Upton Sinclair explained the success of The Jungle, his expose of the Chicago meatworks, by quipping that he aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident hit it in the stomach. By contrast, Michael Moore (who is in some respects a very Sinclairish figure) aims his new movie Capitalism: A Love Story simultaneously at the head and the heart. Therein lies its biggest problem.

Capitalism opens with a cheesy documentary about the fall of Rome. As the stentorian narrator lists symptoms foretelling the empire’s decline, Moore cuts to a montage about contemporary America. A democratic system undermined by vast disparities in wealth? Here’s Rome; here’s Washington! An addiction to imperial wars? Cue footage from Iraq. A political class indifferent to ordinary citizen? Why, it’s Bush and Cheney!

Moore then turns to the America of his youth. In the immediate postwar years, his father had stable, secure work, in decent conditions. The Moore family could afford new cars, regular holidays and decent healthcare — all on a factory worker’s wage.

Today, all that is gone, stripped away by Ronald Reagan and those who followed him. The trillion dollar bank bailout of George W. Bush’s final months (Moore dubs it a “financial coup d’etat”) represented, in Moore’s terms, the final triumph of capitalism over America.

Despite the title, the intellectual core of the film is thus less hardcore anti-capitalism and more New Deal liberalism.

Now, there’s all manner of things that could be said about Moore’s version of history. Did, for instance, the death of FDR really derail the imminent instalment of a European-style welfare state? Was there really a conscious conspiracy behind the Bush administration’s financial shenanigans? And where does Obama fit in? The new president pops up repeatedly in Capitalism most often as a representative of the insurgent masses but also, occasionally, and rather contradictorarily, as a case study of how corporate America can co-opt just about anyone.

In some ways, though, focusing on Moore’s actual argument misses the point. For, conscious of the limited filmic potential provided by discussions of financial deregulation, Moore supplements his argument by throwing just about everything but the kitchen sink at his camera, and it’s the rather disjointed vignettes of capitalist bastardry that provide the best moments in the movie.

We all know about the real estate crisis in the US. But there’s something genuinely moving in Moore’s footage of a farming family, their big soft American faces creased in an almost bovine misery, systematically burning their possessions so they can hand their property over to a banker. Moore interviews airline pilots who, in an industry that’s been systematically de-unionised, now work as waitresses or receive food stamps, even as they fly full-time for major airlines. He exposes the obscene arrangement by which major corporations take out insurance on the deaths of their workers, so that the company receives huge payouts each time an employee dies young. In the industry, the practice is rather charmingly dubbed “dead peasants insurance”.

Most of all, Moore focuses on Flint, the motor city where he grew up and that provided the setting for his first film, Roger and Me. With the decline of General Motors, Flint’s become a ghost town, a vista of vacant lots, cracked footpaths, and leaning, windowless buildings. Moore takes his father back to the industrial plant where the old man had worked for decades. It’s now nothing but rubble, and Moore senior stumblingly, and heartbreakingly, tries to identify, among the debris, the landscape of an entire career.

What does this add up to? It’s not always clear. The movie’s way too long, and utterly disjointed, almost stream of consciousness at times. Interestingly, the emotional power of the individual stories often pushes Moore to positions more radical than the old-school liberalism his voiceovers endorse. After hearing a greasy real estate entrepreneur gloat over the money to be made from foreclosures, the community anti-eviction protests he documents seem eminently sensible. With a confidential Citigroup document gloating about how America has become a “plutonomy” (that is, an economy controlled by a small number of ultra rich), the worker occupation at the Republic Windows and Doors factory feels deeply satisfying and entirely reasonable.

In these and other cases, Moore’s clearly on the side of the downtrodden but what that means in terms of a political program remains something of a mystery. Thus, on the one hand, he’s overtly nostalgic for the ’50s of his childhood; on the other, throughout the movie, he employs clips from ’50s documentaries (square-jawed men in suits; bouffant-haired housewives, etc) for a comic effect that implicitly rests on the awfulness of the decade. It’s a contradiction that continues to the closing credits, played out with a schmaltzy lounge version of the Internationale. “Arise ye workers from your slumbers”: Moore simultaneously uses the track for a gag even as, in some fashion, he wants us to take the sentiment seriously.

Moore always features in his own movies and in many respects his films resemble their narrator: bloated and sprawling, self-indulgent and infuriating, but, ultimately, on the right side. There’s plenty of things not to like about Capitalism: A Love Story. But it’s hard to think of another filmmaker who would even attempt a popular documentary about the financial crisis, and if he only succeeds half-way, well, that’s half way better than any of his contemporaries.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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