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Toronto: Why Michael Moore's 'Capitalism: A Love Story' is powerful — and frustrating

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tiff_iconFilm festivals often have an uncanny way of channeling the mood of the moment. But I doubt if that dynamic has ever been at work more strikingly than it is at the 34th Toronto International Film Festival, which got underway yesterday. In an age of shrinking specialty divisions and financially battered media outlets, gather a bunch of movie people and a bunch of journalists in the same place, and you can just about taste the currents of anxiety in the air. (The mood is especially noteworthy in clean, orderly, mall-friendly Toronto, one of the most un-anxious cities I’ve ever been in.) The thing is, the anxiety — economic, romantic, spiritual —  is streaming off the screen as well. The first three movies I’ve seen here — Michael Moore’s scathing, mad-as-hell Capitalism: A Love Story, Jason Reitman’s exquisitely funny and touching Up in the Air (a comedy of love, loneliness, and downsizing), and the Coen brothers’ uncharacteristically humane slice of spilkes A Serious Man — all ripple with echoes of the current age of monetary woe and cosmic uncertainty. I’ll talk about Up in the Air and A Serious Man in my next two posts, but for right now, let me devote the headline to a man who still has no peer at grabbing headlines…

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There’s a funny moment in Capitalism: A Love Story when Michael Moore approaches the gleaming silver edifice of the GM headquarters in Detroit, eager to ask an executive there if the company’s recent collapse vindicates the accusations Moore hurled at it 20 years ago in Roger & Me. This time, though, the police guard who keeps him from going inside obviously knows who Moore is, and their faux-confrontational encounter becomes almost a joke between them. The most dangerous man in political show business is now so famous for doing what he does that it’s become almost foolish to pretend that he’s shocking anyone with his guerrilla theatrics.

He may not be shocking, but he’s still furious, and the fury is contagious. By the time I left the lobby of the theater where I saw Capitalism: A Love Story, I had already been drawn into two overheated conversations about it (one friendly, the other contentious). As is so often the case, I was carrying on an argument in my own head with Moore as well. Capitalism: A Love Story is a blistering indictment of everything in America that, according to Moore, has led to our current state of economic peril, the roots of which he traces back over many decades. The greed and back-scratching corruption, the cult of Wall Street as a casino for elites, the sub-prime mortgage vendors who operated like loan sharks, the whole unchecked free-market voraciousness: Moore pulls the big picture together, and much of the movie — I would say about three-fifths of it — is urgent and unsettling and mischievously funny and powerful. Yet I wish — oh, how I wish —  that Moore had restrained himself, in other parts, from damning America’s sins with too broad a brush. (I also wish he’d refrained from inviting a handful of priests to condemn the unspirituality of our behavior.) Pointing a relentless finger at “capitalism,” Moore sounds a little too much like Rush Limbaugh getting hot under the collar about “socialism.” In both cases, they’re not making an argument — they’re demonizing a word.

Besides, the dirty secret of Michael Moore is that he really does love America. He narrates Capitalism: A Love Story in what has become his customary voice of bedtime-fairy-tale sarcasm, but early on he creates a memorable montage of the ’50s and ’60s, taking us back to a time when the middle class felt safe, when there were jobs (and pensions) to count on, when the wealthy gave up 90 percent of their income in taxes (and didn’t squawk about it), when people could go to college without taking on decades’ worth of loans. That myth, and to a large degree reality, of a more secure — and, in many ways, egalitarian — America haunts the movie, and while Moore is cheeky enough to make the point that we enjoyed our pre-eminence in part because we’d destroyed the competition in World War II, his romance for it is genuine.

For Moore, the transformative moment was the election of Ronald Reagan, who ushered in a new, top-down era of de-regulation with a smiley face. Capitalism: A Love Story is most potent when it shows us what the financial desperation and ruthless corporate squeezing that descended from that era now looks like. Moore gives us agonizing, close-up glimpses of the humiliation of being tossed out of a home that’s been foreclosed (he interviews a bottom-feeder from a company called Condo Vultures), and there’s an astonishing section about the companies (they include Bank of America, Wal-Mart, and AT&T) that take life-insurance policies out on their employees, profiting from their deaths. Moore also squeezes a great deal of symbolic mileage out of the fact that airline pilots have become beleaguered wage slaves who routinely make under $20,000 a year. Then there’s the $700 billion bank bailout, which for Moore is a conspiracy, a robbery.

Here, as in Sicko, what Michael Moore is really talking about is the collapse of the social contract. That’s a powerful theme, but why did he have to make a movie in which the villain is nothing less than…capitalism itself? He insists on painting the very concept of American free enterprise as inherently unjust. But even if you believe, as many responsible pundits do, that de-regulation in the ’80s went too far, that markets do need to be managed, and that unchecked capitalism is a voracious beast that can consume a culture alive…even if you agree with all that, you may have a hard time swallowing the grand finale of Capitalism: A Love Story, in which Moore trashes our system as “evil” and pushes for nothing less than a citizens’ “revolt,” which he seems to believe (naively) the election of Barack Obama was the first stage of. At its best, Capitalism: A Love Story is a searing and eloquent outcry against the excesses of a cutthroat time. At its worst, it’s dorm-room Marxism — a power-to-the-people bumper sticker that willfully leaves out the people’s own responsibility for the country we all share. Moore almost seems to have forgotten that the politicians he so castigates are the ones that Americans voted for.