Movie Review: Ann Hornaday on Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story'

Michael Moore's latest documentary explores the roots of the current U.S. economic crisis. Video by Overture Films
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009

"Capitalism: A Love Story," Michael Moore's eighth movie, hews to his signature torches-and-pitchforks style that combines personal essay, damning clip-jobs, creative collage and satirical provocation, this time to examine last year's economic meltdown and subsequent government bailout.

Moore maintains a stalwart belief in the power of populist outrage to fix what is broken. But after a summer of unhinged town halls and birther-deather conspiracies, his faith may strike many viewers as wishful thinking verging on the hallucinatory.

In "Capitalism," Moore sets out to define and deconstruct just how America arrived at the brink of financial disaster, which he places firmly at the feet of Ronald Reagan and the free market fundamentalists who advised him. They had two cardinal goals, according to Moore: to increase short-term profits for Wall Street through deregulation and to break the country's unions. And they largely succeeded, even through the triangulating years of the Clinton administration, when the country seemed forever blowing bubbles of seemingly limitless prosperity.

We know how that story ends. But Moore repackages it with his familiar hyperkinetic approach, taking viewers on a wide-ranging journey through America's most appalling corporate excess (just wait until you hear about "dead peasants" insurance), enlightened exceptions (employee-owned companies) and his own personal landscape.

The recurrent leitmotif in all of Moore's films is his idyllic 1950s childhood growing up the son of an auto worker in Flint, Mich. Whether he's critiquing gun culture in "Bowling for Columbine" or health care in "Sicko," the plea is the same: He wants his country back.

Arriving precisely 20 years after "Roger and Me," Moore's 1989 film about GM chairman Roger Smith -- whom the filmmaker held responsible for the destruction of Flint -- "Capitalism" feels like an apt bookend. This time, GM is on the brink of bankruptcy when Moore again tries to storm the corporate barricades, again to no avail.

Twenty years ago such stunts were the stuff of daring agitprop. But in an age of Borat, the Yes Men and the ACORN sting operation, Moore showing up on Wall Street to make a citizen's arrest makes nary a ripple.

Several informative, sober-minded documentaries have already been made explaining the financial crisis, including the uncannily prescient "Maxed Out," which to this day offers the best film tutorial on subprime lending. Moore hasn't become this country's most successful documentary filmmaker because of his formal elegance or philosophical density. Instead, he's perfected a technique that puts heart before head every time, combining a scattershot, even sloppy narrative structure with riveting human stories and wry sarcasm.

"Capitalism" exhibits the weaknesses and the strengths of what has become a nearly foolproof formula for keeping viewers engaged: If Moore's sentimental appeals too often veer toward the maudlin (he's neck and neck with Oprah in making his interviewees cry), his zings to the funny bone are often hilariously spot-on. The two funniest scenes in "Capitalism" involve vintage films -- one about ancient Rome, the other a biopic about Jesus -- that Moore re-edits with a scathing satirical edge.

Its many rueful laughs notwithstanding, "Capitalism" will surely leave viewers with the distinct sense that something rotten is still afoot. As for what to do once we get off our tushies, Moore offers surprisingly little by way of rabble-rousing, instead making a plea for increased political participation. It's surprisingly cool-headed advice for filmgoers who by that time will likely be grabbing the nearest torch and looking for a light.

Capitalism: A Love Story (127 minutes, at area theaters ) is rated R for some profanity.

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