Capitalism: A Love Story (documentary)

When you make your living as a polemicist, it can’t be a good sign when even people who agree with you don’t like you anymore. That’s what has happened with Michael Moore. As his work has gotten sloppier, more exasperating, and less focused in recent years, even us moderate lefties have come to be embarrassed by him, the same way moderate conservatives are (well, should be) embarrassed by Glenn Beck.

Moore’s latest screed, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” is his least useful yet, mixing dry information on the current economic crisis with under-examined hard-luck stories and the usual Moore grandstanding. His thesis is simple: “Capitalism is an evil, and you can’t regulate evil.” (That’s a direct quote.) To support this, he parades a series of victims in front of us, as if a large pile of anecdotes will compensate for the lack of critical examination of the underlying economic theories.

People are evicted from foreclosed-on houses as the cameras roll. One somber vignette shows a family being paid $1,000 by the bank to clean up their own house and clear away the junk before being forced out, saving the bank the trouble of doing it. These things are sad, but they are not entirely one-sided, Moore’s insistent harping on the greedy corporations notwithstanding. While plenty of people were suckered by smooth-talking banks and indecipherable fine print and really are victims of the sub-prime mortgage epidemic, there’s no indication that THESE people, the ones Moore shows us, are in that category. For all we know, they could be regular ol’ deadbeats. I suspect they aren’t — but Moore needs to SHOW us that. He gives us no context, and thus disingenuously implies that all evictees are equal victims of the evil banks.

In other segments, widows grieve to learn that their spouses’ employers had bought life insurance policies and now profit from the workers’ deaths while the bereaved get nothing. But why didn’t the families have life insurance policies of their own? Did they ever try to buy them? Did the thought even occur to them? Maybe they wanted to but couldn’t afford it … which would be a terrific thing for Moore to share with us. Again, with no context, all we know is that people are sad and poor. By itself, that’s not enough to make an economic argument.

Other tales of under-regulated capitalism run amok are incendiary and even true, but they shed no light on whether capitalism is flawed inherently. After all, the other economic systems are subject to abuse, too. Moore’s one really interesting point is that while Americans love democracy, nearly all for-profit businesses are run more like dictatorships and fiefdoms. Why do we love freedom in government but not in economics? That’s worth discussing. Unfortunately, Moore only spends a couple minutes on it before returning to his smug sarcasm and public jackassery.

He arrives at the headquarters of bailed-out financial institutions to make a “citizen’s arrest” of the CEOs who squandered taxpayer money, then pretends to be surprised when the security guards won’t let him in. He “tries” to see the chairman of General Motors by simply showing up at the office, again feigning shock when somehow this fails. Of course, if Moore actually wanted to get a comment from GM — or at least a comment saying “no comment” — he could have done so by, you know, calling ahead and making an appointment. But where’s the fun in that?

He shuffles around Wall Street ostensibly to find out what “derivatives” and “credit default swaps” are, but all he really does is collar stock brokers on the sidewalk and act smug when they can’t explain the practices on the spot. So rather than actually educate us on what “derivatives” and “credit default swaps” are, Moore just establishes that they’re super complicated and leaves it at that. If it’s too complex to be explained in a documentary, it must be really shady, right? (By the way, the Wikipedia entries on both topics are perfectly suitable for an overview of what’s involved.)

No one expects economics to be a thrilling subject. But in the past Moore has usually managed to at least be entertaining. “Capitalism: A Love Story” has only a few traces of his wit and humor, and they’re nearly lost in the fog of his indignation. More than ever, Moore assumes we already agree with him and makes no effort to convince us. His final statement is that capitalism (an economic system) should be replaced with — wait for it — “democracy” (a political system). One assumes he intended for that declaration to make sense in light of the film he’s just shown us. It doesn’t.

C- (2 hrs., 6 min.; R, three uses of the F-word; should have been PG-13.)