Man with a (heavy-handed) mission

Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story' (1st review)

4 minute read
Moore: Unions are good, bankers are bad.
Moore: Unions are good, bankers are bad.
Sometimes no visual image is necessary to tell you the expression on someone's face. The tone and volume will suffice. Just listening to the radio, for example, you can hear the pleasure that the New York Knicks' color commentator (and former star player) Walt Frazier derives from describing the game ("bumbling and stumbling in the lane") and even from living life. A wide grin seems permanently attached to his creatively mustached face.

The same (minus the moustache) can be said of the opening of Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story. During Moore's opening voice-over, your shoulders may slump and you may sigh as you hear the condescension in his voice; that treacly, needy puppy-dog solemnity, punctuated by Moore's knowing derision of his subject. Moore's cadence always predictably underlines his unfortunate insistence upon inserting himself unnecessarily into the much more compelling material at hand.

For the first 15 minutes of Capitalism: A Love Story, you'll probably stay in that asleep-in-eighth-grade-history-class mode as the film hammers away at Moore's theme, i.e., "What happened to this great land?"— a virtual continuation of Moore's first film, Roger & Me.

Pity the security guards

But then Moore manages to (relatively) focus and settle down, mostly avoiding his inclination to preach to the converted, not to mention his maudlin, Barbara Walters-style talent for wringing tears out of his interview subjects (and the audience) through the most callow and manipulative devices. Moore's compulsive deck-stacking is exacerbated by his annoying habit of trying to make the security guards of whatever building he's trying to ambush appear complicit in the schemes of the large corporation he's after.

Moore doesn't merely attack greedy corporations that exploit their workers. Here Moore goes after the ultimate sacred cow: America's whole capitalistic financial system. He validly draws the distinction between capitalism and democracy, showing how the erosion of the middle class has eliminated the notion of the American Dream (the only booming industry he finds in a small town is the guy who makes foreclosure signs).

The good old days

One of Moore's cleverest gambits occurs when he asks various priests and ministers how Jesus would view capitalism (unfavorably, they say without exception). Their negative responses effectively undermine the religious right's attempts to link Christianity and free markets.

Not that Moore spends all his footage castigating conservatives. He also pines for the 1950s, which he characterizes as a time of innocence, prosperity and equality— a nostalgia he shares with conservative Christians. Whether Moore actually believes in the 1950s as a utopia is unclear. It may just be his way of intertwining America's success with the success of labor unions, which were then at their peak. Whatever— bolstering unions allows Moore to explain what actual socialism is, and how most of our current successful current public programs (Medicare, Social Security, public schools, police, etc.) are based on it. It's quite a stretch though, to suggest that if FDR had lived long enough to pass the additional Bill of Rights that he had proposed, everyone today would actually be equal and corporations would be unable to form monopolies.

Moore repeatedly attacks the consequences of human greed, but no solution he could suggest would ever overcome natural instinct. His standard tropes distract him from the task at hand. For every valid idea he presents— say, the enormous political control now exercised by disgraced former Goldman-Sachs executives ("people who give you the wrong answer, but the one you want to hear, are invaluable")— Moore subjects us to a tangent about house squatters or idle threats from an exasperated former home owner.

The wrong medium?

The scattered nature of Capitalism: A Love Story— vignettes of eight to ten minutes— is consistent with Moore's other films. But it reaffirms my suspicion that his TV shows, "TV Nation" and "The Awful Truth," were better suited to his style. On TV he wouldn't have to tie his unrelated chunks together. (Whatever its merits, Moore's Bowling For Columbine is a totally disorganized mess.) And his points would come through more clearly.

For instance: Sicko, Moore's 2007 documentary about the failure of American healthcare, was an important film. But his message was delivered more succinctly and effectively in an episode of "The Awful Truth" in which a man who was denied life-saving surgery by his insurance company inspired Moore to stage a formal funeral, while the man was still alive, in front of the HMO's headquarters. It reminds you that Capitalism: A Love Story could have been a much tighter, sharper film, if Moore had been willing to reign himself in.♦

To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.

What, When, Where

Capitalism: A Love Story. A film by Michael Moore. Opens October 2, 2009 at the Ritz Five, 214 Walnut St. (215) 440-1184 or

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