In “Capitalism: A Love Story,” Michael Moore takes on his biggest target yet, and his most elusive. Buttonholing reluctant CEOs is one thing; pinning down an abstract principle quite another. With “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Moore’s seventh documentary completes a loosely affiliated conspiracy trilogy whose films rely on emotional logic and rhetorical sleight of hand to fuse superficially unrelated incidents into evidence of larger, more alarming social currents.
Arriving just as the economy is showing a flicker of life, Moore’s movie risks lagging behind the times. Much of the evidence he offers to support his contention that the lust for profit is wildly out of control has been widely reported already, like the case of two Pennsylvania judges who funneled undeserving juvenile offenders into a private treatment facility while taking kickbacks from its owners.
Other assertions Moore makes stand up only in the heat of the moment. Drawing an explicit parallel with the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq (and, not coincidentally, the basis for his most popular movie), Moore likens the way the Bush administration used the threat of an impending financial meltdown to allocate an unrestricted $700 billion in bailout funds with the way they exploited the climate of fear after September 11th to advance their longstanding agenda of greater executive power and watered-down civil liberties. Once again, Moore says, right-wing forces used a climate of fear to shut down debate and cook up a sweetheart deal for their supporters. What he neglects to mention — what, in fact, he is counting on the audience to be too dazed and awe-struck to remember — is that, unlike the phantom WMDs, the stock market plummet was real. But Moore is not about to let facts get in the way of a compelling argument.
Apart from rhetoric and an unfocused sense of populist outrage, there’s little to tie the movie’s disparate segments together. Relying, as always, on individual stories to lend emotional weight to the bigger picture, Moore evokes sympathy (not empathy) for a family in the process of losing their generations-old farm, and the husband of a Wal-Mart employee whose premature death allowed the company to cash in an insurance policy they had surreptitiously taken out on her. (Adding to the outrage is the industry term for the subjects of such policies: “dead peasants.”) But the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful is hardly unique to capitalist societies, and Moore doesn’t delve far enough into the pathology he’s attempting to diagnose.
Too often, Moore falls back on his old tricks, although here he tries to pass it off as self-referentiality. He juxtaposes his quest to call CEOs to account for the financial crisis with clips from “Roger & Me,” casting himself as a tireless crusader whose cries have gone unheeded. “For 20 years, I tried to warn GM this day was coming, but they didn’t listen,” he says, as if the American auto industry’s downfall could have been avoided had they only hearkened to his call. Moore’s lone-wolf pose has hardened into shtick. When he tries to walk in the door of one corporate headquarters, the guards phone in his approach with an air that suggests that even they have grown weary of the charade.
Moore unearths a few bombshells, like a top-secret Citibank memo openly wooing members of the plutocracy (their word), effectively assuring their top customers that money rules the land. He points out that there was a time when we believed that fire departments, like the health care system, should be privately run, but after enough buildings burned down we saw the wisdom of removing the service from the realm of commerce, giving in to what he coyly refers to as “that other -ism.”
Were its subtitle not pure sarcasm, Moore’s movie might have explored the country’s fraught relationship with profit-making enterprise, the benefits of capitalism as well as its dangers. But Moore doesn’t do quandaries. He doesn’t want people to ask questions. He just wants them to swallow his answers.