By Todd Gilchrist, reprinted from the Toronto International Film Festival 9/16/09
There is a mentality among some people that suggests our country was and is built upon the idea that if one works hard, is honest, and applies him or herself, he or she will be successful. My own opinion notwithstanding, the basic thread of Capitalism: A Love Story suggests otherwise: Michael Moore would have you believe that the bottom 95 percent of the economic spectrum has so thoroughly bought into the dream they could one day become part of that top five that they themselves essentially reinforce the impossibility of that ever happening. But its theories of institutional corruption and self-fulfilling propaganda notwithstanding, the film's only real leap of logic or falsehood is that audiences not predisposed to agree will want to see it. All of which is why Capitalism is essentially a one-sided love story, even if its message could be truly reciprocal if enough people opened their minds up enough to hear it.
Admittedly, Moore's net is cast wider with this film than in previous ones, and as a result his focus is a little softer. But Capitalism basically examines the ways in which excessive greed and self-interest has eclipsed the ideals of our democratic state, on both sociopolitical and deeply personal levels.
Moore starts by chronicling the experiences of a handful of families who were forcibly evicted from their homes, and then follows a loose trail of money and decision-making to the companies – and indeed, the philosophies – that led to the destruction of countless lives. Suffice it to say this makes it all seem terribly melodramatic, but Moore captures all of this with his typical flair for spectacle seeded with substance, and offers a fairly horrifying portrait of our economy and the system that cultivated its current state of terminal disease, in both abstract and incredibly concrete terms.
In the interest of full disclosure, my feeling is this about today's political climate: I think that it is the responsibility of any government and its people to provide for the well being of all people, and it sickens me that there are people who think that the accumulation of material wealth justifies a lack of empathy or supersedes compassion for others. In fact, what was most powerful in Capitalism to me was a display of generosity and support shown by total strangers to a group of factory workers who staged a sit-in at their former jobs until they were paid the wages they earned; it reassured me that there are people who believe that it's good to be good to other people, even when they don't know them, or have a personal (much less financial) investment in more than seeing them succeed.
Of course, in the film the bigger problem really is a bigger one – namely, corporations which seem to have no end of greed, and who have effectively gamed the system so that their pursuit and accumulation of wealth has become legitimized and protected by our government. I have no particular feelings about the idea of someone emerging from the private sector, much less a corporate board of directors, in order to take a prominent post in a presidential administration, at least not on principle; but watching executives-turned-cabinet members protect their former companies and even fortify their financial excesses is reprehensible on both a personal and cultural level, the latter of which because it reinforces and encourages the worst kind of creative thinking – namely, how to screw people over to make even more money next time.
What might have been more effective or even just interesting is if Moore had devoted a little bit of time trying to get inside the heads of these executives whose intelligence and scruples are inversely proportionate; for example, why do these people want or need so much money? And is it ever enough? And furthermore, is any thought ever given to the countless people whose lives they destroy in order to obtain that wealth? Conservatives might dismiss such thinking as bleeding-heart liberalism, but what we're talking about is not someone who simply wants to rid themselves of debt or buy a second car, but someone who facilitates a government bailout that earns failing banks hundreds of billions of dollars that can and will never be accounted for.
But then again, that's absolutely the problem that a lot of people, fans included, might have with the movie: it's preaching to the choir. Technically it really may not be, but the sad fact is that Moore is a poster boy for the left, and even if he weren't, politics has become a team sport where factual information and intelligent discourse has been replaced with spurious and unsubstantiated arguments that are championed louder than the opposition, simply to "win" at all costs. Sadly, I'm not sure that there's anything Moore could do to bolster his position, although engaging some of the opposing viewpoints on his theories would certainly help.
Ultimately, however, Capitalism: A Love Story redeems itself because it possesses the same quality that has inspired our country in the last year – hope. In his best moments, Moore is deeply passionate and relentlessly idealistic, but he's an advocate for positivity and redemption, if also for transparency and common decency. Right now there is no one on the left louder and therefore more important than him, even if he isn't always right; but whether or not you agree with his thoughts, theories, or even tricks, that sense of optimism is something that everyone should feel – so even if you can't find it by working hard, being honest and applying yourself, there's something to be said for a film that gives it to you anyway, if only for a couple of hours