Toronto Mini: 'Capitalism: A Love Story' a mild return to form for Moore
I've had my issues with the last handful of Michael Moore movies. For me, his best work was "TV Nation" and "The Awful Truth," advocacy and entertainment that worked perfectly as both. There are moments from those shows that I haven't seen since they first aired that I remember perfectly even now. Michael Moore unabashedly deals in agitprop, and at his best, he knows how to infuriate you for the right reasons.
Over his last few films, though, starting for me with "Bowling For Columbine," Michael Moore has become the focus of the films, and that's been a huge turn-off. I think it's also made him increasingly sloppy as a documentarian. Like M. Night Shyamalan, he started to think that we were going to the theaters to watch him, and not because of the work he was doing, and that's deadly to this kind of filmmaking.
With "Capitalism: A Love Story," which he's already announced as the end of his documentary period of a director, Moore has made a film that reminds me of the great work he did at the start of his career, even if it doesn't quite recapture it completely. What helps is that the subject matter made him furious, and he's set aside his own ego in favor of straight reportage for much of the film. I found chunks of the movie intentionally infuriating, but there are things about it that suggest to me that Moore is incapable of digging in and doing the work he used to do at this point.
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If there's one big problem with the film, it's that there is no central thesis, and it leaves Moore scattered in his approach here. There is plenty of material in the film about the way the American Dream lies tattered and scorched these days, but it's not pinned on one bigger idea, so what you end up with is a buffet of outrage. And some of it deserves the attention. For example, I'd never heard of "dead peasants" insurance policies, and I find the practice both morally and legally repulsive. It's material strong enough that it might have carried its own movie. I'm curious why it's allowed, why no one's been louder about their anger, and about how it can be stopped. I mean, that's a title, isn't it? "Dead Peasants"?
Still, instead of reviewing the movie that could have been, let's look at the movie that Moore made. It's strange that he managed to back off a bit on putting himself front and center in the film, because much of the movie contains the most personal material of his career since "Roger & Me." By starting with Flint again, Moore builds a portrait of a nation on the decline, an empire crumbling, and he tries to trace how America went from the prosperity of his childhood to the America we live in now. He doesn't quite earn the title of the film, because I don't think he ever makes the case that capitalism is the problem. He reaches for the grand statement, but he doesn't use enough specific examples to show that the system itself is rigged. By completely ignoring the idea of personal responsibility, Moore boils our culture down to villains and victims, and that's not the case. Yes, there are people who have been horribly mistreated by the financial institutions in our country. But as hard as it can be sometimes, living without credit card debt is possible in this country, and ultimately, we are responsible for the choices we make. No one ever took out a new Visa card at gunpoint, and as much as the salaries of airline pilots suck (the sequence on pilots in the film scares the shit out of me, frankly, as someone who flies constantly), no one has chained these people to the cockpit chair and forced them to perform that job. Things are tough all over, but if anything, that's reason for Moore to show as complete a picture as possible.
The film ends on one of those grand empty gestures that Moore is known for, as he wraps Wall Street in yellow crime scene tape, and while it drew major applause from the audience at the Elgin Theater at the gala premiere, I also think it's a fitting end to a movie that stirs up plenty of sorrow and anger without any answers built in. It's easy to get angry, but it's harder to offer solutions, and in the closing moments of this film, he talks about how if this film doesn't bring about change, he won't be making any more documentaries. When a film offers as few answers to the questions it raises as this one does, though, I don't see what sort of change Moore expects.
"Capitalism: A Love Story" is definitely worth seeing, but it's a collection of bits and pieces more than it's a coherent whole.
The film opens in NY and LA on September 23rd, and then platforms in the weeks that follow.
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