I loved "Bowling for Columbine" when I saw it in 2000 as an idealistic high schooler who was just beginning to formulate his political views. I liked "Fahrenheit 9/11" when I saw it in 2004 as a leftist college columnist eager for anti-Bush arguments. I somewhat sympathized with "Sicko" when I saw it in 2007 as a center-drifting, recent graduate now out in the workplace. (Though, I was rather embarrassed by the way Communist Cuba was put on a pedestal as an example.)
Now in 2009, as a full-time editor for two conservative publications I'll leave the reader to guess my reaction to the politics of Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story."
And that's all I'll say on that subject. For this film review I don't need to write a polemic against Moore's political vision. (I'll save that for a more appropriate venue.) No, the question at hand is not whether the political ideas are any good, but is the film any good?
The simple answer: no. With "Capitalism: A Love Story" Moore regresses to a stylistic problem that has dogged him his entire career. He simply cannot - or will not - construct a narrative. His radical desire to change everything manifests stylistically as a need to tell dozens of stories instead of focusing on one. And unfortunately given the weight of his subject - "capitalism" is bigger than "gun control," "health care," and "the Bush administration" - this flaw becomes fatal.
Let's try and summarize the plot. The film begins with a satirical comparison of the modern day United States with ancient Rome. Dick Cheney is analogous to Caesar and ultimate fighting is somehow today's gladiator fights used to lull and distract the masses. (Perhaps this is a leftover from the film that Moore had been rumored to be working on in the years following "Sicko." He was supposed to be doing a film about "American Empire.")
The film then jumps around to about a dozen capitalism-indicting narratives - each of which would need its own film to explain. Moore begins with emotionally-manipulative footage of police evicting people from their homes. Then he features interviews with a "vulture" realtor who specializes in selling such homes. Then he jumps to talking about "dead peasant" life insurance policies, a corrupt judge who imprisoned youthful offenders so a corporate juvenile detention facility could receive tax dollars, the low salaries of airline pilots, workers who occupied a factory after being laid off without being paid, a history lesson painting Ronald Reagan as the evil figure who destroyed American prosperity...
Also very briefly exploring a subject that needs a film in and of itself, Moore asks a few questions of some sympathetic priests, "Is capitalism a sin?" "What would Jesus think of capitalism?" Guess how they answer.
Yeah, it's basically an "everything including the kitchen sink" style approach to the polemic.
Moore-style pranks and confrontations are about as weak as ever. (He's been getting lazy since "Bowling for Columbine.") He goes to Wall Street and tries to take back the taxpayer that was allegedly stolen. When that doesn't work he tries to make a citizen's arrest of a CEO. He also tries to confront investors coming out from the stock exchange. He wants them to explain derivatives.
Finally when the film's tension should be at its peak in its third act Moore descends into the stickiest of economic muck: trying to explain last year's economic crisis and the government's response. Moore struggles to cram all this information into maybe 30 minutes - when it's something so complex that it deserves a mini-series to really lay it out. The result of trying to tell this story quickly is that it's so confusing that one just gives up on trying to comprehend Moore's version. I was about ready to fall asleep during these sequences when the film's dramatic tension should have been at its peak.
This slice and dice, jam-as-much-in-as-possible approach is the Moore Method. Think of it as cinematic buckshot. Moore sprays tiny bits of information, propaganda, and humor all over a general target. And the smaller his bulls eye, the more effectively he can make any kind of coherent dent with such an incoherent weapon. Thus with his previous general subjects - gun control, the Bush administration, and health care - even though he was unfocused he could still at least seem to make an effective statement.
But with capitalism there is just too much out there. Capitalism is such a massive intellectual abstraction that Moore is incapable of waging his war in one film. He's cramming 10 movies' worth of material into one picture. And in trying to do so he fails to develop his arguments, fails to keep his audience's attention, and finally fails to make the box office dent of his previous efforts. (So far "Capitalism: A Love Story" has only made $12 million - a tenth of "Fahrenheit 9/11," and half of "Sicko." But for Moore to care about such things would be sinful, right?)
With "Capitalism: A Love Story" Moore has finally bit off more than he can chew. So he ends up gagging on his arguments and vomiting his incoherence all over his audience. It should be a dreadful bore to all but Moore's most zealous true believers.