By returning to his roots, professional gadfly Michael Moore turns in one of his best films with “Capitalism: A Love Story.” Pic’s target is less capitalism qua capitalism than the banking industry, which Moore skewers ruthlessly, explaining last year’s economic meltdown in terms a sixth-grader could understand. That said, there’s still plenty here to annoy right-wingers, as well as those who, however much they agree with Moore’s politics, just can’t stomach his oversimplification, on-the-nose sentimentality and goofball japery. Whether “Capitalism” matches “Fahrenheit 9/11” or underperforms like “Sicko” will depend on how much workers of the world are ready to unite behind the message.
Pic reaped mostly ecstatic applause at its first press screening in Venice — no great surprise, given the largely leftist persuasion of film-fest auds, especially in Europe. Still, “Capitalism’s” worldview is resolutely U.S.-centric, apart from the odd approving mention of some foreign nation. Nevertheless, pic is likely to make considerably more offshore, where “socialism” isn’t considered a cuss word, than at home.
Another commercial factor to consider is whether, by the time the Overture release rolls out Oct. 2, most auds might feel too bored with or depressed about the economy to engage with the pic, despite its ultimately upbeat, power-to-the-people message. A release six months ago, when the crisis was still very raw, might have been surfed the zeitgeist more effectively. Ironically, given the current debate over President Obama’s health-care plans, “Sicko” might have suited the times better.
Sticking largely to the template laid down in his earlier films, particularly “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Sicko” (“Roger and Me” and “Bowling for Columbine” had more linear structures, with specific stories to tell), “Capitalism” skips around considerably, laying down a mix of reportage, interviews and polemic. In the opening reels alone, auds are introduced to ordinary folk whose homes are being repossessed; a gleefully unabashed real estate agent who specializes in finding bargains on foreclosed properties; immaculately researched archival footage presenting crew-cut 1950s squares extolling the virtues of capitalism; and homemovies showing Moore as a tow-headed child, visibly overjoyed to be visiting Wall Street on a vacation to New York from his hometown of Flint, Mich.
The helmer is a very visible onscreen presence here throughout, which detractors will decry as self-indulgent. But the decision is justified, given how relevant the damage done to the American automobile industry is to the banking crisis, as well as the the central role GM played in “Roger and Me,” excerpts of which are shown here, and the fact that Moore’s father worked in the motor biz. There’s genuine poignancy, even surprising restraint and dignity, in a scene where father and son visit the vacant lot that once housed the factory where the elder Moore worked.
Unfortunately, elsewhere, Moore strives so hard to manipulate viewers’ emotions with shots of crying children and tearjerking musical choices that he’s not so much over-egging the pudding as making an omelet out of it. While it could be argued that Moore needs to milk the human-interest stories for all their worth to get auds to engage with his denunciation of capitalism, more often than not, such tactics just patronize the audience and descend into cheap sentimentality. Moore all but stops short of holding up dead puppies Hank Paulson personally murdered.
Moore is on much more persuasive ground when he holds back and lets a good story tell itself in drier terms, recalling his best, muckraking work in the tube series “TV Nation” and “The Awful Truth.” There’s a horrifying yet absurd account, little known outside the U.S., of judges bribed to send as many juvenile offenders as possible to detention centers in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., some for offenses as trivial as ridiculing an assistant principal on MySpace. Also recalling the grassroots activism of his TV work are rousing segments of workers protesting Bank of America’s refusal to pay them money owed when the company goes into receivership, along with calls elsewhere to, if not arms, at least civil disobedience.
No Michael Moore film would be complete without scenes of the writer-helmer arguing with security guards in glassy office-building foyers as he attempts to have an impromptu word with the company’s CEO. Predictably ill-fated attempts are made to storm the citadels of various banks and financial institutions that survived the crash. In perhaps the funniest moment, Moore tries to find a banker who can explain what derivatives are; he corners one and says he wants some advice, to which the reply comes, quick as a flash: “Stop making films!”
Moore shows no signs of heeding this injunction, and ends the pic on a combatative note, vowing, “I refuse to live in a country like this, and I’m not leaving.” It’s a pugnacious riposte to his right-wing critics, but in the end, Moore also fails to answer his left-wing doubters, who will have plenty of evidence here that Moore’s argument is less with capitalism as Marx and Engels understood it, or even as the North Koreans and Cubans do, than with capitalism’s most egregious excesses in the U.S. His ideal is not the end of private ownership, just more cooperatively owned businesses where everyone shares the wealth and makes collective decisions. Moore merely flirts with counterpointing socialism with capitalism, and ultimately sets up an inoffensive-to-the-point-of-meaningless notion of democracy as capitalism’s opposite.
Original footage looks almost deliberately cruddy, as if shaky camerawork were a badge of authenticity. Sound was also a bit muddy at the screening caught, but editing, credited to seven different names, is aces throughout.