Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Film Review: Capitalism: A Love Story

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

One doesn’t go to a Michael Moore movie looking to satisfy one’s curiosity about a subject. Unlike most documentary filmmakers, he doesn’t explore his material. He packages it. He never shows anything that he doesn’t have a predetermined attitude about, and it is all in service to a larger point he is trying to make. At his best, as in Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko, he delivers a sharply focused polemic. He doesn’t tell a viewer much of anything new, but he does provide an outlet for the anger and frustration one feels towards his targets. One comes away happy that, on a rare occasion in a high-profile media production, the right people and things are getting the savaging they deserve.

But Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, doesn’t provide much in the way of catharsis. A well-done polemic has an intense, rigorous view of what it is against. In Capitalism, Moore looks at the economic calamity that boiled over last year, but he can’t seem to get a grip on it. He tries to make the point that the devastating chicanery perpetrated by the financial-services industry is proof that capitalism is inherently evil. By its nature, it actively works against the common good. However, the material isn’t pulled together into a coherent argument. The film is rambling, muddleheaded, and at times, outright nuts.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that, this time out, Moore is all over the map. Much of the first half is devoted to a ground-level look at the lives of various people who have been victimized by corporate greed. There are repeated visits to a family that is in the process of being evicted from their farm. The viewer is told of the plight of modern-day airline pilots, whose compensation is so low that they often have to go on food stamps or get a second job. Considerable screen time is spent on “dead peasant” insurance, in which companies take out covert life-insurance policies on their employees, with the company named as the beneficiary. Moore also includes an extended episode that deals with a youth detention facility scandal in Pennsylvania, where a corrupt judge threw the book at every juvenile offender so the company operating the facility could maximize the public funds it received. All of this is worthy of attention, but the situations need the right context to do them justice. Moore uses them as examples of the evil of corporate greed, but they feel arbitrarily chosen. One could go through a year of the New York Times and find dozens of examples that are at least as compelling. A good polemic builds as it goes. Moore scatters his attention, and he can't generate any momentum.

It almost goes without saying that he doesn’t give the film’s central material the treatment it deserves. The majority of the film is spent on the foreclosure crisis, the banking meltdown, and the bailouts and their aftermath. Moore does a fair job of outlining what led up to the crisis, such as deregulation, the securitizing of mortgages, and the use of derivative mathematical models to commit large-scale fraud. The film is nowhere as instructive on the subject as David Faber’s excellent CNBC documentary House of Cards (click here), but it will do. But Moore all but completely ignores how self-destructive this conduct was for the banks. Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers collapsed outright, and the remaining investment banks were forced into hasty mergers. One isn’t asking for sympathy for these institutions--they deserved every hit they took--but if an account of the events ignores what happened to them, it cannot provide a proper context for TARP and the other bailouts. Moore jumps almost immediately from the mortgage swindle of consumers to TARP, and it quickly becomes clear why he gives short shrift to the banks’ circumstances. Ignoring the specifics of the banking crisis allows him to claim that it was all a conspiracy to get the U. S. Treasury looted before Bush left office.

Moore, like a lot of people who should have known better, took a big, shameless snort of Yes-We-Can Kool-Aid mix last year. In his view, the bankers and their cohort were frightened by a great, high-minded movement that was sweeping the land. It was a movement that was empowering people to take back the country from its corporate masters. The pillaging wrought under Reagan, the Bushes, and (by implication) Bill Clinton, would be brought to an end. That movement, of course, was the Barack Obama presidential campaign. The bankers needed to get their hands on everything that was left for them to take before Obama ascended to office and ended their rapacity once and for all.

This is utterly ridiculous, for all sorts of reasons. Obama never campaigned against the power of corporate America. He has never advocated any legislation that would protect distressed homeowners from foreclosure (unlike, for example, his chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton). He was just as happy to deliver the TARP and other bailout funds to the banks as George W. Bush. The second half of the TARP money was authorized after Obama became president, and he certainly didn’t demand that any conditions be placed on it. (Contrast this with his draconian treatment of the automobile companies and their workers.) In fact, Barack Obama received more money in campaign contributions from Wall Street than any other presidential candidate. They all but certainly feel they got their money’s worth.

In fairness to Moore, he does seem to be waking up to how much he misjudged Obama, but nowhere near enough to let go of the fantasy he presents about last year. He acknowledges the campaign contributions in the film, although he pretends Obama got them after the meltdown. He also features an interview with William K. Black, the Wyatt Earp of the 1980s savings-and-loan scandal, who describes Obama's Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner as a useful idiot for the financial industry. (Black calls him a man who is wrong about everything, but consistently wrong in ways that favor the bankers.) However, Moore is in love with this idea of a people’s uprising sweeping the nation, and he credits Obama’s election with inspiring such events as the successful severance-pay sit-down strike at Republic Windows and Doors last December. This nonsense is an expression of the most dubious aspect of the film, which is the claim that capitalism is evil and democracy is good, and that democracy is finally beginning to fight back.

Moore is fatuously equating capitalism with the wealthy, and specifically with the rapacity that caused the present crisis. One doesn't find him denouncing the core capitalism idea of private property. The prospect of middle- and working-class people owning their homes is all but idealized in the film. What he wants--and I am wholeheartedly with him on this--is a country where the non-wealthy can lead comfortable, fulfilling lives. Essentially, what he’s advocating is that the country return to where it was before the 1980s, back when taxes were used to level the economic playing field, and when laws and regulations were in place to prevent the sort of parasitic ingenuity that caused the current crisis. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that I understand what he wants more than he does. His thinking is as muddled as his use of words. (No one with any traditional understanding of “capitalism” or “democracy” would think of using those terms the way Moore does here.) He is so far into his tortured equivalency between capitalism and the rapacious rich that he's treating the notions of ambition and success with disdain.

In the best interview I have seen with Moore about the film (click here to watch), MSNBC entertainment correspondent Courtney Hazlett confronts him about his negative view of upward striving. I always enjoy watching Hazlett; she has a dry, ironic edge that makes her compelling even when one isn’t especially interested in what she’s covering. She draws Moore out on this subject. He reveals that he distrusts the very ideas of upward mobility and entrepreneurial success--he sees them as a lures in a sucker’s game. Hazlett asks him about the American Dream, and he scoffs, “I’d rather talk about the American reality. This dreaming stuff, come on! Really!” It's an astonishing exchange. This is the most successful documentary filmmaker in the history of movies, and he's effectively spitting on the entrepreneurial drive that got him where he is. He's justifiably angry over what the financial industry has done to people, but he's so overwhelmed by that anger that he's lost perspective on everything else.

The root of it all may be that Moore has lost his own dream. Throughout the film, he shows clips from home movies of him growing up in Flint, Michigan. His father was a factory worker, his mother was a homemaker, and they owned their house within a few years of buying it. The memories of his childhood are ones that Moore clearly finds a great sense of security in, and he wants for everyone to know that ideal. But he knows they can't; in many ways, it is gone for him as well. His once prosperous hometown is now a symbol of urban decay. In the film's most powerful scene, Moore and his elderly father go to look at the vast, empty site where the factory that employed his father once stood. The view is an effective trope for Moore's attitude: Corporate greed destroys everything. Unfortunately, it's also destroyed his judgment. He's now enamored with conspiracy theories, pied-piper politicians, and disparaging the very idea of entrepreneurial success.

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