroids, he uses the old White Male Caucasian Majority as a manipulate-able means to a financially frightening ends. Some of it is grandstanding, gilding a lily that’s already wearing a troubling patina. But when you dig down beneath the sensationalized surface, you come away with a sickening feeling that no amount of universal health care can cure.
Moore definitely paints a compelling picture. Then again, he always does. This is someone who knows that you don’t win over REM-sleep mainstream audiences with in-depth discussions about Wall Street speculation or pronouncements from Harvard educated economists about hard to define ‘derivatives’. Instead, he finds the stories that matter, that make the greatest impact, and then links them back to his main thesis. In Moore’s mind, capitalism is a self-supporting swindle aided by decades of deliberate propaganda. It was the bill of goods sold by the people in power post World War II. It was the conceit that, when balanced with a sense of the public welfare, promoted the US into the superpower stratosphere.
But when a former Hollywood actor came to power and ushered in his free market ‘Morning in America’, Moore contends that the need for economic equilibrium was tossed aside in favor of the profit margin, the bottom line, and Gordon Gecko’s personal mantra—GREED! Nearly three decades later, these rotten roots have produced some incredibly sour and downright poisonous fruit and yet we continue to eat it like ravenous cultists. All throughout the film, Moore focuses on the aftermath of the ‘80s, treating it like a hangover from which we have yet to find a cure, a daydream without awakening, illustration after illustration arguing against our previous path toward international economic irrelevance.
As Capitalism: A Love Story argues again and again, it’s all the government’s fault. Congress and the White House is controlled by special interests—in this case, most of the board members from major trading firms have been or currently are heading up important federal agencies and cabinet posts - and their goal remains to screw the little guy for the sake of those with mansions. Anything they could do to earn a buck off the back of the worker was seen as part of the cutthroat American dream. But Moore illustrates that said strategy did little except overfeed the fat cats. As CEO wages and bonuses skyrocketed, workers income and union influence were static, or strangled into submission.
Because they offer extremes in order to prove their points, Moore’s movies are often chastised by those who wish to undermine his impact. But Capitalism: A Love Story, provides some of his most profound mind-blowers yet, situations and set ups that should cause even the most loyal lover of all things supply and demand to sit up in shock. Amid all the ‘Death Peasant’ insurance policies (Wal-Mart used to take them out on their “associates”), underpaid airplane pilots (pulling down a whopping $16K to $20K a year), and proud property vultures (realtors and agents who ‘swoop’ in and buy up homes for pennies on the dollar) there are stories that both disgust and depress.
One of the best involves a private juvenile detention center in Pennsylvania that saw two judges accept kickbacks from the company based on the number of teens they placed in their facility. That’s right—men sworn to uphold the law were treating 15-year-olds who were caught smoked pot, fighting, or using their right of Free Speech to sentences of several months—all so that the tax payers could foot the highly overpriced bill and they could get paid.
Another undeniable affront revolves around the connection between those subprime mortgages we’ve been hearing about for the last 12 months, the corrupt companies that conned people into buying into these usurious contractual time bombs, and the Senators, Congressman, and high ranking Washington officials who benefited by turning a blind eye to such con artistry. A whistleblower type who used to work for Countrywide produces a list of FOA - Friends of Angelo - meant to signify important VIPs who got sweetheart loans from the company, all because they were pals (or political pawns) of CEO Angelo Mozilo.
As the who’s who of DC despots is read, Moore draws a damning conclusion—this is no longer the representative democracy the Constitution once crafted. The post-modern America is a wholly owned subsidiary of dozens of power drunk multinationals who don’t care if people are employed. As long as someone, somewhere is slaving away at the inventory that will make them mega-millionaires, jobless rates (and any moral concern over same) are moot.
The DVD really drives this point home. The bonus features are made up almost exclusively of abnormally long-labeled segments (“The Bank Kicks Them Out, Max Kicks Them Back In” being a prime example) which add some important context to what Moore is saying. Chris Hedges, New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, examines the “killing machine” known as capitalism, while Fr. Dick Preston takes on religion and unnatural wealth in the rather self-explanatory “The Rich Don’t Go to Heaven (There’s a Special Place Reserved for Them)”. Both men make it very clear that our current economic make-up, forged out of tradition and false faith, is destined to destroy us. Elsewhere, neo-communist conceits like a “people’s savings and loan” (“The Socialist Bank of…North Dakota?”) and unionized cabbies (“Commie Taxi Drivers—‘You Talkin’ to Me?’—in Wisconsin”) argue for a better way of doing things.
Where Moore really stretches credibility, however, is with the near canonization of former President Jimmy Carter. Seen as the lone enlightened politico eager to stare down Reagan and his renegade anti-regulation posse, there’s almost 18 minutes dedicated to the infamous peanut farmer turned leader of the Free World. As far as liberal apologists go, Billy’s brother is really left of center. His entire mantra appears poised as a curiously educated riff on “I told you so”, and Moore buys right into it. In fact, it’s easy to see why most of this material was excised. With films that are often seen as crimes against the State, not just strategic cinematic screeds, this hot button director must walk a very fine line between objectivity and preaching to the converted. Moore usually manages both, though Capitalism: A Love Story is far more “fair” than some of his other films.
That’s because the subject matter is hard to defend. As stock footage of high living finds the proper level of outrage, as court cases uncover the callous and wholly unnecessary means by which companies cater to the quarterly accounting, Moore simply sits back and smiles, satisfied. Unlike other topic areas which require a little more exploitation, the failure of capitalism doesn’t need to be sensationalized. We are living with it every day and watching as partisan politics pushes us deeper and deeper into a debt-ridden abyss we will probably never recover from (or so say some of the talking head experts here).
Since it’s so wildly entertaining, because Moore is basically a clever carnival barker at heart (“Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Step right up and see a bunch of Chicago factories workers fight the Bank of America Man…and WIN!”), Capitalism: A Love Story becomes a fabulous financial freak show. Around every corner is another accounting oddity, from bonuses based on bailout money to the Bush Administrations complicity in calling for such an emergency cash flow measure a few weeks before the 2008 election. One Congresswoman, a feisty female spitfire from Ohio named Marcy Kaptur, agrees with Moore’s assessment that such an act was tantamount to an economic coup d’etat. At some point, voters no longer mattered and campaign contributions and lobbyists did.
While Moore’s suggestion that wholesale democracy would be a better form of free enterprise, his examples don’t quite drive home his point. It’s hard to see how, even within such a equalized strategy, a kind of Darwinian “survival of the fiscally fittest” would apply. Still, you’d imagine that after 20 years or so we’d have figured it out. In Roger & Me, a then unknown documentarian warned us that the rest of the country was headed toward the same fate as his hometown of Flint, Michigan. With Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore is finally proven right—and it’s not a very pretty or fitting conclusion.