The opening credits to Michael Moore’s latest film appear against a backdrop of bank surveillance videos, shot during actual bank robberies. As I sat through this assortment of real life holdups – showing robbers sticking guns into tellers’ faces, jumping over counters, quickly grabbing the cash and stuffing it into bags – criminal human behavior that most of us have never experienced – it dawned on me that these bank videos depicted greed at its most intense and personal. This sets the tone for the rest of the film.
A 1960s Encyclopedia Britannica educational film, like the kind many of us saw in grade school, follows next, explaining the fall of the Roman Empire. The clip shows how Roman decadence, including a vast gulf between rich and poor, as well as bread and circuses for the poor, brought the empire down. This is brilliantly intercut with scenes from contemporary America, scenes that the original producers of the Britannica film could never have imagined. Itâ€™s as though the decades-old voiceover is describing our own time, instead of the Roman.
Moore then does a great job showing how the general prosperity of post World War 2 America gave way to Reaganism, from whence the looting of this country shifted into gear. Having grown up in a rust belt town in the 1960s â€“ not unlike Flint Michigan – what Moore showed from his youth paralleled my own experience of how good those times were; this must seem unbelievable to younger generations.
A central, if not explicitly stated theme of the movie is how unbridled capitalism is turning our country into a nation of serfs. Wall Street dictates to an impotent government, even to President Ronald Reagan. Destitute citizens are hired by companies to issue foreclosure notices to those who are still clinging onto their homes. Those being evicted from their homes are hired and paid by the bank to clean up their home, before the bank takes it over.
For most Michael Moore films, I have found â€“ because Iâ€™ve spent a lot of time on the internet â€“ that I pretty much already know the subject matter going into the theater, and am simply thrilled that someone else gets it, and has the guts and vision to put it into a film. This movie went beyond that for me. I learned about Dead Peasant insurance – life insurance policies taken out by major companies on their employees. When an employee dies, the benefit goes to the company. While this might make sense in the case of hard to replace, highly valuable individuals, Moore shows that this practice is widely used on thousands of ordinary employees simply to make a buck, to add to the bottom line.
There were two other segments that opened my eyes. One was a memo written by Citigroup to (I believe) its biggest investors. It spoke of how the USA has become a Plutonomy â€“ an economy run by and for the benefit of the wealthy. It openly talked about threats to this arrangement, notably the fact that everyone still has a vote. I have long realized that this was the state of affairs in the US, kind of a dirty secret that most people know to varying degrees; but to see this explicitly revealed, with all the implications, in black and white from a major player in the oligarchy was stunning.
The other segment is rare footage of FDR delivering a speech on a Second Bill of Rights, shortly before his death. None of these rights â€“ for example, the right to a job and a good education – essentially elements of economic security â€“ ever became part of the American way. Moore argues that they did become part of Germany and Japan, whose constitutions were rewritten after World War 2. He shows how the Japanese and German carmakers survived despite this, while American automakers have faltered and failed. Moore shows us a few worker owned companies in the US, and how their wages and conditions are much better than their top-down, capitalist competitors.
The villains in this movie are less the Republicans â€“ although George W. Bush makes quite a few appearances via his speeches â€“ and more the plutocrats who are behind both the Republicans and Democrats. The major heroes in this movie are: Marcy Kaptur (Rep-OH), Elizabeth Warren (chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, formerly known as the TARP program), and William Black, a senior regulator during the S+L crisis. The minor heroes are many: among them are the Republic Window and Door workers who staged a successful sitdown strike to force the companyâ€™s bankers to pay them withheld wages; a poor family in Miami who organized their neighborhood and successfully rebuffed the bankâ€™s (and the lawâ€™s) attempts to evict them.
Of course, there are the usual Michael Moore stunts of trying to speak to some corporate executive by storming the front gate â€“ these are annoying but probably a necessary comic relief given the density and impact of the surrounding material. I felt that this film is probably Mooreâ€™s finest, most polished work. Having a large budget with lots of assistants to find the best archival footage, the best subjects to interview, and great music really helps. There are brilliant gems and nuggets throughout. Itâ€™s not easy to fit a critique of a huge subject like capitalism â€“ something that all of us live and breathe in, to the point of being unaware of any other way of life, a sacred part of our national mythos, into a powerful 127 minute film.
Capitalism: A Love Story opened September 23 in NY and LA; it opens nationwide October 2.