“If there is not security at home, there can be no lasting peace abroad.”
At the conclusion of Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sobering words sail across six decades to the present day’s collective consciousness.
It feels like a footnoted conclusion to Moore’s decade-long agitprop thesis. His rage rose while political power was wholesaled for personal gain and American enthusiasm gasped for air while a boot of fear-mongering and financial collapse stood on its windpipe.
Party affiliation has no proper place in Roosevelt’s words, only national pride and human compassion. In Moore’s now-commonplace everyday evidence of average people suffering, Capitalism is both an affecting lament for America’s lost promise and an apogee of his arguments in Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko.
However, Capitalism is a case where the sum of four films exceeds this one’s part. When Moore overreaches thematically and underwhelms with cheap stunts, manipulated footage and boring animation that Capitalism loses some luster.
This time, Moore’s gadfly sights and ironic sing-song narration tackle the perversion of capitalism — gone are open exchanges of goods and services in favor of greedy gamesmanship among mega-banks, corporate fat cats and predatory housing lenders.
Comparisons to Roman overindulgence are among Moore’s archival-footage juxtapositions that come off as cheap smacks, not salient points. Cheap manipulation of Jesus-film footage seems like a sub-Saturday Night Live tactic, as do a Godfather motif for the sub-prime real-estate market and a low-rent Terry Gilliam-style animation behind a George W. Bush speech.
As for the man-on-the-street stunts — evocative of the common man’s desire to stage citizen revolts as they might be — it’s not compelling cinema when you know Moore will get only a hand in his face and a jab at his résumé. Plus, to quote a friend, it’s hard to believe GM has no 10-code for Michael Moore arriving to see the president.
It’s also a copout to say America is divided into only haves and have-nots in the first act, then use the vocal revolt of those clearly in the middle for the resolution. (Moore uses the Republic Windows & Doors sit-in strike in Chicago as this backdrop.)
A harder truth on which Moore touches is that capitalism and the military complex have been whorish bedfellows for years. Only when someone comes home with a disease is it frowned upon.
Also, statistical rises in antidepressant use, crime rates, bankruptcies and debt accumulation throughout the decade are hair-raising before any classical-music bursts from Carmina Burana and Beethoven blare in the background.
Moore goes on to uncover damning internal memos that gleefully refer to America’s new world order as a “plutocracy.” He relates a horrifying story about a for-profit juvenile detention facility funneling kids through for minor offenses. He shreds the myth that pilots are paid handsomely. He sheds light on a practice of companies taking out insurance policies on employees (known as “Dead Peasants insurance”).
Each slice is potent and affecting like vintage Michael Moore and speaks to the hardships that have become a daily struggle for so many middle-class Americans. And there’s a blast of buckshot across the bow when Moore asks of one source, “What the fuck happened?” regarding the massive bank failure.
But Capitalism — sharp as it is in these segments — ultimately tackles too much too soon. Finishing with the implications of Barack Obama’s presidential election feels like a different documentary. And it’s too soon to throw around legacy terms.
“In one instant, it was a farewell to the old America” seems like easy-lay narration in honor of someone only nine months into the job. It’s as if Moore’s rancor for Bush has blinded him to the idea change might be a long sit that’s worth the wait.
In these moments, Moore would be best served to temper the victorious strings and the idea that our nation is but a few degrees away from a full 180. After tagging Democrats as lesser fools for complacency in Fahrenheit 9/11, Capitalism bypasses healthily skeptical hope for a surprisingly early coronation.
Moore can’t be blamed for hoping he won’t need to be as resentful in the next 10 years as for the last 10. Indeed, the presidency has been refinanced. Here’s hoping he won’t look back in adjustable-rate anger upon a current fixed rate of satisfaction.