More so than any of his recent projects, Michael Moore the messenger is fatally undone by Michael Moore the showman. Time and time again we cut away from worthwhile factual analysis or a compelling anecdote in order to let Michael Moore have a moment in the spotlight. More so than in any of his recent projects, Michael Moore chooses to undercut the brutal effect of simply stating the facts in order to toss out a lengthy side story that attempts to pull heartstrings yet falters under objective analysis. For the first time that I can remember, a Michael Moore documentary/propaganda piece is less about the subject at hand and more about Michael Moore himself.
Some plot - The film purports to be a cliff-notes version of the financial scandal/stock-market meltdown that crippled the economy in September 2008. Hitting all the usual stops along the way (Reagan's deregulation of business, the complete destruction of the manufacturing industry, Bush Jr.'s cozy relationship with fear, etc), Moore attempts to form a deconstruction of the myth of the practical and moral superiority of the economic mode known as capitalism. Along the way, we of course are invited to share in the pain and suffering of ordinary Americans who have been caught in the economic downturn that is not of their own making. And we are again treated to the occasional Michael Moore stunt, but these gimmicks are both useless and counterproductive and serve to take away from the narrative and reveal the director as a self-indulgent entertainer first and a social crusader second.
Most problematic is not so much his preaching to the converted, but his narrative choices that render the film downright confusing to someone who already doesn't know what he's talking about. What's a sub-prime loan? You won't find out in any detail in the film, only that they are really evil. What exactly did Ronald Reagan do in order to bring about the eventual decline of the American middle class? I couldn't tell you just from the film itself.
The film scores some of its best points detailing the abysmal wages of airline pilots, yet makes no specific mention of Reagan's deregulation of the airline industry or his firing of striking air-traffic control workers in 1981. Michael Moore's films have always worked best as a jumping-off point for liberal and progressive politics, so it can't be expecting to be the Shoah of anti-capitalistic screeds. But this one is so hell-bent on demonizing the somewhat demonic politicians and businessmen that it neglects to mention just what they did in the first place.
This refusal to deal with the nitty-gritty also extends to his portraits of victimhood. As with most Moore projects, we see various vignettes of tragedy affecting the working class of America. While these stories are meant to pull at heartstrings, it's tough not to notice how carefully Moore avoids explaining how each family got into their current foreclosure nightmare. This is doubly foolish, as it allows critics like me to wonder how much blame they share while also neglecting a crucial opportunity to expose theoretically criminal lending practices that are as much to blame as the dreaded sub-prime mortgage. The filmmaker spends a good 10-15 minutes on the ghoulish practice of companies who take out life-insurance policies on their own employees. Yes it's morally icky and a troubling symptom of corporate culture, but 'dead peasant' policies are not illegal and don't really play a direct role in the financial mess that the film attempts to sort out. Yet it remains a token chunk of the film so Moore can have scenes of mourning family members cursing those no-good bureaucrats.
As expected and justified, Michael Moore places the majority of the blame on Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (Bill Clinton gets a slap on the wrist and Senator Chris Dodd takes it on the chin). But he also slams Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, while neglecting to mention that President Barack Obama has put these two in charge of his economic policy. Maybe he's saving the presidency of Barack Obama for his next movie, but considering how similar he's been on economic issues to his predecessors, it's unintentionally humorous to see the election of Obama treated as the dawning of a new day. And Michael Moore's trademark 'stunts' are lacking both in purpose and panache. Holding a mock funeral for a man whose health-insurance policy won't cover his liver transplant is at least attempting something productive, as is taking 9/11-rescue workers to Cuba for free medical care. Driving an armored car from bank to bank demanding that the bailout money be returned is only about self-aggrandizing.
Time is much better spent detailing shocking examples of greed intermingling with public works with disastrous results. The most potent segment involves a cold detailing of a backroom deal between a juvenile court judge and the owner of a privatized juvenile-detention facility that ended with hundreds of kids being sent to the prison for things as trifling as arguing with friends in the mall, arguing with parents at dinner, or smoking a joint at a party (this was actually dealt with in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit late last season). He is also brutally effective in detailing how the September 08 market crash and subsequent corporate bail out may have been more than just an accidental pre-election surprise.
But despite the running thread tying the film to his first picture, Roger & Me (Moore argues that unregulated capitalism has threatened to turn all of America into Flint, Michigan), the picture feels for at least half of its running time like a novice filmmaker doing their take on a stereotypical Michael Moore film. Just because I agree wholeheartedly with the thesis does not mean that the film propagating said message is a good one. While Capitalism: A Love Story gets its shots, it falters and plays it safe and simple rather than serving as a true primer of the issues at hand. Maybe Michael Moore is right when he chimes at the end that 'I can't do this anymore'. If for only one film, the creator of the modern muckraking documentary now looks and feels like one of the pretenders.