If Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” teaches us one thing about the global economic crisis, it is that the stunt-doc gold standard has become obsolete.
Maybe this was inevitable. No one of reasonable mind would deny that Moore’s formerly unique brand of cloddish precocity has expanded the horizons of nonfiction moviemaking. Once just a canny blue-collar fella who’d had enough of white-collar greed-mongers and their politician abettors, during the past 20 years, Moore has become a rabble-rousing multimedia industry unto himself. And in that time, the question of whether his antics clarify or corrupt his arguments has itself become moot–not for any refinement of the methods, but because the industry of Moore so deliberately made the actual man into a caricature. But at least he figured out a good way to make a buck.
“Capitalism,” like capitalism, will have its champions. As for the rest of us, well, now that we’re broke, exhausted, depressed, and not at all sufficiently bailed out, do we really need to be patronized too? Moore’s movie isn’t quite sure, as a matter of fact, but apparently it just doesn’t know what else to do. “This is capitalism, a system of taking and giving,” he narrates early on. “Mostly taking.” Near the end, he says, “Capitalism is an evil, and you can not regulate evil.” A lot happens in between. Too much, actually.
Ancient Rome. A cat flushing the toilet. A guy getting foreclosed out of his home. “Condo vultures” in Florida. Wallace Shawn explaining free enterprise. (Uh, OK.) Moore as a boy, enjoying post-war Michigan prosperity. Narration. Vietnam. Unhappy Jimmy Carter. Happy Ronald Reagan. Highlight’s from “Roger & Me,” Moore’s 1989 documentary feature debut. A for-profit Pennsylvania juvenile detention center, in cahoots with a corrupt judge. Airline pilots earning less than managers at Taco Bell. “Dead peasants” whose employers cashed in on their life insurance. Workers on a sit-in strike. Priests. Derivatives, whatever those are, and financial professionals unable to explain them. A funny, phony tourism promo for Cleveland. (”At least we’re not Detroit! We’re not Detroit!!”) A home video of a foreclosed family being evicted by the cops. A beaming, blond spokeswoman for Countrywide Financial, equated to “The Godfather.” Fiscal regulator William Black, a lead whip-cracker from the ’80s S&L scandal, having told us so. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, saying, among other stirring things, that “people who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” Bass notes in the soundtrack. “A financial coup d’etat.” Attempted citizens’ arrests of Wall Street CEOs. And so much Moore.
Does that description seem greasily abbreviated? Well, so does the movie.
The filmmaker-star also finds himself back at General Motors HQ, where security has standing orders not to let him in, and viewer amusement quickly sinks into a dispiriting sense that he’s just running through his same old shtick from 20 years ago. Compare this with a rather discreet and touching scene in which Moore and his father visit the AC Spark Plug plant where papa Moore used to work–or rather, the vacant lot where that plant once stood. This is the good stuff, but Moore buries it in the heap of his standard-issue throwaway jokes, stock-footage gimmicks and suggestive cuts.
Many of “Capitalism”’s points of attack seem at first like they’d be stronger if developed into individual pieces, as in Moore’s old shows “TV Nation” and “The Awful Truth.” (Hell, that “condo vulture” guy might even want to hold down his own series.) But development requires discipline and commitment (not to mention a viable, historically vetted alternative to capitalism), and it’s a lot easier just to cram all the scraps of artillery into one big cannon of a movie with one too-big target.
We can go ahead and tell our kids about the glory days when Moore’s routine seemed like a true way through the morass of under-reporting, untrustworthy agendas and bogus institutional voices that had come to define our “serious” media sources. But the fact remains that his most vital and refreshing (and too brief) moments now look just like something you’d (sometimes) see on “60 Minutes”: simple interviews with regular people, to whom he actually listens.
Moore may have grown accustomed to his big-screen proportions, but he should think harder about whether his medium and his audience already have grown out of them.