Twenty years after his groundbreaking “Roger & Me,” documentarian-provocateur Michael Moore returns to some of the same themes with “Capitalism: A Love Story,” about the financial meltdown and what it shows about the failures of our financial and political systems. Before “Roger & Me,” about the shut-down of General Motors operations in Flint and other parts of Michigan, documentaries tended to be balanced, straight-forward, and dull, the kind of thing we’d snooze through in Social Studies class. But Moore’s movies are brash, confrontational, opinionated, and fearless. He has taken on guns, insurance companies, and the war in Iraq. Twenty years ago, he predicted General Motors would fail. He predicted that we would find no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that health care would become a central political and economic issue. And now he takes on the financial meltdown, and once again he is naming names and pointing fingers.
Like Balzac, Moore believes that behind every great fortune is a crime. And with one percent of the population having more money than the lower 95 percent put together, that feels like a crime, and a very foolish one, because there is not enough money even in that one percent to make up for the collapse of the entire society. Moore’s most telling argument is about the extinguishing of the middle class, and the consequences of losing the crucial foundation of not just our economy but our culture.
Once again, Moore gives us a collage of archival footage, stories of individual heartbreak, and more stories of institutional corruption and callousness. If it is not really a coherent, linear explanation of what went wrong. For that, see I.O.U.S.A. and “American Casino” and listen to the superb series of podcasts from Planet Money. Moore’s facts are about one small group of trees in a very large forest. But his film is a howl of protest, sturdily founded in a clearly authentic moral outrage. In a chilling parallel to “Roger & Me,” there are scenes of foreclosures and evictions that would make a pre-ghosts Scrooge burst into tears. Moore tells us that since that first film, the devastation of his home town of Flint has spread throughout the country. And then, in a goosebump-inducing revelation, we see that foreclosure letters are coming from nowhere else but Flint, in a pathetic and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to find some sustaining enterprise to keep its economy alive.
Moore also uncovers a shocking and apparently pervasive piece of financial engineering. Major companies took out millions of dollars of what they called “dead peasant” insurance policies on their employees without telling them. That means that if these employees died, the companies collected huge life insurance payments. It is one thing to have “key man” policies on the top executives. But companies like WalMart and Ameritech took out policies on the lowest-level employees, especially young, healthy ones, in the hopes that they would outsmart the actuarial tables and make a profit on the death of their employees. Moore even finds a memo apologizing that the death rate was only 72 percent, so the profits were less than anticipated. But, it goes on to say, let’s look on the bright side — there were three suicides and that kept our numbers from being even worse!
Moore devotes too much time on some tangential stories like the privatization of juvenile detention in Wilkes-Barre that led to a kickback scandal. As horrifying as the story is, he is unable to make a compelling case that this kind of corruption is the inevitable consequence of capitalism. Indeed, the same kind of kickbacks have been known to occur in government settings. His portrayal of the bailout as completely driven by unjustified fear is overstated and his recommendation that we all respond by breaking the law is silly and irresponsible.
But when he focuses on the stories of the people most affected by the economic meltdown, he knows how to make us feel their struggles without impinging their dignity. He shows us laid-off workers staging a sit-in to demand their back pay and a family living in a truck who, with a Capra-esque assist from their community, become squatters in what once was their home. Most wrenching is the story of a farm family from Peoria, Illinois, evicted from their home of four decades. When I spoke to Moore at the Washington, D.C. premiere this week, he said he had hired a lawyer at his own expense to get their home back. Moore is frank about grounding his positions in religious faith, taking on those who say that exploitative capitalism is consistent with God’s laws. He not only dubs an old movie to have Jesus endorsing bank deregulation, he consults with the priest who married him and other clergy to talk about whether our current system is immoral, even sinful.
Moore proves to be an able investigative reporter and an archivist, retrieving an old television commercial from Countrywide, the mortgage company at the heart of the subprime crisis, putting it in the context of the payoffs Countrywide gave to legislators and regulators through favorable VIP mortgages and fee waivers, even paperwork waivers, to keep them from paying too much attention to what was going on. And he uncovers some long-lost footage of Franklin Roosevelt, who was more successful in implementing the fundamental rights he fought for in the countries the US helped to rebuild after the war, including our former enemies, than he was at home.
The movie is rated R because of three bad words, or, rather, the same bad word three times. Trust me, teenagers already know this word. And this is a movie they should see, to begin their investigation of what has happened and to help them resolve to make sure it can never happen again. Moore’s film makes no pretense of being balanced, but with the Chamber of Commerce spending $100 million to defeat any effort at regulatory reform under the phony banner of “economic freedom,” in my mind a bigger abuse than the bailout (which was a loan and is already significantly repaid), it helps balance the debate by reminding us what that definition of freedom has brought us.