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Warning: “Capitalism” not for those weak of heart

Published: October 9, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.

At one point in “Capitalism: A Love Story,” a Wall Street broker tells filmmaker Michael Moore to not “make any more movies.” Thankfully – and unsurprisingly – Moore chose not to take this advice to heart.

His “Capitalism” chronicles the events leading up to last Fall’s economic meltdown, an event which Moore blames on the greedy machinations of corporations and banks unfettered by governmental economic regulation. He explores this narrative through interviews with Congressmen, bankers, and average Americans affected by the recession—people who lost their homes and their jobs due to bad investments either on their own part or the part of their employers.

Moore is a filmmaker whose work always elicits a strong response from his audience, and “Capitalism” is no different in this regard. It was only a matter of time before Moore weighed in on the recession—at this point, it’s hard to imagine political discourse without the liberal provocateur, for better or worse. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to qualify “Capitalism” as a genuine success.

Though the film as a whole makes for captivating viewing, its basic thesis is flawed. Throughout the film, you expect Moore to argue for increased regulation of the economy—after all, he seems to blame the deregulation of financial markets under the Reagan administration for all the country’s present woes. Instead, in the film’s last minutes, he declares that capitalism is an “absolute evil”—and you cannot regulate evil. Moore then declares that capitalism must be replaced with democracy, but, as a friend pointed out, capitalism and democracy aren’t exactly mutually exclusive or inclusive. Democracy is a system of governance; capitalism is an economic system. It’s much more complicated than simply replacing one with the other.

Despite this central flaw, Moore succeeds in exposing some of the worst excesses which an unregulated market perpetuated against America. He presents one piece of evidence after another in an effort to prove that those in charge really didn’t care about inhibiting a system in which gross economic inequalities were encouraged. One broker Moore interviews openly declares that he doesn’t care about democracy and the interests of the common man—he cares solely about capitalism. One leaked Citibank memo from 2005 that Moore cites is especially heinous: it declares that a plutocracy (a system in which only the wealthy rule) has been created in the United states, with the right to vote being the only thing keeping the wealthy from having a complete monopoly on power. Moore’s disgust with these people is palpable, especially in light of what happened to his own hometown of Flint, Michigan—one of the cities hardest hit by the decline of General Motors. We, too, share in his loathing of the special economic interests that brought the country into a major recession last year.

Though Moore’s documentary is scant on solutions, he does bring up the interesting phenomenon of business cooperatives, hundreds of which have sprung up across the country. In these cooperatives, every worker owns an equal share of the company for which they work, which means that all workers, including managers, make the same salary. He cites both a computer engineering company and a bakery that have found success using this method. Of course, such a system wouldn’t be practical for a huge corporation like General Motors, but then again, corporations shouldn’t exist in the first place—at least in Moore’s book. One does wonder, however, whether Moore would be willing to split the profits from this movie equally among his crew.

In general, “Capitalism” would do better if it didn’t sensationalize things to the extent that it does. Moore likes to engage in conspiracy theories, arguing that the recession was a way for banks to make people lose their homes while ignoring the fact that some of these banks either collapsed themselves or came pretty close to it. And while banks certainly did their best to deceive their customers in regard to loans, some of the people who went into debt do share some of the culpability. Moore presents footage of a few evictions in his film, characterizing them all as robberies, but he never gives us any real context. Consequently, we’re never able to deduce if and just how much of a role these people played in their own financial demise.

Moore has proven himself to be a great filmmaker; he’s developed a unique sensibility which has consistently entertained his audience. “Capitalism,” however, is hardly his strongest film—a result which appears to stem partly from the topic’s fundamentally abstract nature, which is harder to convey than terrorism or health care. Though the film is somewhat of a mixed bag, it still raises valid points and makes for great conversation fodder.