The aspects of Michael Moore's filmmaking that we have come to embrace over the years - his prominent roles as sloppy court jester and self-appointed spokesman for the American people - are the very things that get him into trouble in his new documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story. This time the acclaimed filmmaker tackles an entire "ism," and the film is an unmethodical survey of a gargantuan topic that has only grown more gargantuan in the year since Moore began work on the project.
Twenty years after his first film, Roger & Me, it's as though he's back on the same stump, even relying here on the same stunt that propelled Roger & Me: grandstanding attempts to gain access to corporate leaders in Detroit and on Wall Street. The ploy has become as tired as the voices of the security officers who now shoo the gadfly from their entryways with routine aplomb.
Capitalism forges ahead using a loosey-goosey structure that jumps all over the place to show examples of economic fallout in the United States. We visit ordinary citizens whose homes are about to be foreclosed on (these stories would be stronger if Moore provided some background on what caused these defaults to occur) and a for-profit penal institution in Pennsylvania that turns locking up teenagers into a moneymaking venture. The film looks at a particularly odious insurance policy called "dead peasants insurance," by which some corporations profit from the death of their workers, and buttonholes Wall Street executives who are unwilling or unable to explain financial derivatives to Moore.
Moore goes far afield by discussing capitalism with no less an expert than the actor Wallace Shawn. And he returns to his roots in Michigan with lots of home footage of himself as a child of the '50s, capitalism's glory days, when a greater percentage of Americans were able to reap the system's benefits. There's also a doleful visit with his aged father to the now-gone factory where the man spent a career making sparkplugs and supporting a family on a comfortable middle-class income.
All these episodes are accompanied by Moore's typically dramatic background music choices and less-than-rigorous analysis. Capitalism, for Moore, is a national sin. But he stops short of investigating the international interrelatedness of the capitalist system. In this decade, the ills at General Motors are not simply American in scope.
Toward the end of the film, Moore declares: "Capitalism is an evil, and you can't regulate evil. You have to eliminate it." With this, he makes it clear that there is no amount of regulation or amelioration that will make the capitalist system acceptable to him, yet he recoils from using the "s" word: socialism. Instead, he substitutes the word "democracy" as his political solution to the human impulse toward greed. As if.