Monday, 1 March 2010

'Capitalism: A Love Story' Review: Michael Moore takes aim at the banks

There is a tendency in documentary criticism to laud the films which seem most honest and objective, the films which seem to show you the “truth” of a place or a person, seemingly from a distance, unedited and without judgement. Of course, this is always an illusion, as all film is manipulative to lesser and greater degrees, but films like last year’s mesmerising ‘Sleep Furiously’ do their level best to seem as though you have just been taken to a place and are having a nose around. The same cannot be said of the Michael Moore documentaries (which include ‘Roger & Me’, ‘Bowling for Columbine’, ‘Fahrenheit 911’ and ‘Sicko’), which clearly present a subjective argument and a point of view. This sort of documentary is usually more polarising and less well received, so it goes.

Over time I had allowed naysayers to lead me to doubt whether I had ever liked Michael Moore in the first place. I had seen (and enjoyed) his movies, but the popular feeling amongst my peers seemed to be that he was merely populist, simplistic and brash. There seems to be an embarrassment about Michael Moore, especially from people who share his politics but don’t like him as their spokesperson. It was with this feeling that I went into ‘Capitalism: A Love Story’, expecting to find fault with it. However, it completely sold me on Moore all over again.

‘Capitalism’ is at its strongest when it plays it straight, with most of the comedy falling a little flat, notably in one scene where a Bush speech is given a zany, animated background which just distracts from what is being said (maybe it is intended as a clever device to show literally how we are being distracted by fear... but I doubt it). However, to his credit Moore decides to play it straight most of the time with this film and with quite excellent results. Archive footage of FDR speaking about a planned “second bill of rights” is played in full without any voice-over or music, and is quite something when seen projected in a cinema. Likewise, statistical data is always presented entertainingly, yet delivered earnestly and with clear passion, which is refreshing to see in our increasingly apathetic culture.

The weakest element with ‘Capitalism’ is a familiar one from across the entire Moore filmography, as he has a tendency to allow his films to become quite mawkish. My favourite example of this is in ‘Bowling for Columbine’, as Moore feigns upset and indignation at Charlton Heston’s LA home, demanding he look at a picture of a young girl killed by a gun and *touchingly* placing said picture on the steps of Heston’s house so the camera can find just the right level of poignancy. In this latest film, Moore does seem to linger a little too long on weeping family members being evicted and in one ill-advised scene tells a window that her husband is referred to as a “dead peasant” in a legal document (what is the point here? It is obvious that the term is insulting when we first hear and we gain nothing from making a widow cry about it). Yet, despite a few such moments, ‘Capitalism’ is easily the least mawkish Moore has been and is therefore his most likeable and effective film to date.

However, to focus on this criticism of Moore, is really to sell the film short. There are so many bits where it completely works, and entertains whilst being really informative and persuasive. For example, the documents that Moore highlights relating to a corporate life-insurance scheme (relating to the aforementioned “dead peasants”) are astounding, as is the leaked memo from one giant corporation, which openly speaks of the US as a “plutonomy”, a nation controlled by the wealthy for the benefit of the wealthy (and suggests how to keep it that way). There is also a fantastic sequence that links the rise of Reagan to product placement and advertising, and suggests he was brought in (and controlled) by Wall Street after Jimmy Carter went off-message in regards to consumer culture. I’m sure there are a great many who would contest this theory, and I’m sure the truth is less simplistic, but Moore makes a really compelling case for his argument here. It is also a particular joy to see Moore take the two of the biggest tools in justifying the status quo in American politics – Christianity and patriotism – and to turn them against capitalism, interviewing a Bishop who sees capitalism as a sin, and looking at the constitution to show how un-American capitalism really is, and how the document seems socialist.

It is great to see a film like ‘Sleep Furiously’ (one of my favourite films of last year) and to be given an objective, patient and mannered look at a time and place. But it is equally good to see something this argumentative, which is clearly passionately engaged with its subject. I left the cinema feeling invigorated, feeling I should be more politically active (as with age the apathy has already slowly started to set in) and that must be a good thing. ‘Capitalism’ is a fiery essay, delivered by a master propagandist and manipulator, but it is never less than compelling and exciting, and is a skilful piece of documentary filmmaking. Even if you come away unconvinced or even angered by Moore’s opinions, I for one am very glad he is airing them in this way. Especially on this subject which usually goes un-discussed, yet has such total and invisible control over our everyday lives. The fact that Moore can turn this discussion into populist entertainment is his unique gift and I for one applaud him for it.

'Capitalism: A Love Story' is rated '12a' by the BBFC and can be seen at the Duke of York's Picturehouse in Brighton everyday up to Thursday the 4th of March.

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