America is Rome, and it's toppling.
That's the opening salvo from Michael Moore in his blistering new documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, which opens in New York and Los Angeles today and across the country Oct. 2. That's a dispiriting message that everyone can agree with, be they affiliated with Fox News or MSNBC. And if you accept that premise, the rest comes easily in this feast of outrage.
Once the Roman accusations finish, the film starts mildly enough, if you consider the violent possession of a family home by a fleet of sheriff's cars to be mild. Moore doesn't confront audiences with facts at first, so that the doubters in the audience have a moment to quietly say to themselves things like, "Well, people should pay their bills if they don't want to lose their homes in foreclosure."
As he so often does, he shows us classroom films of 1950s America, when there were few burned-out neighborhoods and no one died for want of decent health care.
Gradually, though, the narrative ramps up, and Moore begins revealing how Wall Street and the banking industry have rigged the system so that otherwise hard-working Americans could lose the homes that their parents paid off. For many viewers, it will be like Meltdown 101, and an easy-to-grasp explanation of how in many cases, the housing crash happened because so many average people were outwitted by Wall Street types whose entire careers were based on inventing hard-to-follow financial schemes.
Having tugged on heartstrings, Moore picks out two examples of how America's power brokers think of the average person as nothing more than a profit opportunity. The first is of blue-chip corporations (Walmart, for one) that secretly took out insurance policies on their workers and quietly cashed in when they died. Another is the sordid story of Pennsylvania judges who took money from a privately owned prison system for each juvenile delinquent they sentenced to stay there.
Although Moore doesn't explicitly say it, both examples are shows as proof that, without regulation of some kind, the greater powers in our lives sometimes stand to profit when harm comes to us, and that's a conflict for our future happiness. When you bring a profit motive to functions previously held by the government, you open the door for widespread abuse.
We are no longer in 1950s America, Moore repeats, and if you're clinging to the idea that we still are, you're being fooled. Our country has fallen apart. By every measure, crime and bankruptcy and misery have soared -- Moore trots out a series of sobering graphs to prove it, with each skyrocketing number's origin falling on the timeline near a beaming head of Ronald Reagan -- yet Americans still labor under the Cinderella-story belief that they could get rich tomorrow. It's this Cleaver-era fantasia, lingering today in the rhetoric of politicians and entertainment alike, that Moore seeks to shatter.
For me, one of the most fascinating segments of the movie was the segment examining the connection between Christianity and capitalism. There isn't one, Moore says, and to back up his case, he talks to three clergymen in Michigan, all the way up the bishop, who agree that capitalism, by definition, is evil and does not at all line up with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
It's boat-rocking stuff, but it's nothing that hasn't been espoused for years by a small but vocal minority of Christians, including the Christian Socialist Party. Jesus was not a capitalist, everyone in the film seems to be saying. So any effort to link a belief in God with a defense of America's capitalism system is at best specious and at worst manipulated propaganda.
Right now, Moore implies, our way of doing business is hardly Christian. It's abject Darwinism. This may be the most revolutionary point of the film.
Human stories aside, Moore also produces the kind of paper trail to satisfy readers of Naomi Klein, Greg Palast, or John Pilger. He isn't so much a conspiracy theorist as a sunshine man who casts light on areas previously unknown to the masses. Midway through, he reveals an internal memo from Citibank that celebrates the American aristocracy while confessing that the only thing standing in the way of the richest 1% amassing even more money is the potential ire of the rest of us, who are left with less and less each year.
It is a document that shows the rich of this country are privately quaking at the prospect of revolution, and it gives Moore an engine, and a mandate, for the second half of the film: Wake up the peasants.
Once the audience's emotions are massaged into activity -- and the high stakes of the situation are laid out -- then, as Moore movies do, things snowball into the marquee disaster. In this case, it's the bailout.
Among Moore's expert interviewees (including, inconceivably, playwright Wallace Shawn), Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio emerges as a heroine of the movie, a lone wolf who shouts warnings from the floor of the House of Representatives as Congress prepares to hand over $700 billion of taxpayer money to Wall Street interests, no questions asked, no legal or judicial follow-up, no accountability. Her cries were in vain. She couldn't muster enough attention to halt the handover, but she succeeds in energizing the movie and motivating its final act, when Moore tries to get viewers riled up enough to take a part in their own democracy.
If you judge at it from afar, you realize the movie isn't really a screed against capitalism, although Moore's foes will gleefully accuse it of being one. It's an attack on greed, which, Moore and many in the film say, is the fatal flaw of capitalism.
No party, neither Republicans or the Democrats, emerges unscathed from Moore's version. If anything, he blames the Republicans for the start of the deregulation that got us into this mess and then turns his blame on the Democrats for facilitating a rape of the government coffers by the ultra-rich last fall.
The movie is also surprisingly light on Moore's juvenile theatrics. Although the image of the filmmaker bellowing into a megaphone at the New York Stock Exchange is prevalent in the ads for Capitalism: A Love Story, in fact the few scenes in which he sets out to tease and harangue CEOs are, in fact, done nearly with a wink. At this point, every security guard at America's financial citadels is on guard for Moore's schtick, and by now they're probably tickled to see him coming. If you watch closely, you can almost see the merry twinkle in their eyes as they turn Moore and his film crew back around to the sidewalk.
Love him or hate him, you can take Moore down for his adolescent stunts, and for using devices (stock footage, clumsy overdubbing, camera ambushes) that have become old hat. But so far, no one has successfully taken him down for his facts. Career-wide, his reporting is rock-solid. Try as they might, his enemies have only been able to quibble, to levy charges of hypocrisy (the man is a self-made millionaire), and to fire fat jokes at him.
Moore knows he can't get past the check-in desk -- he never could -- but such moments are his trademark set piece, and he tosses them in because, essentially, he's expected to. They're strictly for comic effect to leaven the potentially heavy talk of derivatives, insurance policies, and the de facto takeover of the federal government by Goldman Sachs.
They also grease the way to Moore's final point. We, as Americans, need to take action. If Moore's impassioned plea is resistible, the preceding case is more cogent. Concepts such as co-operative ownership and unions have been demonized by industries whose bosses stand to be tamed by them, but Americans, Moore says, need to remember their democratic roots and take a look at running our businesses by similar principles. In the closing moments of the film, Moore is openly fomenting for a system that remembers it exists to provide for all Americans, not to simply provide for the market.
In the end, the same thing that brought down communism threatens to bring down capitalism: greed. Both systems are ideals more than fully-formed concepts for a political machinery, so neither one has inherent provisions for keeping corruption in check.
For Moore, who grew up in the car-making hub of Flint, Michigan, unions don't represent imbalance and corruption. He sees them for what they were when they first came into existence: Protection for employees who would otherwise be trampled by the profit motive. In Moore's worldview, when a union is properly run, it's a democracy in microcosm.
Thinking of them in that way may require us to travel a long way back into the past, to the time when they were first formed, before greed corrupted some of them, too. But since we're already clinging to our 1950s promises of the boundless wealth that is bound for our pocketbooks someday, it shouldn't be too much of a stretch to embrace the populist idea that in the richest country on Earth, there shouldn't be burned-out neighborhoods, people being kicked out of their homes, and dying for want of health care.
WalletPop review: Michael Moore's 'Capitalism: A Love Story'