The big blowhard Michael Moore is a hugely successful left-wing carnival barker in a culture of right-wing carnival barkers, and for that he deserves our admiration. He has, it is true, been caught playing fast and loose with timelines — not a negligible crime. But he rarely stoops to the level on which his rivals permanently reside: He’s obnoxious but not corrupt. He doesn’t spew talking points. He’s out there, on the streets, corralling evidence to support his theses (or thesis — there’s really only one). And he is, point for point, difficult to refute. His new cinematic circus, Capitalism: A Love Story, is the film to which he has been building for the last two decades. It’s sprawling, scattershot, sniggery, and, in one instance, exploitative. It’s brazenly one-sided. But Moore calls questions that no one else in the mainstream corporate media goes near. His other films focused on symptoms. This one tackles what he sees as the disease.
Let’s start with his conclusion: “Capitalism is an evil, and you cannot regulate evil.” That’s enough to give anyone pause, especially in light of the sorry history of other political and economic systems. (I’m not sure whether Moore has ever argued on behalf of the mass-murderer Mao, but he plainly adores Castro.) He has a less controversial case when he examines the flimsy intellectual connections between capitalism and democracy, which Americans tend to see as sibling-close, united under the umbrella of the U.S. Constitution. They’re not: One of Moore’s stunts is a trip to the Capitol rotunda to examine an original copy, while guards look on, intrigued. Jefferson, Adams, and even Adam Smith (although Moore doesn’t invoke him) warned of the dangers to democracy of an unregulated free market in which the wealthy few accumulate too much power. The fact is — the fact is — the pinko Moore follows in far more illustrious footsteps than the free-market Masters of the Universe, most of whom are too a-skeered to submit to his questions. (Having made close to a billion dollars at Goldman Sachs, Hank Paulson has a lot of mansions in which he can hide.) Moore also follows in the footsteps of Jesus, who, let’s remember, took violent issue with material wealth. Around his old hometown of Flint, Michigan, Moore has found several priests and a bishop to denounce capitalism as the root of American injustice instead of the Christian Promised End. But he scores even more points with satire. He takes a threadbare Biblical dramatization and redubs Jesus to make him a free-marketer, refusing to heal a cripple because the man had a “preexisting condition.”
I wouldn’t use the term “documentary” to describe this film: It’s a barbed comic monologue with big jolts of pathos. The movie opens with footage of a clean-cut fifties’ narrator portentously informing us that the story we’re about to see is hard to believe, and Moore borrows that Daddy-knows-best tone for his own singsong narration: This, kiddies, is how our society really works. I know people who are put off by the implied condescension, but it didn’t bother me. Americans — myself included — are so profoundly ignorant of major historical and economic truths that we can always use a good primer: “See Dick. See Dick lobby against government regulation and make wildly disproportionate amounts of money.” The fifties capitalist propaganda is easy to laugh at and, at the same time, hard to shake off. (It was an awkward moment at the Lincoln Center New York Film Festival premiere when Moore flashed a shot of Lincoln Center as part of his montage of decadent elites.)
What about content? It ranges far and wide, though rarely deep. Moore begins with foreclosures and predatory lending, hewing closely to the same narrative as Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s recent American Casino; draws hilarious comparisons (drawing on more cheapo film epics) with the fall of the Roman Empire; and then brings on the politicized playwright Wallace Shawn to recall the way capitalism was supposed to work: The person with the best products and service (cue vintage footage of small entrepreneurs in small towns) makes the most money. Perhaps Moore means to invoke Shawn’s bracing My Dinner with Andre, but that was a true drama, a dialogue of opposites. This is Shawn telling Moore what he wants to hear. No matter: It sets the stage for a recap of our post–World War II economy, after the Allies reduced German and Japan industry to rubble and had markets all to themselves. (Moore sees the 90 percent tax on the very wealthy as a good thing: It helped fund our infrastructure.)
Then it’s time to bring on cowboy figurehead Ronald Reagan and his corporate cronies, who began dismantling regulations that — in Moore’s view — brought off a coup d’état and wiped out American industry. (Don Regan is shown pulling Reagan’s strings.) He trudges with his elderly dad to the now-bulldozed site of the spark-plug factory in which the old man used to work, returns to Flint (and GM) for an acid reminder of Roger & Me, and works his way toward the chainsawing of Wall Street regulations under George W. Bush — which, combined with a reassignment of FBI agents to Homeland Security, helped set the stage for what he calls the greatest wave of white-collar crime in American history. Then, with jabs at Alan Greenspan and other free-marketers from Lehman, Countrywide, Goldman, AIG, Bank of America (especially predatory), etc., it’s on to predatory lending, the collapse of the mortgage racket, and what real-estate watchdog Peter Zalensky calls the arrival of “bottom feeders” — vultures who buy up foreclosed homes and sell them for profit. Meanwhile, Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo is giving sweetheart loans to movers and shakers like Senator Chris Dodd. It should be said that Democrats are not exempt from Moore’s rage: Loosening of Wall Street regulations was a feature of that wild-eyed leftist Bill Clinton’s administration, too.
Among Moore’s more appalling segments is the one in which he lectures on what happens when government shifts its responsibilities to for-profit businessmen: the notorious Wilkes-Barre case in which a judge named Ciavarella took kickbacks from a pal (allegedly — the 48-count indictment is still working its way through the courts) to send some harmless 6,500 juveniles to the man’s private correctional facility. One girl spent more than six months under lock and key for writing snarky things about an assistant principal on her Facebook page. Then he brings on Hudson River hero Captain Sully, who testified before an increasingly uncomfortable congressional committee that pilots now work for as little as $22,000 a year, receive food stamps, and have to supplement their incomes with second and third jobs. Watch Moore’s face as he listens to a pilot describe selling one’s plasma.
Moore makes one detour I consider unforgivable. After a shocking segment on blue-chip companies that make millions by secretly taking out life-insurance policies on employees, he introduces us to a family in which the mother — a Wal-Mart worker — died following an acute asthma attack. The children read letters to her they’ve written. They weep and Moore holds on to them. But what’s the context here? She wasn’t failed by the health-care system. The grief of her family, however moving, has no bearing on Wal-Mart’s windfall. This is just demagoguery.
But it’s nothing, I repeat, compared to the other side. Not so long ago I found myself sitting next to an old family friend and was stunned to hear her assert that (a) Obama was a socialist taking the country to socialism; (b) the bank failures were brought on by poor blacks, not by the banks themselves, which were forced by the government to make loans to minorities who could not pay them back; and (c) what happened in Detroit had nothing to do with grotesquely bad management or lack of innovation — it was unions that had driven up wages to the point that American manufacturers couldn’t compete. Where does this bullshit come from? Nothing Moore says in Capitalism: A Love Story is remotely as mendacious or self-serving. (At least my old Texas uncle at the same table, after whispering, “You can’t argue with these liberals,” said he wished Obama success — even if he was a colored fella.)
Moore’s greatest weapon is the pathetic case the other side makes for itself — like The Wall Street Journal editorialist’s admission that as far as he was concerned, “Capitalism is more important than democracy.” No one Moore interviews can coherently explain derivatives or credit default swaps (though it should be said that the Alexes Chadwick and Blumberg on NPR did a superlative job last year, though they needed a full hour). Moore’s heroes here are, in no particular order, Jonas Salk, who gave away his polio vaccine for free; workers in a Chicago window-and-door company who barricaded themselves in their factory when BofA tried to kick them out without paying their wages; smiling assembly-line workers who run their own company and share i