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Michael Moore on Wall Street in a scene from Capitalism: A Love Story.

2 out of 4 stars


Capitalism: A Love Story

  • Directed by Michael Moore
  • Classification: PG

Michael Moore has described his latest documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, as a summation of everything he has been working on for the past 20 years since his breakthrough with Roger & Me .

There's some truth in this, inasmuch as Moore replays some of his familiar strategies, from empathetic portraits of working Americans who feel betrayed by the system to humorous animation to now iconic scenes of the filmmaker, in baseball cap and windbreaker, scolding CEOs with a bullhorn or arguing with security guards.

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As a statement on capitalism or anything else, Capitalism: A Love Story is often embarrassingly simplistic, self-contradictory. The title might better be Here, There and Everywhere, as Moore skips about from case histories, to stunts, to personal stories, to a potted economic history of the postwar years and even a bewildering cameo from actor Wallace Shawn to explain free enterprise to us.

Once again, Moore documents his family's background in Flint, Mich., and the collapse of the auto industry. He also introduces us to a series of individuals who have suffered outrages perpetrated by corporations. Finally, he calls for a popular revolution against the Wall Street bailout, which he calls a "financial coup d'état ." Though presumably a fan of more, rather than less, government involvement in the economy, Moore sees the bailout as another example of the rich screwing the poor, and rather unexpectedly ends up sounding like the anti-government zealots from the right.

Similarly, he mocks capitalists who invoke God in the same sentence as "profit motive." In a clever interlude, he dubs a Bible epic so that Jesus utters free-market platitudes and declines to heal a cripple because of his "pre-existing condition." Instead, he wants to claim Jesus for his side. Abetted by the support of a couple of Catholic priests and a bishop, Moore says, unequivocally that "capitalism is evil" and should be eradicated.

But does he mean it? As a filmmaker creating a product for a marketplace, supported by profit-seeking investors, he obviously has some comfort level with capitalism in the sense of doing business.

Moore seems to support a kind of New Deal society (Franklin Delano Roosevelt is evoked near the film's conclusion), where health care, accommodation and the right to work are ensured by the state. He shows examples of employee-run co-co-operatives, but holds back from endorsing that model as a universal alternative to private ownership.

In fact, he waxes nostalgic about the good old days of (pre-Ronald Reagan) capitalism. The "love story" of the title refers to his own comfortable upbringing, when his father worked for a company that supplied General Motors. Capitalism, it seems, isn't intrinsically evil; it's just evil when it fails you.

Moore is more persuasive when dealing with specific cases than political generalities. His muckraking talents are still strong, and the centre part of the movie could easily be packaged into an investigative television series about the morally repugnant ways corporations make money.

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Wal-Mart and other companies collect life insurance on their workers in what are called "dead-peasant" policies. Airlines, cutting costs to the bone, keep pilots' pensions and their salaries so low some even collect food stamps. Citigroup drew up a memo for its elite investors advocating a world "plutonomy" of the rich, threatened only by pesky democracy. A crooked judge in Pennsylvania took kickbacks from a private prison company for illegally parking juveniles in jail.

These things are shameful, but what do they tell us about economics? Through inference, we can guess that the capitalism Moore is angry about is capitalism gone berserk, as the free-market theories of Milton Friedman and others became enshrined into the Reaganite, neo-con ideology of deregulation, anti-unionism and tax-cutting.

Like pure socialism, free-market capitalism seems like one of those single, unifying ideas that have no place in the real world.

In the end, the best the weary-sounding Moore can suggest is that capitalism needs to be replaced by "democracy," which amounts to exchanging one slippery term for another. Admitting that he's grown tired of his own theatrics, Moore urges the audience to "join him" in his cause. Well sure, Captain Mike, as soon as we can figure out what exactly that's supposed to be.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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