Is Michael Moore's latest documentary on capitalism sincere or merely clever propaganda?
Michael Moore, the writer, director, and producer, belongs to a long tradition of American humor. His scruffy, overweight persona may be traced back through Will Rogers and Mark Twain to the Down East Jonathan figures of the earliest American comedies. Such bumpkins and hicks exhibit, but more often feign, innocence and naiveté in order to expose the absurdity of their city slicker cousins. To their inherent populism, Moore adds a left wing ideology, his chief targets being the CEOs of Corporate America.
Following Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), in which he attacked President Bush and his alliance with Saudi Arabia, and Sicko (2007), in which he satirised health care in America, he now takes on capitalism or free enterprise. He could not have chosen a more appropriate moment for the assault. If anything he has too much contemporary evidence, and part of the genius of the film is the very effective selectivity of his examples. For whether you like Michael Moore or hate him, this film is the best he has made since his initial masterpiece, Roger & Me (1989).
He's too well known for his comic yokel act to work as well now, but he uses it to good effect when he tapes off Wall Street as a crime zone, or arrives at the doors of AIG with an armored truck, either to take back the taxpayer's money or to make a citizen arrest. But here he employs almost the entire range of cinematic devices to advance his case: poignant interviews with victims; documentary footage of the villains of the piece, who are not just confined to the Republican usual suspects; charts and graphs; historic footage; old movie clips; comic inserts; animations; computer-generated effects; more interviews with sympathetic commentators; and family movies.
Unlike Roger & Me, which was a kind of seat-of-the-pants production using simpler cinema vérité techniques, Capitalism: A Love Story is a multi-million-dollar production, backed by the Weinstein Brothers, formerly the heads of Miramax, and co-created by dozens of researchers and technical experts. In his round of interviews on talk shows, Moore readily admits the irony of the film, namely that capitalism has enabled him to make it.
Although right-wing TV showmen of late have a tendency to smear all those on the left as communist conspirators, fellow travelers, or just plain dupes, the left contains a very wide and diverse constituency, ranging from anarchists to "Blue Dogs", the name now given to conservative Democrats. Just where Michael Moore fits into this is not entirely clear. Just as his idea of capitalism errs on the side of simplicity, so what exactly he means by socialism remains somewhat nebulous.
I doubt that he is a Marxist, as in the 1930s heyday of radicalism with its calls to overthrow the Constitution. Remember in those days, The New Masses and Daily Worker lambasted FDR as a Wall-Street stooge, a front man for the bankers. Remember, too, that socialism, which Moore directly advocates throughout the film, and Marxism are not identical by any means. In fact, in the ’30s they were enemies, as Simone Weil realised in reporting on the 1933 election in Germany when the communist refusal to cooperate with the Socialists brought Hitler to power, or as Orwell realised in reporting on the communist subversion of the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War, an experience that for him resulted in Animal Farm and 1984.
It's possible that Moore would really like to see the workers own the means of production, as in several examples he includes in the film, but he also implicitly believes in private property, as in the ownership of homes. Throughout, his main concern is not ideological distinctions but a government that will enable ordinary people to keep their jobs and their homes. To me, he seems to be, like Orwell, a social democrat, trade unionist, and advocate of a European welfare state. I could be mistaken. But in this film, the message is loud and clear: socialism and democracy go hand in hand. That, of course, was the Communist Party line in the ’30s, when in its effort to claim that it represented the best in America's tradition, it established Jefferson and Walt Whitman Clubs. And this too is Moore's tactic here. This is the love story part; he claims to be a patriot. We see quotes from Franklin, Jefferson, and John Adams all warning against the dangers of oligarchy and plutocracy. At one point in the film he visits the National Archives in Washington to gaze admiringly on the Constitution, which of course says nothing about free enterprise.
But Moore adds something new. In this film, he also equates socialism and democracy with Christianity. He speaks of how growing up as a Catholic he admired the activist priests of the time and even considered becoming one. He also includes interviews with several priests who speak of the evil of capitalism as well as featuring footage of the bishops of Detroit and Chicago speaking in support of striking workers. Here Moore aligns himself with the Church's social ethic, most recently asserted in Benedict XVI's latest encyclical, Charity and Truth.
The sound track of the film concludes with a Woody Guthrie ballad about Jesus. Whether all this is sincere or very clever propaganda, I cannot tell. But there is no doubt that this film is a very effective indictment of the all-too-powerful influence of big money on government, the corruption of too many of our elected officials, and the outrageous practices of too many corporations -- for instance their buying life insurance policies on employees with themselves as beneficiaries.
Who would not be moved as Moore and his father, a lifetime General-Motors employee, gaze upon the wasteland of Flint, Michigan -- Moore's hometown? Who would not be moved by the poignant last wishes of President Roosevelt for a new bill of rights? I confess, I was -- to tears.
William Park is a veteran film reviewer and the author of Hollywood: An Epic Production, a highly praised verse history of American cinema. He lives in California.