When Michael Moore gave Capitalism: A Love Story its U.S. premiere in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago, he had an idea. He'd come back for the G-20 summit, he told the Byham Theater crowd, "and project this film on the building the G-20 is being held in."
Moore has made a career from such gate-crashing, and the audience -- mostly AFL-CIO members in town for a convention -- cheered lustily. But Moore never came back.
Even if he had, the security measures Downtown would have prevented him from showing the film ... and stopped anyone from seeing it. But the episode is emblematic of the film itself: While it's sure to be enthusiastically received by Moore's comrades, it delivers something less than it promises.
To be fair, Capitalism promises a lot. In his groundbreaking 1989 Roger and Me, Moore focused on the business practices of one company: General Motors. In his most recent film, Sicko, he focused on the health-care industry. In this film, he sets his sights on the entire economic system, literally asking, "Is capitalism a sin?"
The answer to that question comes as no surprise. Neither do Moore's methods of addressing it. As he has in previous films, he makes plentiful use of 1950s footage, deploying it in a way that is simultaneously ironic and wistful. And once again, he engages in stunts like stringing up "crime scene" tape along Wall Street. Moore is by now such a brand name, in fact, that he can even spoof himself: Capitalism includes an amusing reprise of his Roger & Me visit to GM's headquarters.
Along the way, Moore indicts a swath of corporate villains, ranging from the predictable (banks, Wall Street) to the surprising. Particularly chilling is his look at the airline industry, whose employees -- and I'm talking about the pilots -- sometimes end up on food stamps. You'll also learn about companies that take out life-insurance policies on their own employees, literally profiting from their deaths. Among the firms who purchased these "dead peasant" (?!?) policies are Wal-Mart and Hershey's (again, ?!?).
Moore also spends lots of time on Goldman Sachs, and its pivotal role both in the Bush adminstration and in the Obama White House. And the film verges on conspiracy-theory territory when it comes to explaining the 2008 Congressional bailout of Wall Street.
It's worth noting that Moore's antics rub a lot of people the wrong way, and not just conservatives. For one thing, in Moore's films the person cast as the symbol of Unapologetic Corporate Greed is usually an $8-an-hour guard -- a guy whose only sin is to be working the day Moore barges in, demanding to see the CEO without an appointment. (Another irony: Earlier this year the guy who owns Moore's studio, Overture Films, paid $1.4 million in fines for improper stock transactions.)
In any case, the bad-boy-in-the-lobby shtick has worn thin. A segment where Moore drives an armored truck to various banks -- in an "effort" to recover taxpayer bailout money -- feels especially contrived. And because Capitalism is a much broader indictment than Moore's other films, it lacks a clear narrative and starts dragging by the last reel.
Still, Moore has always been able to dig up heartbreaking stories of people crushed by the free market's "invisible hand." Locals will recognize a cameo by the PA Child Care juvenile-detention scandal, for example. Moore uses the incident, in which Luzerne County judges gave kids long sentences in exchange for kickbacks, to prove that "time is money." And he watches a family get evicted from their foreclosed home ... even as the bank pays them to clean out their belongings.
Perhaps the most affecting footage is archival film of Franklin Roosevelt promising a "second Bill of Rights" to the American people. FDR's idea was that, once World War II was wrapped up, government would guarantee Americans health care, decent housing, a living wage and the other basics of life. Roosevelt died before any of that could happen, though, and the speech footage was lost for decades, until Moore's crew found it in a South Carolina basement.
Watching Roosevelt, though, I realized that Barack Obama could never give such a speech today. Hope was more audacious back then. And I found myself doubting the film's optimistic closing argument: that progressivism is making a comeback.
Moore draws a comparison between the famous Flint, Mich. "sit-down" strike of 1936-37, and a sit-in that took place in a Chicago window-manufacturing plant last winter. But while the Flint strike helped launch the modern labor movement, the employees in Chicago were merely seeking unemployment benefits they'd been promised. Our expectations are so diminished that workers no longer even ask for job security. A decent severance package is all we dare hope for. (In the end, the Chicago workers may get much more: New owners bought the plant this year, and its former owner is facing charges.)
Still, for all its shortcomings, Moore's film may help reverse those trends. The filmmaker told his Pittsburgh audience that it was "the first Americans to see" the Roosevelt footage. I'm glad they won't be the last.
Opens Fri., Oct. 2.