Monday, November 16, 2009
If their effects weren’t so tragic, the antics of Wall Street and the US Treasury over the last couple of years would belong in a circus.
It was inevitable that sooner or later veteran documentary maker Mike Moore would get stuck into the people who brought us the Global Financial Crisis. In Capitalism: A Love Story he produces his own unique interpretation of what they actually did, and why the whole capitalist bandwagon is, well, stuffed.
Mike Moore’s political documentaries have been lauded for their irony and sense of the absurd, and his critique of the Bush administration, Fahrenheit 9/11, is the highest grossing documentary ever. However, in recent years he’s been criticised for deliberately presenting mistruths, showing baddies out of context, and exaggerating.
But this is Moore’s moment. It’s as if everything he’s been warning the American public about has come to pass. There’s no need to exaggerate or distort. The truth of US capitalism today is that, in its blatant enticement to greed and contempt for the average person, it’s simply unbelievable.
I haven’t checked all the facts Moore presents us with here, and, given his record, it’s likely that this movie contains at least one or two misrepresentations. Still, there’s something very direct about it, as if Moore himself can’t quite believe what he’s seeing.
In the wake of the GFC, more than 15 million Americans are out of work, while a house is foreclosed in the US every 7.5 seconds. Moore sets about finding out how this meltdown came to pass. He recalls a time when capitalism seemed a beneficent system, bestowing prosperity on all and creating a middle class by redistributing the wealth through fair, progressive taxation. He contends that greed – always a vital part of the system – gradually took over and invaded the political process.
For Moore, the rot started with Reaganism, which cut taxes to the rich and deregulated the financial system. The US now resembles the Roman Empire, and the middle class is being destroyed: one of the movie’s beleaguered subjects complains that increasingly there are only the super rich and the very poor, and no-one in between.
We don't just get to smirk at the now-familiar Wall Street villains in this movie. Far more disturbing than their obvious greed is the evidence Moore produces of the contemptuous attitude of a range of rich and powerful companies towards the average employee, citizen and towards democracy in general.
The movie does not stray from the familiar Moore formula – a simplistic but well crafted narrative arc; shots of and interviews with baddies and goodies; punchy popular culture footage to keep the humour and irony humming along; dramatic scenes of average Americans suffering at the hands of the ruthless; and stunts in which Moore confronts the baddies.
Although it isn’t as funny as Fahrenheit 9/11 – Bush, a focus of that film, is a natural buffoon – arguably the formula works even better than usual. Moore’s work is itself propaganda, yet we get plenty of archival footage of pro-capitalist propaganda that beautifully illustrates his point.
As with all good narratives, there’s a dramatic climax. I won’t give it away here, but Moore’s conclusions about the behaviour of Treasury in the wake of the crash are pretty disturbing.
Critics have claimed that Moore’s stunts are now getting hackneyed. In fact, Capitalism: A Love Story has fewer stunts than some of Moore’s other films, and while the ones in this film are fairly low key and not that dramatic, they have a certain moral authority.
As he’s been doing since his first film, Roger and Me, Moore brings some of his personal experience and history into the movie. Roger and Me was an exploration of the economic decline of the town Moore grew up in – Flint, Michigan – following the shift to Mexico of the General Motors plant that was the town’s economic lifeblood. Moore returns to that territory here, bringing his aged father to the industrial dump that was once the thriving plant, and describing the idyllic standard of living his blue-collar family enjoyed in the age of unionism. This personal footage helps brings the larger story of Reaganism alive.
All Moore’s films are aimed at addressing the American public and inciting them to change. Given the enormous power of evangelical Christianity in the US, Moore prudently focuses on the teachings of Jesus, humorously asking whether he would have been a capitalist. A Catholic himself, he tears aside the redneck stereotype of a religion whose radical social justice teachings are little known, interviewing some Catholic priests with startling things to say about capitalism.
Although Moore ultimately concludes that capitalism has failed, predictably he doesn’t offer any detailed options for the future, and many will find his conclusions too simplistic.
Don’t see this film if you want a detailed description of the actual economic crash. Do see it if you want to see some rays of hope amidst the wreckage: retrenched workers fighting back; victims of a mortgage foreclosure refusing to leave; renegade congressmen and women attacking the government’s bailout of the banks; and one amazing congresswoman inciting Americans to civil disobedience.
When it comes to documentaries, many people prefer to wait for the DVD rather than see them at the cinema because they’re not considered cinematic enough. But Capitalism: A Love Story deserves to be seen now because it is cinematic, and because it dramatises the horrors of the economic crash, and because Australians need to be perpetually warned about the dangers of embracing, even more than we already have, US-style capitalism. There but for the grace of God go we.