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Movie Review: Capitalism: A Love Story

October 8, 2009

By Nat

mpacapitalismposterAt this point, I don’t think anyone who goes into a Michael Moore film does so without some preconceived notions: Those who dislike Moore are going to hate Capitalism: A Love Story, and those who like Moore will love it.

So that puts this reviewer in a bit of a dilemma. I want to be somewhat objective, but, politically, I’m probably as far as you can get from Moore’s views, and yet, dare I say, there’s a good deal about his film I found convincing.

Actually, it’s more like two films. The first half is Moore railing against what he professes are the evils of capitalism, which he does by interviewing victims of foreclosure, three religious authorities who condemn the system as sinful, airline pilots, and through a fascinating segment focusing on the widow of a blue-collar employee, who discovered, after her husband’s death, that the company he worked for took out a hefty life-insurance policy on him.

The first half of the movie is muddled and downright irresponsible, as Moore accuses capitalism of death, slavery, National Socialism, and the root of pretty much everything wrong with America. Fair criticisms can be and are made of the capitalist system, but the critical flaw in Capitalism: A Love Story is that Moore never defines what he means when he says “capitalism,” so his argument has no premise. There’s a brief segment where he interviews the actor Wallace Shawn, who, we’re informed, has some knowledge of economics, but as soon as the words “profit and loss” pass over Shawn’s lips, Moore’s off onto the next heart-tugging story. And so “capitalism” becomes a scapegoat upon which ill after ill is laid. There’s nothing wrong with making broad statements, but if Moore’s going to do that, he has a responsibility to at least inform the audience what it is, precisely, he’s attacking.

Take for example the aforementioned segment detailing dead peasants insurance. I thought the idea was ingenious, and, so long as it’s not fraudulent, I support it. The notion of profiting from one’s death may seem morally repugnant, but take a step back—funeral homes, grave diggers, and spouses do it every day: Does that make them morally repugnant? I don’t think so, so why make a special exception of disdain for Fortune 500 companies? However, Moore never explains why he feels this is inherently bad. Instead, he just assumes it is and leaves us to make the connection between its wretchedness and his vague idea of “capitalism.”

The connection’s even more abstract in a scene where Moore takes aim at a small-town judge who sentenced local teenagers to slave labor for trivial infractions. Judges are part of the judicial branch of the government, but the blame (at least I assume) is placed upon the free market, which dictionaries define as operating independent of government.

This cycle of bold and confusing accusations dominates the first hour of the film, but I’m pleased to say the second half is better, though not without its flaws. Here, Moore lays out his thoughts on the current financial crisis, with particular emphasis (and rancor) toward bailouts. This part also features the movie’s biggest laugh when Moore drives an armored vehicle (a stick-shift, no less!) down Wall Street and demands the taxpayers’ money back from bailed-out corporations.

I’ve tried to keep my criticisms of the first part of Capitalism limited to the confines of the film, but here I’d like to go outside that and say that I’m personally against the bailouts, too. But still, Moore’s using a double standard: He criticizes the free-market system of profit and loss but then blames “capitalism” for the bailouts. In a true system of profit and loss, those companies that took the bailouts instead would have gone under. How can he criticize loss in one sector, say a mom-and-pop establishment, and ignore it in another where, presumably, he’d like to the companies go under? In the same vein, I agree that Paulson, Geitner, Dodd, Greenspan, et al. are louses, but isn’t their complicity a charge against corporatism and not the free market?

There’s not much of a point in asking, I’m afraid. It’s too bad because some good points are raised, but again Moore leaves the viewers to make the connection between the evil deeds he’s describing and “capitalism”; the closest he comes is to reassure us there is one.

I can’t convince the die-hard Moore fans any more than they can convince me. Maybe we can all agree that Michael Moore has talents. His use of stock footage, music, and, above all, editing, has matured a great deal since Roger & Me, and he employs all three to passionate effect in Capitalism. The opening voiceover chronicles the fall of ancient Rome, interspersing shots of the Roman Senate with the Capitol Dome; the tyrannical emperor with George W. Bush; and the coliseum with Nascar. Another scene delightfully lambasts a speech of Bush’s while the White Halls collapses in the background. These are funny, yes, and effective, but what purpose do they serve? Roger & Me at least grounded its spectacle on a premise; here it just feels solipsistic, loud, and angry. It’s not an argument; it’s a diatribe.

I’m not sure how to put this into our 1 out of 10 system; I think the more appropriate rating to award, given the film’s vagueness of terms, bewildering associations, and the polarizing effect it’ll have on viewers, would be two apples out of orange deltas.


4 Responses to “ Movie Review: Capitalism: A Love Story ”

  1. geoffrey on October 8, 2009 at 10:35 am

    I’ve suggested to all my students, and especially those in my Econ 105 Intro to Political Economy class, to go see it. Moore is the premier propagandist of our generation, so it’s beneficial to see it at work.

    Here’s an interesting video recorded at GWU a little while ago. The guy in the picture is a Senior there and has attended some seminars at FEE over the last few years. I think Moore has some notion of what’s going on, but he’s still deeply confused. Note the change around the second minute when he moves past corporatism into “democracy in the market.”

    I’m quite excited to see this film as I suspect it will be spattered with flashes of insight and the way the stories will be interwoven will certainly be memorable. Who can forget the lady in “Roger and Me” who’s killing and skinning rabbits? Forget that man has been doing that for millennia; no no, she’s doing it in Modern Flashy Downtown Flint, MI.

    More to the point (pun intended), he represents a widely-held inability to grasp the crucial connection between cause and effect in the midst of a complex system. There’s no shame, Murray says, in ignorance, but railing, preaching, and diatribing against that selfsame system while in that same ignorance is irresponsible at best and pernicious at worst. Instead, advocates of liberty and markets may be most benefited by watching this movie, since it presents cases and arguments to be understood and corrected. It will also serve as a cultural lightning rod, providing readily available examples for use in debate and discussion.

  2. Jackson on October 8, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    i really enjoyed Moore’s “Sicko” but even the previews on this didn’t entice me too much. he does a good job of making knocking down straw men entertaining though.

    nice critique.

  3. Shannon on October 8, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    This political cartoon was in the paper last week.

  4. Nat on October 8, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    @Geoff Outside of the “dead peasants insurance,” there’s not too many memorable stories, but it did hold my interest throughout the 2+-hour running time. The armored car sequence was pretty funny, but watching it, you know that it was done so there’d be something for the trailer. If you ever plan to use this film as an example of propaganda, I’d recommend watching it back to back with the documentary Gates of Heaven, which makes absolutely no judgment calls and explores pretty much every side of the events it’s documenting and yet similarly divides viewers.

    And for the record, it felt really good to see this in Moore’s new hometown, in the theatre that he rebuilt, and, most of all, to hand the ticket-seller my credit card and say, “One for capitalism, please.”