A large section of the American public may write off film as simply a form of entertainment and not a respectable art form, but Michael Moore proves that movies can be more: catalysts for debate and even social change, a way for the underdog to take on the powers that be.
In Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore continues his role as a self-conscious rube, stuntman, muckraker, and P.T. Barnum-style showman with a taste for broad comedy. Moore's films have tackled gun violence in Bowling for Columbine, our healthcare debacle in Sicko, and in Capitalism, what some see as the very foundation of our country, the free market.
The question is whether Capitalism isn't just another exercise in preaching to the choir, as some of Moore's previous efforts have been, most notably Fahrenheit 9/11. In our vitriolic, politically divisive country, will anyone from the red camp be persuaded to entertain the notion that capitalism may not be such a great idea after all? Coming from Michael Moore, probably not.
For those not inclined to see the film itself, Capitalism's message is fairly basic. America has traded its almost spiritual faith in democracy for a spiritual faith in capitalism. Moore's mix of vintage '50s and '60s footage shows how, in the halcyon decades following World War II, Americans were once perfectly content to enjoy their tidy bungalows, their shiny home appliances, and juicy pot roasts without needing or wanting more. They could look forward to college for their children, a better standard of living for their offspring, and finally, a cozy retirement.
But now, being happy just isn't enough. Perhaps emboldened by Wall Street's living-large mentality, at some point every American evidently decided that they wanted to be P. Diddy.
Capitalism weaves a familiar, but still compelling Michael Moore story of David versus Goliath. It is a disturbing tale of greed and malfeasance on a huge scale in which politicians are utterly in the back pocket of corporations and no one is looking out for the proverbial little guy.
It's hard to argue with the essence of Moore's film. Tapping into a potent flow of native American decency and truth-telling from Jimmy Carter, Woody Guthrie, Thomas Jefferson, FDR, and Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, among others, Capitalism argues that it's not love of capitalism, but of democracy that defines America's core values.
At the heart of Capitalism is the usual Moore reliance on the anecdotal: the small, human stories that articulate the larger policy injustices. And there are some incredibly sad stories to tell.
Moore follows families being forced from their homes in the rash of foreclosures, and he checks in with Chicago assembly line workers denied their pay by Bank of America bailout beneficiaries.
He talks to a widow who discovers her husband's employer took out what is known as a "dead peasant" insurance policy on her husband that paid out big money to the corporation when her husband died.
He checks in at a for-profit Pennsylvania juvenile home in cahoots with a local judge to funnel children into the facility for maximum profit.
Moore uses these tales of woe and exploitation to make a very convincing big picture argument: capitalism is a conscienceless, immoral force with no concern for human suffering or worth.
Some of the big guys tend to agree with him. If stick around for the closing credits, you'll find quotes from Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, showing their regard for the little guy over big business. It's such a radical idea — and so very different from the usual right-wing ownership of the Founding Fathers — it might have been material better placed earlier in the film.
Moore is a nimble prospector in history's gold mine, but he is also a consummate conspiracy-minded lefty. He tends to overplay the usual scenario of rich and powerful versus poor, miserably exploited in this over-long, meandering, often poorly organized film. On one side, Moore sees the greedy Wall Streeters. On the other: heartland working families. But if we take a cold, hard look in the mirror, can't we all recognize that as Americans we have often come to mistake having lots of money for happiness?
To his credit, Moore also provides real-world examples of ways money-making and decency can go hand in hand, like the California bread company where the assembly-line workers pull in $65,000 a year and whose wealth-sharing CEO remarks, "How many cars do you really need in life?" Maybe more Americans, Moore intones, should follow the example of Jonas Salk who, instead of using his polio vaccine to amass great wealth, donated it in the interest of the common good. At moments like this, Capitalism serves as a profound, consciousness-raising reminder that we need to hold values above money.
Moore is many things: often smug, ideologically narrow-minded, prone to see America as purely us-against-them and ridiculously reliant on crass juxtapositions of comedy and pathos. But beneath that often shrill presence, Moore has an idealistic, even sensitive streak. And it's clear that Moore doesn't care how he looks, because for him too, the ends justify the means.