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

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…


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.

Comments (47 total) Add your comment
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  • Nerwen Aldarion

    I’ll start taking Moore seriously when he actually starts makeing DOCumentaries not FAKEumentaries. His movies are so chock full of lies Pinochio is looking like a saint.

    • Ray Lanthier

      ‘Chock full of lies’ is a mouthful. Companies are NOT taking out insurance on their employees? The archival footage of FDR’s Second Bill of Rights ? Bank deregulation has nothing to do with the real estate crash?
      All Moore needs a short list of ugly facts – to make his case – he doesn’t need to lie.

  • Cole9219

    I like Micheal Moore, but I have to side with Owen and say that he does sometimes go a little overboard. I will still, of course, see his new movie.

  • Kevin

    Great job Owen…a very well written piece. Sadly, Moore is an “entertainer” first and an investigative reporter second. I enjoy his movies, especially Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine, but lately his movies are less about raising awareness of important issues and more about preaching to the choir. I had both high hopes and large fears for this movie…sounds like both were justified. The system’s broken and needs to be fixed, NOT replaced.

  • The Odore

    Moore may be over the top and overboard at times, but when compared to the other people publicly fighting against the powers that be (any other names escape me at the moment), it’s a small labor to endure.

  • elly

    Owen, I lived and studied in the Greater Toronto Area from 2003-2008…Please tell me what city it is you live in that makes Toronto clean, orderly, and un-hurried by comparison, so that I can know to never, ever go there! :D

  • Micah

    Will Moore be donating his profits made from his movie in this capitalist society?

    • Shanna

      Micah I wondered the same thing. is he making any money off this movie & if so is he donating it to Castro &/or Chavez? wouldnt it be wrong for him to make a profit off of unsuspecting people/

      • Jimmy

        Ah, of course…you two sooo got it!

        Because Moore is against capitalism, he MUST be in favor of a Castro/Chavez style dictatorship! Because if you’re not a capitalist…you must be a socialist(btw neither Castro or Chavez is a socialist).

        Perhaps I’m over educated, but there are hundreds (probably more!) of forms of government and every single one actively practiced on this earth is not a pure form of any theory. We combine them! “Capitalism” “Socialism” are just buzz words.

      • Randy

        @ Jimmy
        Thank god someone isn’t totally ignorant! Well said!

    • Luis Almeida

      The issue is not MM, it is the system.
      If he we do what you you suggest it would only create one more poor and all the other poors would remain poor…

  • Carlos Goenaga

    Moore is historically ignorant and politically stupid. Economic downturns and upswings are as natural as the tides. Human history proves this. The causes can be heaped on “greed” or “capitalism,” but unless Moore thinks that human nature will suddenly transform and we’ll all behave as saints, he’s just a bitter, cynical moron. If it weren’t for capitalism, Moore wouldn’t have a forum and means to spout his vitriol. There wouldn’t be cinemas, there wouldn’t be movie cameras, and very few would have disposable income available to see movies even if there were movies.

    I take issue with “Moore loves America” also. He does not love America. America was built on commerce and capitalism. Both are evil and anathema to Moore. He glorifies Cuba (which I’ve visited and have seen for myself how the communists have run it into the ground), a communist socialist country. That’s what he wants the U.S. to be. That’s why he calls for a revolt. He’s really an anachronism and U.S. hater. His vision of what the U.S. should be is so radical that it would be the U.S. in name only. In other words, Moore is an idiot.

    • Jimmy

      “America was built on commerce and capitalism.”

      America was built on equality and freedom. Capitalism is a productive economic engine to a certain extent…but it is has only been through very uncapitalistic measures that our society has sustained itself through the bad times (remember the Great Depression into the New Deal…good times!)

      The most truly American thing is to look at something and say ‘I can make it better!’ not ‘let’s keep going this way, um, yeah I think its the right way’

      But I digress. In other words, you are an idiot.

      • Jennifer

        I always thought America was built on slavery.

      • Carlos Goenaga

        Idiot? Sustained through non-capitalistic means? You mean all those government speding projects that did nothing to curb unemployment until the U.S. entered WWII? Yeah, nice try, dummy. You can stick up for that bloated hypocrite, but you can’t use facts to do it, only an outdated ideology. Russia was the mother of what Moore wants and that system lasted barely 70 years. It was unsustainable and ultimately harmfult the any Russian who wasn’t part of the nomenclatura. But this is probably all over your simpleton head.

