If you already dislike Michael Moore, Capitalism: A Love Story (Overture Films), his latest documentary/provocation/performance-piece/decoupage project isn't likely to win you over. And if you love him without reservations, this movie has nothing to tell you that you haven't already shouted through a bullhorn at a "Free Mumia" rally. But is there anyone who falls cleanly into that latter category of unabashed Moore love? The hulking Michigander's 20-year career as an agitprop prankster, his stalwart refusal either to go away or to hone the blunt instrument of his demagogic style, has made Moore a problem for the left and the right. Even those who largely agree with Moore's politics are often mortified by the delivery system: the juvenile stunts, the easy demonization of his opponents, the deliberate donning of blinders when a cogent counterargument comes along.
And yet, and yet: There's something touching, even a little bit noble, about Moore's eternal willingness to serve as our nation's shame-free populist gadfly. Woven into the two hours of loosely—very loosely—connected anecdotes that make up Capitalism is some information about Moore that, if I knew it already, hadn't registered before: He's a lifelong Catholic, educated at parochial schools in Flint, Mich., whose childhood dream was to enter the priesthood. He interviews several priests in this movie, including the one who officiated at his own wedding. Seeing Moore as a working-class altar boy somehow put his strident buffoonery in a different light: Perhaps all the goofy posturing and put-on naiveté is Moore's way of playing the holy fool.
That rhetorical deployment of innocence works well for Moore when he's telling his own story or those of people close to him. When he and his aged father visit a ravaged former GM plant and talk about the 30-plus years his father worked there making spark plugs, the film has a rare moment of elegiac quiet. When Moore's cameras chronicle a successful sit-in at a Chicago factory, the unimpeachable justness of the workers' cause—they were abruptly terminated without severance pay, benefits, or even the remaining salary owed to them—leaves the viewer with a satisfyingly righteous glow. And a section on the steadily decreasing salaries of airline pilots is both depressing and informative, as we see Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the pilot hero who made that emergency landing in the Hudson River in January, testifying before a near-empty Congress about the need to guarantee pilots a living wage.
But as soon as Moore takes on larger and slipperier issues, his gray-area-free moral clarity starts to feel like a dodge. The opening titles take place over security-camera footage of bank robberies, making clear Moore's opinion of the financial bailout: In his eyes, Henry Paulson and his former Wall Street cronies are stickup artists, pure and simple. However outraged one may be about the corporate greed that led the banking system to the verge of collapse, it seems disingenuous to imply that the collapse would not have happened had nothing been done. Even left-leaning economists argued for the necessity of some kind of rescue package, a reality that Moore ignores entirely. (By chopping up her interview into unfairly small sound bites, he even makes Elizabeth Warren, the tireless watchdog who heads the Congressional Oversight Panel, look like a do-nothing bureaucrat.)
In the movie's most painfully redundant scenes, Moore approaches the Manhattan headquarters of Goldman Sachs and other investment banks and stands outside with a bag, asking the doorman to let him in to reclaim America's money. Now that 20 years have passed since his first film, Roger and Me, can we all just agree to tap into our collective memory of these moments when Moore is refused entry into corporate high-rises by polite and embarrassed doormen (all of whom belong to the working class he so loves to champion)? We get it, Mike: The head of GM will not see you. The chairman of Goldman Sachs will not see you. The secretary of the U.S. Treasury will not see you. Waste any more footage on this tired gag, and your loyal fan base may start to feel the same way.
One section of the film deals with so-called "dead peasant" insurance policies, a malevolent practice in which large companies (including, for a period in the '90s, Wal-Mart) take out hefty policies on employees who seem unlikely to die, essentially betting on the odds of their survival. Moore interviews the families of two Wal-Mart employees who were horrified to learn, after their beloveds' deaths, that the company stood to profit by them (in one case, to the tune of $1.5 million). The way Moore gathers one such family around the kitchen table, then leaves the camera on the children's faces while their father remembers their mother's final days, feels exploitive and crass. The scene makes you cry, yes—who wouldn't when hearing how a little girl asked whether she could cut a hole in the hospital wall to see her mother one last time?—but it seems like something you shouldn't be allowed to see. Once again, Moore's goodhearted aims come into direct conflict with his bludgeoning tactics.
Despite his semi-ironic deployment of Communist signifiers (Stalin appears in one of his montages of Cold War footage, and the closing credits are accompanied by a big-band version of "The Internationale"), I doubt that the hammer Moore uses to drive home his ideological points is really accompanied by a Marxist sickle. The change Moore is advocating for is really increased regulation of capitalist excesses, not an overthrow of the free-market system itself. (In the last sentence of the voice-over, he claims that the ideal replacement for capitalism is "democracy," collapsing the economic and the political in typically unrigorous Moore style.) Moore's choice to make "capitalism" his straw man (rather than, say, greed or Reagan-era deregulation) puts him in closer company than he might like with some pretty nasty world-historical bedfellows. More to the point, it hurts his credibility with those who might otherwise be persuaded by his powers as a comic agitator, a clown for social justice.
Slate V: The critics on Capitalism: A Love Story and other new releases