A few years ago, the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles suggested that you had to suspend normal judgements when appraising Michael Moore's documentaries.
Moore didn't really make films in the normal sense, the argument went, but a special category: "film pamphlets". When you watch a Moore film, it's as if a large man has stepped in front of you, blocking the pavement and barking info through a megaphone while thrusting a leaflet into your hand. Moore isn't even a film director by normal standards: he's a provocateur/showman/journalist, for whom directing is just part of a wide job description, and for whom cinema is as good a soapbox as any.
No one could deny that Moore and his films are a good thing – no one except the American Right, together with factions of the Left and of the cinephile intelligentsia. The latter two camps tend to feel that Moore is an oversimplifying, essentially conservative rhetorician, nowhere near radical enough either in politics or his aesthetics. Either that, or they think he's a big, self-aggrandising buffoon.
Moore's opponents will again find ample ammunition in Capitalism: A Love Story. It's open to accusations of clumsiness, sentimentalism and of creating the misleading impression of information when what it really offers is impassioned rhetoric. It also feels like too little, too late: a missed opportunity to argue that the US system needs to be radically rethought, and not only in ways that the Barack Obama administration might (conceivably but, one fears, not decisively enough) make possible.
The film, as the title suggests, is about the United States's soured affair with capitalism. Some of its most effective moments show Moore returning to his home town of Flint, Michigan, which he portrayed in Roger & Me, the 1989 film that made his name. Flint was a proud motor-industry capital where Moore's father was a worker; the city was left to run fallow when General Motors pulled out. In Capitalism, Moore shows – with a rueful touch of "told you so" – that Flint is now even more desolate than in the 1980s. He even shares with us his family home movies from the charmed Eisenhower years, when production workers like Moore Snr could enjoy a moderately affluent existence and chubby little Michael could romp happily on the family lawn.
But United States capitalism changed – most radically, Moore tells us – when Ronald Reagan dismantled the US industrial infrastructure. But the film is pitched in such a way as to suggest that its beef is less with capitalism per se than with capitalism after it all went wrong. Certainly, the contemporary system that Moore depicts is rotten to the core. If Capitalism doesn't quite equal the troubling insights of Fahrenheit 9/11 or Moore's healthcare plea Sicko, it certainly offers some hair-raising revelations. A Florida estate agent specialises in snapping up foreclosed properties; his company is called Condo Vultures and his clientele, he happily admits, are "bottom feeders".
Then there's the privately owned centre for young delinquents, which has reaped handsome profits from interning teenagers, many of whom have done nothing worse than cheek their teachers. Most chilling of all is the system whereby major companies benefit by insuring their employees: one woman's death earned supermarket chain Walmart $81,000, while her husband got not a red cent. The technical title of this system – shades of Dickens or Gogol – is "Dead Peasant Insurance". As they say (and why should the right-wing media have all the best slogans?), you couldn't make it up.
All this is horrifying, but anecdotal, and it doesn't explain the failings of the system. Moore had the chance to analyse the world economic meltdown in terms everyone can understand. He doesn't, perhaps fearing that a lengthy analysis of the sub-prime mortgage crisis wouldn't hold our attention. He does talk at some length about the suspicious circumstances of banks' bailout packages, and in particular about the US government's rescue of Goldman Sachs, suggesting the bank pulled off a "financial coup d'état".
Moore also pulls off his signature stunts: cordoning off an area of Wall Street with crime-scene ribbons, and pulling up outside Goldman Sachs with an armoured car: "I've come to get the money back for the American people." But there's less than usual of Moore himself, more of the Plain Folks. He gives us evicted mortgage victims and, more cheeringly, shows how the People – not arty Brooklyn radicals, but regular baseball-capped Americans, his people – can change the times. He follows a successful sit-in by factory workers whose jobs are threatened, and you can't help cheering – although Moore's wistful invocation of the "beginnings of a workers' revolt against Wall Street" seems a bit dreamy.
Much of the film is clumsy: using corny old footage evoking Ancient Rome to suggest that the US is a doomed bread-and-circuses culture. Moore's most revealing move is to suggest how the United States might have gone another way: he unearths rare footage showing that Franklin D Roosevelt in 1944 proposed a Second Bill of Rights vindicating the economic rights of the people (never passed).
Even Moore's followers might despair when he jokily concludes that he's been fighting the good fight, but is tired of doing it alone: "Hurry up, will ya?" The idea that Moore is a lone voice doesn't hold the same water since last year, and the film's urgency is somewhat undermined by the relieved implication that, with Obama in power, perhaps things will pan out nicely after all. Perhaps they will, but it takes the edge of Moore's polemic. Moore's Capitalism isn't bad, but for real provocation, maybe we should hold out for Jean-Luc Godard's Socialism, due later this year – and what a double bill that would make.
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