    • Ray Lanthier

      The notable economists have not agreed that this recent recession is ‘normal’. It is an expectionally pernicious symptom of capitalism gone wrong.

  • Hmmm

    Airline pilots routinely make less than 20K? Forgive my naivete but I find that extremely difficult to believe. They wouldn’t have enough money to take the subway to the airport for work if they made that little.

  • Hutchy

    Its tough, he makes fantastic points which are often buried under his theatrical, over-the-top flourishes. For example, Sicko, full of outstanding points and genuinely thought provoking ideas……right up until he goes to Cuba. Gee, you think the regime might have known he was coming and wanted to put on its best face? Ya think? Hes an amazing and infuriating filmmaker all at one time.

    • Randy

      Does the fact that Cuba expected him really change anything? The fact that they can pull themselves together like that still speaks volumes about their character. What do you think would happen if they tried that in the States? And does “putting on their best face” include charging pennies on the dollar for the same meds? You think they just reduced their prices for these folks, LOL.

  • Vikki Sixx

    I find it funny that Moore berates all aspects of capitalism yet conveniently owes his success to just that. Be it by attacking the big businesses or be it through capitalists funding his movies (and I use the term loosely)…

  • Dave R

    To Elly: You may have studied in Toronto for 5 years but I have lived my whole life here and it is everything that Owen describes and more! It is simply the best city in North America.

    • miles jamell

      The era of raegan saw economic growth and got the country out of a deep recession caused by the carter administration. So… Yeah. You don’t know what you’re talking about. The mess we are in now was caused by democrats in GSEs forcing banks to give bad loans. Moron. And jennifer — you’re an idiot.

  • Vic Nardozza

    Gleiberman, you’re a fool. You call some of Moore’s views extreme. But what about Beck, Hannity, and Limbaugh. The free market capitalism of the great Ronald Reagan is what ushered this country into the mess that it is in.

    • Ben

      Um, maybe he didn’t talk about Beck, Hannity, and Limbaugh…BECAUSE THEY AREN’T THE ONES WHO MADE THE MOVIE GLEIBERMAN IS REVIEWING!

    • Doremifah Solatido

      Reagan ushered this country OUT of the funk and “malaise” that was Jimmy Carter’s doing. Also facilitated the end of the USSR. Get it right, momo.

      • Xavier N.

        Stop parroting and read a decent cross section of opinions on recent US history.

        Economics: Carter/Volker acted the adults, prescribed the necessary but bitter medicine, took the political hit, Bonzo reaped the reward of Carter’s prudence.

        I don’t know how old you are is, but I’d be willing to bet more than I could comfortably stand to lose, that, without employing the google, you could not begin to explain just what role Kissinger and Rockefeller in how that situation evolved. As far as the ultimate results? Just ask any of the hostages that survived, that is, all of them, just what their opinion or President Carter was.

        Energy and “oil wars”. Perhaps you’d care to enlighten us by telling us just how much better off this country now is re its current energy situation, for us having listened to the lovable “President Happy Days Are Here Again” rather than that dour old realist “President Gloomy Gus Malaise”?

        Overall, IMHO, what made Carter (to the extent that he was) ineffective, was, as much as any politician who rises to high office in the country can be, a decent man, and perhaps worse, an outsider. The “villagers” recognized and resented him mightily for both, and made him pay.

  • somesh

    You call some of Moore’s views extremefind it funny that Moore berates all aspects of capitalism yet conveniently owes his success to just that. Be it by attacking the big businesses or be it through capitalists funding his moviesWill Moore be donating his profits made from his movie in this capitalist society?

  • Eric Yang

    Owen, your reviews, blog posts, commentaries, belong in a more intelligent magazine where people post intelligent comments. Look at the comments on Roger Ebert’s or Jim Emerson’s blog. There’s REAL conversation going on there. Owen, you belong at The Atlantic or The New Yorker or The Washington Post.

  • scottbTampa

    I’ll believe all these anti-capitalist celebrities and others who champion confiscatory taxes are true believers when they fire all their tax lawyers and accountants, take no deductions, don’t shelter their income in trusts and other places and let the government keep their refunds.

    (Just like the global warming zealots lecturing us about what we should drive, eat and how to live — how about they give up their SUVs and gas-guzzling luxury vehicles, private jets and multiple, mega mansions gobbling up acres of land and tons of electricity and resources?)

    Further, what right does the government have to taking half and more of my earnings to fund a bloated, inefficient and growingly oppressive, anti-freedom machine?

    If the government was a business, no one would invest in it based upon its ROI and operation.

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