Let’s forget for a minute that Capitalism: A Love Story is being distributed by Paramount and sold on shelves for £19.99 RRP – a fact that effectively dulls its criticism of “the system”. This is Michael Moore at his most provocative extreme, right from the kick off. A staid archive clip warns the viewer that the film contains scenes ‘which under no circumstances should be viewed by anyone with a heart condition, or anyone who is easily upset’, before shifting into a raucous opening titles sequence, backed by Iggy Pop tearing through Louie Louie as shards of bank robberies flicker across the screen.
Despite being the world’s most famous example of one, Michael Moore is not a documentary filmmaker. He makes subjective essay films filled with manipulation and emotional zeal, twisting facts to serve his will to shock and incite, as opposed to illuminate or inform. At his best, this creates punchy one-man adventures, such as his humble-yet-cheeky debut feature, Roger & Me.
As he has grown older, plumper, richer and more recognisable, his schtick has become more obvious and less pointful – resulting in Capitalism’s baggy, indulgent overview of the American Dream and the consumerism and exploitation at its core.
Throughout, Moore’s sledgehammer style runs amok, throwing in scenes of forced evictions (‘This is capitalism’) and ironic, nostalgic reminiscences of growing up during an economic boom (‘we built hospitals, freeways… we even sent a man to the Moon!’), before cherry-picking events in a heavily simplified, manipulative history of the American century, in which the corporate sector won out over the people, and placed puppets such as Reagan in the White House (‘Capitalism trumped Democracy’). He even gives himself a sickening victory lap, inserting clips from Roger & Me and professing prophetic powers relating to to the eventual bankruptcy of General Motors.
Capitalism: A Love Story finds its impetus once it hits the recession, and targets the banks and the bailout. Unfortunately, all the flaws of his approach come straight to the forefront. Moore blunders his way through segments involving signs of corporate greed, such as underpaid pilots and companies taking out life insurance claims on their employees (so-called ‘Dead Peasant’ policies), and instead focuses on hackneyed lampooning of his usual antagonists – George W. Bush especially.
Worse, so much of the film’s bloated two-hour runtime is handed over to pseudo-satire and embarrassing stunts – with Moore unfurling crime scene tape over Wall St., or barging into the headquarters of Goldman-Sachs and Citibank, demanding the people’s money back, and threatening citizen’s arrest for their CEOs – that it ends up short-changing the human stories it seeks to promote.
Such tales of suffering, or stories of innovation (such as co-operative initiatives) are taken out of context, and are shoe-horned into the narrative, making maximum impact in terms of posturing and vitriol, but providing little for anyone wishing to learn more about capitalism and its alternatives.
Moore then uses cheap melodrama to enshrine his heroes and elevate his causes – a move which makes the film at times look dreadfully similar to the news programmes he openly attacks.
This being a 2009-era film, Obama is held up as a shining emblem of a new era, and Capitalism‘s strangely uplifting upswing at the conclusion dates the piece badly, as it stares with doe-eyed naivety while scores of problems haunt America. When laid alongside journalism and documentary – or even committed, crafty activism films like The Yes Men Fix The World – Michael Moore’s latest work looks threadbare and irrelevant.
Just shy of 80 minutes of deleted interviews, short vignettes and mini-musings from Moore. None add a great deal to his thesis, and the full 17 minute address from Jimmy Carter in 1979, commenting on the culture of consumerism, seems to be a space-filling joke.
Interviews with people such as Congressman Elijah Cummings and journalist Chris Hedges are dry and rambling, with Moore shown to be a polite, if awkward interviewer when away from the editing suite. In this context, his pronouncements have less authority, and sound more than a little troubling – regulating capitalism is likened to legalising child labour, and Moore discusses with his local priest, concluding ‘if people just followed the basic teachings of Jesus, it seems like the planet would be a lot better off’.
Likewise, those without his voice-over, and heavy hand, lack context when wedged onto the disc, but they are certainly more interesting – covering various co-operative ventures throughout America, such as taxi firms, farms, allotments, even the State-run Bank of North Dakota. Unfortunately, these nuggets come with the realisation that, in the hands of a better filmmaker, such stories would have made a much more inspiring, and compelling, piece.
Capitalism: A Love Storyis out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.