The heroes and villains of Michael Moore's world


Capitalism: A Love Story (M). Running time: 127 minutes. Director: Michael Moore.

Capitalism: A Love StoryIt's a misnomer to describe Michael Moore as a documentarian. He makes documentaries only in the sense that Today Tonight does investigative journalism. His movies are entertaining first, with information and persuasion a distant second. Certainly they are unlikely to sway anyone who doesn't already agree with his general point.

That's not to say he doesn't land a few well-deserved kicks while he's at it. In his latest offering Capitalism: A Love Story, the recipient of Moore's sneakered toe is the corrupt philosophy that has underpinned, particularly, America's finance sector. The love of money is the root of evil, and following the collapse of the global economy under a weight of greed and unregulated markets, Moore is determined to chase the rats out of the rubble. 

Moore's world is one of heroes and villains. George W. Bush is a villain. So is Hank Paulson, the former head of Goldman Sachs who, as United States Treasury Secretary, helped orchestrate the US economic bailout. Barack Obama, on the other hand, is a hero: yet to reach his full potential, but whose ability to inspire people to hope and to work towards a better world is an achievement in itself.

All the characters in Capitalism fall into similar categories. Among his villains are the real estate agent and self-proclaimed bottom feeder (company name: Condo Vultures) whose ignoble strategy is to target foreclosed homes, and the two Pennsylvania judges who accepted kickbacks for pouring kids into a for-profit juvenile detention centre.

Contrast them with the Michigan sheriff who refused to evict people from their foreclosed homes. Or the Chicago factory workers who lost their jobs in the midst of the economic crisis: refusing to be sent away empty-handed, they staged a good old sit-down protest and managed to secure the entitlements that were owed to them.

These are Moore's heroes. He advocates such grass roots action, and the rejection of apathy, as the only way to get the wealthy and powerful minority to take notice of the plight of the masses ('The peasants are coming!'). His rhetoric is profound, and stirring. And of course he stages a few of his own stunts to hammer the point home.

Some of the stunts miss their mark. In one, Moore attempts citizen's arrests of some of Wall Street's guiltier parties. Of course, he is not permitted into their buildings. So rather than the vicarious satisfaction of seeing these men named and shamed on camera, we get an amusing montage of Moore smarting off to po-faced security guards.

When Moore's gags do come off, the result is hilarious, and the point well made. His lampooning of politicians from the religious right, and their feeble (in light of the trauma caused by the GFC) claims that capitalism and Christianity are compatible, is a highlight. Moore, a Christian, seems outraged by their misappropriation of his faith. He uses over-dubbed scenes from a film about the life of Christ to take the mickey:

Rich Young Man: 'Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?'

Jesus: 'Pursue the profit motive.'

And I dare the staunchest Moore sceptic not to crack a smile as Moore coaxes one Wall Street analyst to stumble his way through a 'simple' explanation of ludicrously complex stock market derivatives.

All of Moore's filmic theses have their imperfections, that leave him open to rebuke from the right, and that cause those on the left to cringe — he is, after all, seen as their most prominent spokesperson. Notably, he banks on inference, rather than establishing causal links. That plane crash in Buffalo, for example, wasn't necessarily due to the pilots being underpaid, although Moore is happy for the circumstantial evidence to stand.

And one can only wonder why Moore chose to employ the comedic character actor Wallace Shawn as his expert to explain the concept of free enterprise. Shawn is best known for his portrayal of the criminal genius Vizzini in The Princess Bride. So what if he studied economics at Oxford? He still ended up drinking the poisoned wine.

It is ironic that the maker of a film decrying capitalism has himself done very well out of the capitalist system. Moore doesn't answer this irony, although his commitment to the poor might be answer enough. Fans will know that his empathy has its roots in his working class childhood in Flint, Michigan, a town that was devastated by the closure of the GM plant there. This early taste of social injustice is the red thread that runs through all his films.

Moore describes himself as a patriot, and at the end of Capitalism, he declares: 'I refuse to live in a country like this, and I'm not leaving.' With these words he reminds us that he does what he does not just to provoke a reaction, but to provoke action that can bring about change. That, at least, is to be admired.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Michael Moore, Capitalism: A Love Story, GFC, Goldman Sachs, George W. Bush, Hank Paulson



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I saw this film with a degree of reluctance because i have found his previous documentaries somewhat unsatisfying. To my surprise I found Capitalism to be by far his best work. Sure he does his usual silly stunts outside Wall Street but by telling us much of his family's story and showing the effect of foreclosures and job losses at a personal level he acheives much more than he would have if he had presented a sober and distanced economic discourse. We have had lots of them and who takes any notice? Showing the rarely seen footage of FDR's 'second bill of rights' speech was amazing. He was also very kind in his presentation of the Catholic church's response. And his final conclusion as to capitalism's alternative (a hint, it's not socialism) was very effecitve.

The comparison with Today Tonight is unfair; his motive is not profit but social change. And the criticism that he has made a good living out of his film-making is more churlish than ironic. As an independent film-maker he has needed his own capital to make films that otherwise would have been ignored by 'Hollywood' and I have no evidence that he lives the lifestyle of the plutocrats he assails. This is an argument that has been put forward by the American right and Moore has himself found such a criticism coming from the ultra-rich ironic.

