Michael Moore Takes on Reaganomics and Congressional Democrats in 'Capitalism'

Michael Moore's latest documentary explores the roots of the current U.S. economic crisis. Video by Overture Films
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

PITTSBURGH -- Just when it looked as if conservatives might be cornering the market on angry populism, along comes Michael Moore. But that doesn't mean Democrats in Washington should rest easy. "Capitalism: A Love Story," the filmmaker provocateur's latest documentary, which he screened at the AFL-CIO convention here for the film's American premiere Monday night, piles some blame on prominent Dems, too.

"Capitalism," opening nationwide Oct. 2, manages to use just about everything lousy that's happened in the past year to build Moore's manifesto against ruthless free-market Reaganomics -- from foreclosures on prairie farmhouses to kids unjustly jailed in Pennsylvania to the plane crash in Buffalo. It's all wrapped up, literally, by the spectacle of Moore stretching police tape around the hallowed institutions of Wall Street.

The film is vintage Moore, and perhaps more: The hefty Michigander declared from the stage of a classic downtown theater here that it was a "culmination of all the films I've made." It is being released on the 20th anniversary of "Roger and Me," the takedown of General Motors that made Moore famous. The union audience in Pittsburgh was primed for the wide-ranging assault on Wall Street and all its emanations.

For history buffs, there's also a fascinating clip of President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivering the highly egalitarian conclusion to his final State of the Union address, when he lists the "second bill of rights" that every American deserves, including health care. The speech was thought to exist only in audio, until Moore's researchers dug up the film footage in a forgotten box in South Carolina.

So far, so anti-Republican.

But then things get interesting: In building his indictment against the ill-fated marriage of Wall Street and Washington, Moore zeroes in less on GOP string-pullers than he does on White House economic adviser Larry Summers, Clinton-era Treasury secretary Robert Rubin and Sen. Chris Dodd. Especially Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat and chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. Moore gets an on-camera interview with the mortgage officer who handled the special VIP loans provided to Dodd and other big names, an issue that has dogged Dodd's reelection bid.

The film also maintains a delicate ambivalence about President Obama, casting him as a change agent and depicting joyous images of his victory last November, but also implying that Wall Street had showered money on Obama's campaign in an effort to buy him. The question of whether Wall Street succeeded in doing so is left more or less unanswered.

If Moore's scattershot artillery landed more squarely on the Democratic side than usual, the movie-house crowd -- a mix of union officials and local lefties -- did not seem to mind. The standing ovation for Moore at the film's end was nearly as long as the one given Obama on Tuesday at the convention itself. In fact, mixed in with effusive praise and thanks for the filmmaker in the fire-engine-red T-shirt and cap, the audience's questions for Moore betrayed a general frustration with the administration and congressional Democrats.

Several audience members asked what action they could take to push Democrats in power further left. Moore half-jokingly suggested the AFL-CIO declare a march on Washington to dwarf last weekend's conservative protest and said he'd take part.

In a telephone interview as he headed to the airport to fly west for his scheduled "Jay Leno Show" appearance Tuesday night, Moore declared himself untroubled by any anti-Democratic fallout.

"One of the important things to recognize in my films is that I always went after whoever needed to be gone after," he said. "But people will be surprised by how many Democrats I went after for being too close to big money."

As for Dodd, he said, "Let the chips fall where they may."

And as for Summers and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (also not kindly treated), Moore told his audience that he hoped Obama had brought them on in the same way that some banks hire robbers to help them guard against future theft: "Maybe that's what Obama's doing -- he hired the people who robbed all the money to help him get it back. That's the optimistic version."

Picking up on the screening crowd's lack of full enthusiasm about the president, Moore rushed to add that Obama's election was the best day of the past decade of his life and said, "Instead of us piling on him, he needs our support."

Speaking in a convention hall earlier, Moore said: "I have the feeling [Obama's] faking right to go left. Let's hope I'm right." And he chided his audience for not doing more to visibly support Obama in the trials of town-hall season.

"I see him out there on his own," he said. "Who's got his back?"

Asked by a theater audience member whether he was going to offer the president a private screening, Moore noted with a grin that his agent is Ari Emanuel, brother of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. But, he said, "I have not been invited to the White House yet."

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