September 24, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story (09/24/09)

Lettergrade: B

Capitalism: A Love Story is Michael Moore's screed on corporate greed and white collar crime with a strong emphasis on the mismanagement that led to last year's economic melt-down. Before I get into it, though, I should admit that in spite of the flaws, I'm usually a sucker for Moore's movies. Politically, I tend to agree with a good deal of what he says, and as a humorist, I greatly admire the way in which he goes about saying it. Love or hate him, he has consistently used his celebrity to shine a light on issues that he feels need public attention, and for that I have an endless amount of respect. His last few pictures have felt a little scattershot, ranty, and somewhat slim on tangible solutions, but nevertheless they're important, thought-provoking pictures that often feel like imperative viewing. How many wide-release films have you seen this year that actually try to _do_ something?

Capitalism stimulated two extremes for me: I found myself surprisingly emotional during sections of it (particularly the last part, starting with the story about the sit-in at the window and glass company in Chicago on through to the end), but at the same time I found myself a little atypically annoyed that Moore again seems to undercut his own objective a bit by omitting key points of view and by taking an overly harsh (yet populist) stance against those on the other end of his argument.

This picture opens with a cheesy educational film about the fall of the Roman Empire which details how corruption and tyranny ultimately led the people to rise up and overthrow the established order. If the implication isn't clear enough, Moore inserts quick shots of politicians of the present and recent past. Among the points he argues in this picture is that capitalism as we know it has been distorted and rigged to the point where the upper 1% of the US population controls nearly 95% of the wealth, and that they've conned the rest of us into fighting over the scraps that are left instead of recognizing the inequity. Throughout the film, Moore profiles families that have lost their homes in the mortgage crisis (and companies that prey on the acquisition and resale of them), the Wall Street phenomenon of derivatives and split derivatives (comparing the institution to an insane mega-casino), and makes a persuasive argument for how deregulation, Union-busting, and obscene greed in the 80s and 90s has led to the virtual eradication of America's middle-class.

Moore uses every tool in his arsenal to tug at your heart strings and sense of decency: He includes multiple devastating testimonials and portraits of families who have lost everything, he has the survivors of deceased loved-ones cry on camera, and he flashes to emotionally charged images, such as post Katrina New Orleans, whenever he feels he can get some juice out of them. A number of other Michael Moore classic bits reappear as well, such as having Mike show up at some corporate headquarters with a camera crew, and then act surprised when security promptly covers his lens and shows him the door.

Similar to his previous productions, the approach is designed to aggressively inform, to incite passion, and to get in a good laugh whenever possible in order to make the whole thing palatable to those who might not be inclined to sit through this kind of thing otherwise. As always, the editing is sharp and incisive, and the archival team located some hysterical retro film and music in order to enhance the picture's considerable wit. While it's effective, I also can't deny that it's propaganda in the most pure sense of the term and manipulative as hell.

During the middle of the picture, after around 45 - 50 minutes of hearing how hopelessly fucked we are economically, I found myself wondering where the film was going, but in the last section Moore shifts gears a bit and profiles a number of small businesses and individuals who act out of a sense a fairness, despite the fact that the law does not require them to do so. Toward the end of the picture, it feels like Moore is actually spending more time with people who go out of their way to do good for other people for a change, and the picture winds up being oddly inspirational in a way that I don't believe any of his other pictures have been.

I guess you can think of each of Moore's recent pictures as a call to arms for liberal causes, and while he's continuously chosen subject material that is very potent and relevant, again I worry that they're becoming increasingly unfocused. Bowling For Columbine had the clear objective of swaying public opinion on gun control, with a few awkward detours into why Americans are a violent lot to begin with. Fahrenheit 9/11, which I didn't much care for, was sort of about the craziness that ensued after the terror attacks, but largely felt like an inartful smear piece. I happened to agree with his main point - that Bush ought not be reelected - but I felt that the way he went about making his case was scattershot, mean-spirited, and somewhat non-persuasive. SiCKO really stokes both sympathy and anger like no other picture he's made has, but after detailing the contours of a very large problem (and the bullshit arguments against implementing some kind of universal coverage), the movie failed to really chart out a clear way in which the problem might start to be remedied. On top of that, Moore was guilty of over-romanticizing socialized health care systems in other countries, all of which, while better than what we have presently, come with their own problems. Overplaying his hand there, as he does somewhat in Capitalism too, gives his critics a convenient way to dismiss the really good points he's making along with the sloppy ones.

Minor bitchings aside, though, I will say that the other week while watching Obama's address on health care reform to congress, I was quite struck that several of the health insurance horror-stories the president recounted would have felt right at home in SiCKO. Now, health care reform might well have been an important agenda for any president at this particular point in time, of course, but I had the feeling that Obama's speech wouldn't have been quite the same had Moore's film never existed. Either Moore was a little ahead of the curve in terms of understanding how big an issue health care reform would shortly become, or it was his willingness to take the material on in the first place that led to more of a national dialogue about where we are and where we need to be. In any case, it's hard to deny that he does have a good bead on many of the critical social-political issues of the day, and even if you find the guy to be an utterly obnoxious, bloviating asshole, it's usually worth listening to what he's got to say about them.

My review of SiCKO

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