Does John Pilger wear sackcloth? Attenborough live in a council flat?

chris gow | 12 November 2009  

Moore's films are full of lies. If you doubt it, check out 'Creating Dissent' on google video. It is a documentary that shows Moore manipulating facts to suit his predetermined outcomes.

Even his supposed working class background is dubious. I have read on the net that he actually grew up in Davison, a much more affluent suburb than Flint.

I find it hard to understand the Chris Gow can say that Moore's motive is not profit. Moore is quoted as saying, ""I'm a millionaire, I'm a multi-millionaire. I'm filthy rich. You know why I'm a multi-millionaire? 'Cause multi-millions like what I do. That's pretty good, isn't it? There's millions that believe in what I do. Pretty cool, huh?"

Moore making a film against Capitalism is a bit like Casanova campaigning for chastity.

Patrick James | 12 November 2009  

Michael Moore is part of the solution not the solution. In Australia it has to be remembered that his films are aimed at the highly indoctrinated US working class. He can't be hard hitting enough for the left and the right constantly muddy the waters by saying he's full of untruths. (As Patrick James has done here)

It's great to see someone discuss this topic. Capitalism is a failed system in most places. Africa and South America are good examples. Yes Michael Moore has made money due to his talent as a film maker.....big deal. I make money because I have to go to work everyday.
Getting rid of capitalism is about giving more people a better chance. Under this system only a few people (Michael Moore included) can become wealthy. The system depends on it. We need a system that distributes the wealth more evenly.

Family Man | 12 November 2009  

Patrick, I do not believe Moore's films are 100 per cent correct in their facts, far from it, and it is one of the reasons i tend to find his work (rather like Pilger's) unsatisfying. However, i have yet to find any documentary that is without factual error. As to Creating Dissent - I have seen it (have you) and although fair in its criticism of Moore and his methods it certainly does not claim that his films are 'full of lies' and it does point out many of the positives of his work.

Davison is about 12km from Flint and is essentially a suburb of the much larger city. He is cited as being born in Davison and growing up in Flint. His father worked in a plant making spark plugs and Moore himself describes his family life as happy and comfortable - sounds pretty working class to me.

The guy is far from perfect but the points he makes in his films, especially this last one, are to me at least, important.

And to claim that people who have made money (and any successful film maker will have made millions) are therefore not able to criticise capitalism is plain silly. Moore does not suggest communism or even socialism, he proposes an economic system consistent with democracy and fairness and human rights. I find it hard to disagree.

chris gow | 12 November 2009  

Family Man, I would never argue that capitalism was God's own ordained economic system. However, I fail to see how you can say it is a failed system. The standard of living we enjoy in the West is largely due to it.

The strength of the system is that it rewards individual ingenuity, work and merit more than any other system. You call for a system that distributes wealth more evenly. Unless I am mistaken you mean communism or some other form of socialism. These have been tried and have failed. It generally leads to a huge bureaucracy that seeks to deal with more than just economics in the end. It will usually intrude into more and more aspects of our lives.

The following is taken from Wikipedia on the entry for the late economist P T Bauer. "For Bauer the essence of development was the expansion of individual choices, and the role of the state to protect life, liberty, and property so that individuals can pursue their own goals and desires.[1] Limited government, not central planning, was his mantra."

Capitalism has not fallen apart completely. It goes through cycles. The current strife is due to individual greed. Hard to legislate against that, but we still need to try.

Patrick James | 12 November 2009  

Chris, I would agree that it would be rare to find a documentary without errors. But an error made in good faith is different from deliberately manipulating and misrepresenting the facts to support your conclusion. This is what Moore does. (Yes I did watch Creating Dissent!)

On the question of where Moore grew up, a website I found notes that he does not mention his high school or its headmaster by name. It says this is likely because he grew up in Davison not Flint.

On what type of economic system Moore proposes, I would have to see the film (UGH!!!) As you might have noted from an above post, I think that capitalism, tempered by humanistic or Judaeo/Christian values, has done a fair job of being consistent with democracy, fairness and human rights.

Patrick James | 12 November 2009  

I find it amusing that Family Man says Patrick James's claims of Moore's untruths "muddy the waters". If Moore has manipulated the content of his previous films, why should we trust his latest offering?

Do the left not constantly accuse John Howard and George W. Bush of lying? By Family Man's standards such claims just muddy the waters.

Joseph Lanigan | 12 November 2009  

Moore has, at least, encouraged a debate about capitalism. Like capitalists, school-yard bullies often have some good qualities and they help to keep order of a kind.

But both, knowingly or otherwise, depend on fear – although, in the case of capitalism, it is lack of security. Which fosters greed, even among the good-hearted.

A better, fairer, way would provide security for everyone, with reasonable rewards for those who contribute more to the community.

Bob Corcoran | 12 November 2009  

Tim Kroenert says it gently, but does repeat the criticism that Moore has done well out of the capitalist system. What other system can he use?
Similarly, many of us have no choice but to use private cars -- while advocating the use of public transport.

Bob Corcoran | 19 November 2009  

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