Michael Moore may not be our most subtle filmmaker, and true to form, his new documentary/political treatise Capitalism: A Love Story is rather all over the place; while some other directors approach these kind of hot-button topics with the precision of laser beam, Moore prefers a shotgun approach, blasting his shrapnel onto whatever side topics wander into his field of vision. I note this as an admirer of his work; this more stream-of-consciousness style, perfected in 2002's Bowling for Columbine, fits the loose, rambling filmed-essay form he's adopted in that time, and if the transitions are a little wobbly on occasion, our interest seldom wavers.
Some of his tropes have grown a bit tiresome as well--his children's story-style narration has overstayed its welcome, and while they dig up some awfully good stock and educational footage, the opening interspersion of an historical film about the fall of ancient Rome with recent news footage is too heavy-handed, even for Moore. But once those early stumbles are cast aside and the divisive director gets down to business, he assembles his finest, and most effective, motion picture in years.
Since its explosion just over a year ago, the global and national financial crisis has fallen prey to mindless partisanship and the 24-hour news cycle; the path to disaster was such a ridiculously convoluted one that most people have arrived at answers and explanations that are just too easy. What Moore's film provides is some much-needed contextualization. He goes all the way back to the "good old days," to the comparatively debt-free and comfortable 1950s and 1960s, before bringing us up to the Carter and Reagan administrations (and the dangerous influence of Reagan's Treasury Secretary, Donald Regan). Clinton gets off a little easy (Glass-Steagall was repealed on his watch, after all), but Moore does get in some well-aimed parting shots at his old nemesis, George W. Bush.
Once the history has been filled in, the second act of the picture wanders a bit, though each of the detours is fascinating. We're told about the "PA Child Care" scandal, in which two judges were given kickbacks for sending kids, many of them minor offenders, for extended stays in a state-funded private juvenile facility. We're given some mighty scary information about how grossly underpaid airline pilots are. And, most disturbingly, there is an extended, shocking section on (often secret) life insurance policies taken out by corporations on their employees (called, crassly, "dead peasant" insurance).
These somewhat scattershot examples of reprehensible behavior motivated solely by greed leads to his stunning, but ultimately somewhat logical, thesis: that capitalism is a scam, a bill of goods that's been sold by the wealthiest 1% to the rest of us, a "plutonomy," as explicitly outlined in a series of leaked internal Citigroup memos from 2006. From there, he travels to the epicenter of American greed: Wall Street, where it takes a bit of work to come up with a plain-English explanation of how the housing crisis, and particularly the home loan implosion, happened.
This section of the film, an examination of the fall of the house of cards, is riveting, fierce, and angry ("What the fuck happened?" Moore asks one of his financial experts, pointedly). Simply put, it will make you furious. But the best is yet to come--the sequence dealing with the fall 2008 bailout (a move that Moore likens to rich banking interests "stealing the silverware on their way out" of the Bush White House) is thrilling, beautifully cut, and one of the finest pieces of work the filmmaker has put to celluloid. Breathlessly intercutting news footage, Congressional floor speeches, and virulent analysis, Moore calls that bailout a heist--and constructs the sequence accordingly. And then he builds it to a beautiful comic payoff, with a scene reminiscent of his unfortunately short-lived TV series The Awful Truth (I wouldn't have minded a cameo from our old friend Crackers, the Corporate Crime-Fighting Chicken). The closing scenes find Moore at his most bitter and yet most hopeful, and amount to nothing less than a call to arms and a rally for revolution. And his final images (which have unfortunately been spoiled by some reviews and--bafflingly--Overture Films' own publicity photos) and voice-over are powerful and heartfelt.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic image is spotty, as expected for a documentary--the video assembled is from varying sources, and of varying quality. But all of the original interviews and complimenting footage looks quite good, clean and crisp, with a minimum of noise and solid (if unspectacular) color reproduction.
Documentary sound mixes tend to be flat, front-and-center affairs; as expected, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is mostly concentrated to the center channel, which is clear and audible, even in scenes captured on the fly. The front surrounds do come to life fairly frequently--mostly for music cues, but also for environmental sounds during outdoor interviews and B-roll cutaways. There's not much activity in the rear channels (except in a funny scene that layers on extra sound effects and CG during Bush's bailout sell speech), but that's pretty much par for the course.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also available.
The bulk of the bonus features are deleted scenes and extended interviews, most of which are given impossibly long titles (just call it deleted scenes and be done with it, Anchor Bay).
"Sorry, House-Flippers and Banks--You're Toast in Flint, MI" (5:33) features Moore interviewing and wandering Flint with an old friend who is now the Genesee County Treasurer, who explains how they're dealing with abandonment of property in their hometown. "The Omnivore's Dilemma? It's Capitalism" (6:11) features author and UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan, who talks about the dangers of "being fed by corporations"; we then have a brief segment about going community and organic with your food choices (this section's deletion is understandable; he's going way off-track here, and all of this material is covered in greater detail in films like Food Inc.). "Commie Taxi Drivers--'You Talkin' To Me?'--in Wisconsin" (5:50) takes a look at Union Cab, a cooperative company in Madison, explaining their organizational structure ("actual radical workplace democracy") and engaging in some clever parody as well. "The Socialist Bank of--North Dakota?" (4:44) is a brief profile of the Bank of North Dakota, a state-owned bank established to serve the state's citizens, rather than to turn a profit. "The Bank Kicks Them Out, Max Kicks Them Back In" (10:52) profiles Max Rameau, a founder of Take Back the Land, a Miami organization dedicated to assisting victims of foreclosures (he's seen briefly towards the end of the film). These deleted scenes are, for the most part, valuable additions--interesting and well-done, though their exclusions for reasons of time and pace are understandable.
The extended interviews are less essential; while there are certainly moments of insights, most of them are pretty dull at this length. "Congressman Cummings Dares to Speak the Unspeakable" (7:08) is a thoughtful sit-down interview with US Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MI), while "NY Times Pulitzer Prize Winner Chris Hedges on the Killing Machine Known as Capitalism" (8:45) is--well, it's kind of all there in the title. "The Rich Don't Go to Heaven (There's a Special Place Reserved for Them!)" (8:30) is more of Moore and Father Dick Preston discussing Christianity and capitalism. "How to Run the Place Where You Work" (11:17) is a chat with Professor Tom Webb, an expert on worker cooperatives.
Finally, we have "What If, Just If, We Had Listened to Jimmy Carter in 1979?" (17:50), the full clip of Carter addressing the nation in January of that year (excerpted in the film), discussing "a fundamental threat to American democracy": the "worship" of "self-indulgence and consumption." He also discusses energy conservation and the need to aid less fortunate Americans. As with the interviews, it's a worthwhile addition, but only hardcore political junkies will likely make it through the whole thing.
The film's Teaser Trailer (1:16) and Theatrical Trailer (2:00) wrap up the bonus features.
Capitalism: A Love Story is a long film (perhaps a touch too long), but it is rich and thoughtful, and--notably--isn't merely a partisan screed (as some of his other works have been, for better or worse). Yes, there was plenty of proof, even at the time of the film's theatrical release, that the Obama election wasn't going to lead to the kind of financial reform we so desperately need (after all, he appointed Tim Geitner), and Moore kind of lets that go. But he also gives it to Chris Dodd with both barrels, and indicts the Democratic leadership for their complicity in the bailout. Nitpicks aside, this is a smart, funny, entertaining picture, and it couldn't be more timely. It's Moore at his best--rambling, undisciplined, and utterly brilliant.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.