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Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) December 26, 2009

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009

Michael Moore in his latest documentary CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY claims that many previously unimaginable things can happen in mere two years. It is hard not to agree with this claim, especially when illustrated with the sight of ecstatic black supporters of Barack Obama during 2008 election night. However, that very same passage of time is one of the reasons why Michael Moore’s documentaries, including this one, tend to lose much of their power when viewed outside proper historic context.

In case of this film, that effect was helped by its broad subject and very specific circumstances that served as Moore’s inspiration – great financial crisis of 2008. When Moore started his film, he had good reasons to believe that those dramatic events would serve as perfect background for another strong indictment of American economic and political establishment. Current crisis, like few before it, exposed many previously hidden cracks in seemingly perfect structure of American Dream and gave plenty of arguments to all those who viewed it as nothing more than great illusion. Collapse of real estate markets through subprime mortgages and toxic assets made tens of millions lose their jobs and home, while the very people responsible for it – Wall Street bankers – actually became even richer through bailouts made by the taxes collected from their helpless victims.

This created huge, almost palpable, anger among American public, which Moore tries to use and channel towards the criticism of the system itself. For him, the great crisis of 2008 only proved what he had been telling for decades. American capitalism, instead of creating prosperity, destroys it; it makes the rich getting richer, the poor getting the poorer and the middle class – the basis of healthy society – is quickly disappearing. Just like in his previous documentaries, Moore tries to underline his message by segments showing real-life excesses of capitalist greed and its destructive aftermath; all that is brought in general context by combination of historic documentary footage, horror movie soundtrack, suggestive editing and Moore’s own narration.

Moore, to a certain degree, succeeds in describing the symptoms of American socio-economic ailment, but he utterly fails when he tries to make some kind of coherent narrative out of it. Both attempts to present causes and provide eventual solution to the problem reveal the usual limits of any populism, mainly in the attempts to give simplistic and unconvincing answers to serious and complex question. Apart from using his reliable muse – George W. Bush – as a symbol of everything rotten in USA, Moore points to his ideological predecessor Ronald Reagan and his presidency as the very moment when things started to go bad. Before that, Moore argues, America wasn’t so bad and through  his childhood recollection of 1950s and 1960s Michigan he paints near idyllic picture of affluent blue collar Catholics that produce quality cars, strong unions that protect their middle class status and high taxes that keep rich capitalists in check, channeling their wealth towards useful things instead of their excesses. How that utopian idyll – during which, Moore, to his credit, acknowledges that things weren’t that great for blacks or in Vietnam – allowed itself to degenerate into present sad state of affairs, is not convincingly explained.

Moore seems even less coherent and honest when he tries to point towards the eventual way out of this economic mess. For him capitalism is evil and he even recruits Catholic priests to express such views. So, some kind of alternative must be found. At times he suggest that the anger created by crisis won’t be controlled, and that the people would start fighting back against rich capitalists until they establish new system. What kind of system, Moore isn’t so sure. At one time, he points to young Americans embracing socialism, which, due to overuse by right-wing propaganda, ceased to be four letter word in American political discourse. However, when the time comes for him to say what is alternative to capitalism, he goes for the safer and easier option and says “democracy”.

And this option is embodied in the main political consequences of America’s economic calamities – election of Barack Obama. Moore, despite attacking some Democratic politicans in this film, tries very hard to absolve the new president of any eventual wrongdoing, and apparently refuses to consider any notion of Obama’s charismatic presence not being matched by his actual aims or abilities. American system is unjust, rotten and evil; yet, at the same time it is not because it allowed someone good like Obama to become its essential part. Moore apparently can’t make his mind which of two competing visions of America is the right one. Because of that, viewers are left with anger and without any hope for change. Even the sense of humour appears to failed Moore. CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY, instead of being important document of our times, looks like series of  unconvincing sermons and some old tricks (like ambushing corporate officials for impromptu interviews and “citizen’s arrests”) that look more pathetic with each new film.

Film looks even more disappointing at the end of 2009, with political realities contradicting Moore’s predictions – like the the populist anger taking right-wing instead of left-wing forms. Perhaps Moore can create satisfactory films only in very specific set of circumstances that aren’t likely to be repeated – like Bush presidency, for example. Then again, a lot can happen in two years.  Moore can find another muse, resulting in films much better than this one.

RATING: 3/10

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