Capitalism: A Love Story Review

Playing as the ‘surprise film’ at the London Film Festival, Capitalism: A Love Story (henceforth referred to as CaLS) was a genuine surprise to me, as I had pretty much assumed that the ticket I was buying was for Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. It was therefore very surprising when the film began and scenes of bank robbers caught on CCTV filled the screen. It slowly dawned on me that the film we were watching was the latest documentary from Michael Moore.

If Roger and Me was Moore taking on General Motors, Bowling for Columbine gun control, Fahrenheit 9/11 George Bush and Sicko public healthcare then on the surface at least this film is Moore taking on the recent economic meltdown.

In the interests of full disclosure I will admit that I am not a fan of Michael Moore’s documentaries, first seeing and liking Roger and Me as a teenager I have disliked all his subsequent films and would probably feel the same about Roger and Me if re-watched with adult eyes. I should also point out that I consider my politics to be somewhat left wing and if there were simply binary sides in US politics, as the media would have you believe, despite my not liking his documentaries, I would be positioned on very much the same side as Michael Moore.

Following the CCTV bank robbery footage, the film continues with more found footage, this time from a historical documentary which details the decline of the Roman Empire and the reasons for its demise. These reasons are inter-cut with footage of modern American life in an obvious and slightly laboured comparison but one that does at least hold some truth. The film then falls into the usual pattern of all of Michael Moore’s documentaries; there is footage of ‘average’ Americans who have been unfairly treated, cynically used to provoke an emotional response from the audience, found footage cut to fit Moore’s message, short interviews with ‘experts’ and also a selection of the kind of stunts which have become one of Moore’s most famous trademarks.

The interviews with ‘average’ Americans hit by the economic downturn are incredibly sad and you have to be made of stone not to be affected by a child crying on camera at the loss of his mother, but it is also deeply unsettling to watch as his grief is highlighted by Moore to help make his point in a clumsy and somewhat exploitative manner. The grief is not underpinned by an interesting and thought-provoking investigation into the pathology of Capitalism but simply an argument that says Capitalism is evil and Democracy is good. The stories told through these interviews and Moore’s voiceovers are incredibly anecdotal with little real detail or contextualisation. Although sometimes interesting they do little to add to any understanding of US or global economics or to highlight the plight of any group in particular.

The central argument that underlies the whole film is a false dichotomy between Capitalism and Democracy and the belief by Moore that the two are mutually exclusive. This argument seems a somewhat reductive one and one that in this case actually offers no alternative. The solution to the world’s economic issues proffered by Moore is that we should all rise up against Capitalism and replace it with Democracy. The fact that in a very real sense, Democracy is a political system and Capitalism an economic system does not seem to trouble Moore.

I would argue that we (and admittedly in saying we I am speaking of the country I live in, Britain not the USA) live in both a Democratic and Capitalist society. It is true that these can compete against each other but when one looks at a system such as the NHS it is clear that Democracy and Capitalism are not mutually exclusive. The NHS was also something that Moore championed in his last documentary Sicko, in which he travelled to Cuba, a ‘Socialist’ country that uses a Capitalist system, albeit a very different one to the USA.

Indeed, in CaLS he does look to examples of countries that he admires, mostly Europe and Japan but fails to make it clear that these countries are also Democratic/Capitalist countries. He also highlights a factory that runs more like a co-op, where every worker has a say in how the company is run. He points out that this means that the factory workers earn far more than in other companies, something he clearly approves of. This offers a very confusing message; how can Moore be pleased that the workers earn more as even more evenly distributed wealth throughout society would still be a capitalist society. What I actually think Moore is actually attempting to rally against is the concept of a free-market economy that is given too much freedom to act un-constitutionally and un-Democratically and he is also striving to understand what makes people behave in such morally reprehensible ways.

The problem that constantly arises is that the criticisms that Moore is making are based around this behavioural model that he, rightly so, finds detestable. The behaviour of people who often act selfishly and greedily to the point where they damage the lives of others. For this behaviour Moore blames Capitalism. The reality is that people will act selfishly and greedily at the expense of others without Capitalism. Perhaps Capitalism makes it slightly easier but only if left unchecked and only within a society that condones and even encourages this behaviour.

In Bowling for Columbine Moore looked at other countries that allowed the private ownership of guns, countries that didn’t so often feel the need to shoot each other, and posed the question as to what makes America so unique. CaLS would have been a much more interesting and arresting documentary if it focused more clearly on this approach to the attitudes towards greed in America. Moore touches on it when discussing the fact that 1% of the country control 95% of the wealth and the reason that the 99% don’t complain is that they have been sold the dream that they can one day be in the 1%. There is, I believe, some truth to this but like much the film it is a huge oversimplification and treats the American public as one homogenous single-minded group who are unable to break free from this way of thinking. Moore, of course, is here to free them from the shackles of this lie. Moore is very careful not to blame the American public for this apathy towards upsetting the status quo but does essentially imply that if given the opportunity to succeed at the expense of someone else they would reply (to use John Forbes Nash’s name for the game So Long Sucker) “Fuck you buddy”.

In investigating the reason for this behaviour and this version of the ‘American Dream’ Moore looks towards the Catholic church for guidance and interviews a selection of priests for their take on this behaviour and Capitalism in general. They overwhelming conclude that Capitalism is evil and therefore Capitalism needs to expunged. Is this the same Catholic church that builds expensive monuments and uses money collected from many Americans to spread dangerous ideas throughout the third world. The same Catholic church that owns and controls Vatican city, a wealthy country with vaults of treasures and a undemocratically appointed leader draped in finery. The same Catholic church that uses the most expensive lawyers available to cover up and defend those within its organisation that commit appalling acts of abuse against children placed in their care.

This unfair weighting is not unique to Moore as it often seen in news programmes, but it is nevertheless baffling to see a documentary on the economy in which more of the interviews are with religious leaders than with economists. If one is investigating any given topic the logical approach is to find and interview the best possible experts to give a valid and useful insight into the issues involved. Instead of approaching economic, political, sociological, anthropological and behavioural experts and giving them the appropriate time to discuss the relevant details, Moore touches on a spectrum of experts but the majority of screen time is given to anecdotal stories from members of the public and the opinions of priests. This is obviously a calculated choice as this the approach Moore often takes in an effort to reach a wide audience with the message he wants to focus on. The sad reality though is that it is this kind of dumbing down in the media (something Moore even criticises in one montage that includes shots from American Idol) that helps keep the proletariat uninformed and ‘in their place’. Constantly talking to people as if they are idiots and treating them as idiots will often lead to them behaving like idiots.

I never thought I’d agree so strongly with someone from Wall Street but when Moore asks one of them if they have any suggestions for him and one quips “Don’t make any more movies” I did feel a bit like applauding. Moore’s techniques are incredibly tired now, CaLS has no substance, ideas are half-finished, the film bounces from one poorly explained concept to another and the stunts that helped make a star of Moore are just not funny any more.