Film Review: Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)

In Capitalism: A Love Story, MichaelMoore sets his sights on one of the ingrained tenants of American society, the capitalist economy, with his trademark bravado, wit, and stunts to try and explain just what caused the economy to evolve to its current bailout and foreclosure driven state.

 

The most powerful tool in the arsenal of a filmmaker is editing. Michael Moore should be recognized as one of the greatest editing-minded directors working today. If only he would focus more of his creative efforts on the development of argumentation and clear presentation of facts instead of sensationalist tactics, he might become one of the greatest film directors of all time.

 

It's a major catch-22 for documentary filmmakers. Perhaps more than any modern genre of cinema, a documentary director must come up with a gimmick to sell their vision to a wider audience. Without a hook, distributors are unlikely to push for a wide release of a documentary film. It's hard to sell voluntary education. It's even harder to sell a detailed analysis of why our way of life in America has begun to erode under the near-total collapse of the economy. Without the stunts that invite the audience to react to the range of emotions in the film, a documentary will struggle to even have a chance at a wide audience.

 

What I respect the most about Michael Moore is his willingness to broach difficult topics for America and make them palatable for a considerable audience. Forget whether or not the assertions made by Moore are potentially funhouse mirror reflections of society; there is no shortage of detractors who will gladly beat that drum until the day Moore stops making films. Put aside whether or not you agree with his politics or rhetorical methods. The most important issue in the documentary output of Michael Moore is his ability as "Michael Moore," documentary superstar, to help open up a public dialog on elephantine issues glossed over on the nightly news.

 

There is a lot to love in Capitalism: A Love Story. Moore's wit has not been this consistently sharp since his Academy Award winning Bowling for Columbine. He's also not shown so much personal care and compassion for his subject matter since Roger and Me. This should come as no surprise. Moore focuses much of his "corruption of capitalism" argument on the government bailouts that saved the exact companies that ruined his hometown of Flint, Michigan some twenty years before. This sore subject is directly linked to the destruction of his childhood ideals and way of life. Even when he is hitting his de rigeur talking points, like the mouthpiece status of President George W. Bush or the backroom lobby driven negotiations on Capital Hill, Moore approaches the material with a renewed sense of urgency.

 

In a welcome and refreshing directorial decision, Michael Moore chooses to stand aside for long stretches of the film. He will offer occasional narration to link, for example, the interview footage of wrongfully incarcerated young people in a private juvenile detention center to the poor wages of airline pilots in the United States. The highlight of the film is a detailed analysis, through interviews with congressional representatives and financial watchdogs, of how the Wall Street economic bailout was approached, rejected, then approved in a minimally altered form within a few days; Moore does not appear on the screen, only providing a few linking voiceovers to clarify the timeline and better explain quoted statistics and charts from the interview subjects. These Moore-less moments are wildly interesting, suspenseful, and more shocking than any stunt he concocted to fill out the remaining running time of the film.

 

The stunts fall flat. The cartoons and audio splicing seem at odds with the otherwise more mature approach to a sensitive issue. Most egregious of all is a questionable timeline of how President Barrack Obama single-handedly inspired Americans to join together and fight against Big Business and Bigger Banks. Previously established continuities of time and place are thrown out the window to portray the new president as the great savior of our nation after the dark ages of the Republican administration. "Yes We Can" is "proven" in the same way Michael Moore "proved" Charleston Heston was a gun-toting lunatic in Bowling for Columbine.

 

Politics aside, Capitalism: A Love Story is an accomplished film that indicates a more mature approach to the documentary. I hope that Moore keeps moving toward a less sensationalist approach as a director. He has proven himself capable, as a filmmaker, of revolutionizing how traditional documentary techniques can be implemented for entertainment and edification. The biggest stunt he has yet to pull off is bringing audiences into a stunt-less documentary. He's more than capable of accomplishing it if he wants to.