Movie review: 'Capitalism: A Love Story'

Michael Moore's amorphous, told-you-so attack is short on remedies.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Filmmaker Michael Moore talks to a police officer outside of Goldman Sachs headquarters in Manhattan in a scene from his documentary, "Capitalism: A Love Story."
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Michael Moore's new documentary, "Capitalism: A Love Story," is a sob story laced with acid tears. Early on in the film Moore offers up home movies of himself as a happy tyke in Flint, Mich. His auto worker father is comfortable in his employment; his pension is guaranteed. All is right with the world. Clips from 1950s educational films, featuring crew-cut, stentorian narrators, proudly tout the capitalist way of life. "If this was capitalism, I loved it," says Moore in voice-over, in his most mock-satiric tone.

According to Moore, the advent of Reagan­om­ics blighted this paradise and led directly to today's economic meltdown. There's a hefty I-told-you-so factor at work here, as Moore not so humbly inserts footage from his 1989 "Roger & Me" documentary about the closing by General Motors of Flint's auto factory. The subtext to "Capitalism: A Love Story" is: "If you'd only listened to me back then."

Moore savages the people and institutions he feels are responsible for the depredations of the market system – including the usual suspects – Wall Street, the banks, Hank Paulson, Countrywide Financial, etc. – but also, among others, former Goldman Sachs head and Clinton Treasury Secretary and Obama adviser Robert Rubin, and Obama Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

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But Moore isn't just railing against the malefactors. The capitalist system itself has got his goat. And this is where the movie collapses into an ideological mass of contradictions and inconsistencies. For starters, if pre-Reagan capitalism was so rosy, then how can he justifiably attack capitalism as a system? Moore is doing the same thing here that he did in "Fahrenheit 9/11," where, in order to bolster the follies of the Bush war in Iraq, he first shows us children gamboling happily in the pre-invasion streets of Baghdad. Moore could easily have pointed out that pre-Reagan capitalism also had its share of potholes on the superhighway to wealth – like, for starters, the Great Depression. But doing so would spoil his game plan – his love story.

And what does Moore, wealthy from his movies and books, propose as an alternative to capitalism? Something called a "democratically run economy." This is about as amorphous as Moore's attack on capitalism itself. He's on solid ground when he lances Wall Street, the banks, the pols. But when he hauls in anti-capitalism examples, like a for-profit juvenile detention center in Wilkes Barre, Pa., where school kids are incarcerated for snarking an assistant principal on MySpace, he's simply being Michael Moore.

Probably because he's already gone after Bush (in "Fahrenheit 9/11") and the healthcare system (in "Sicko"), Moore skimps on the dramatic effect of the costs of the Iraq war and the for-profit health industry on the US economy. But this downplaying distorts his overall indictment and gives undue weight to his contention that the system itself is the root of all evil. He sentimentalizes FDR, who, in a fascinating, previously unseen clip, is shown near the end of life calling for a "second Bill of Rights" guaranteeing affordable homes, healthcare, and "useful" work for all as if no president since has issued the same call.

Moore is much better at indicting culprits than providing solutions. He might argue that coming up with answers is not his job, that he's a grass-roots agitator. But the disconnect in "Capitalism" between his righteous agitations and his piddling remedies is vast. The real love story here is between Moore and his bullhorn. Grade: B (Rated R for some language.)

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