Arts and Culture

Michael Moore, Yesterday's Manic

His political spin jobs once seemed needed. Now they're just part of America's very bad problem.

By Steve Burgess 24 Sep 2009 |

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture for The Tyee.

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Moore is less when it comes to logic.

After opening Friday in New York and L.A., Michael Moore's latest cinematic jeremiad Capitalism: A Love Story hits Vancouver next week. If Moore's recent track record is any guide, capitalism will survive.

Capitalism is the follow-up to Sicko, Moore's 2007 critique of America's healthcare system. Canadians cheered along with that one as Moore extolled the virtues of our single-payer system and examined the ways that Canadian-style healthcare has been demonized in the U.S. Yet amid the hysteria of the current healthcare debate in the States, the Canadian system was dismissed as an option almost immediately, just as happened during the Clinton-era healthcare push. Even President Obama has said that a single-payer system is a non-starter.

Fahrenheit 9/11 was a major cinematic hit for Moore, and it arrived in theatres during the nasty presidential election campaign of 2004 -- just when it could make a difference. It didn't. George W. Bush didn't even need the Supreme Court to take the election that year. Whatever else Michael Moore may be -- gadfly, activist, entertainer -- he does not appear to be a difference-maker. In fact when you consider Moore's tone, his message, and its effect, the obvious comparison is to another media enterprise that, for all its strident bloviating, could not stop the march of Barack Obama to the White House. Michael Moore is the mirror image of Fox News.

Michael Moore is a hero to many, and enough of a villain to others that he has become a major right-wing target. He's been parodied in at least two films (An American Carol and Team America: World Police). He is hated by all the right people. You've got to love a guy like that.

Or not. At a time when the hope for civil discourse dies amid the town hall screaming and the Obama is Hitler/Witch Doctor/Joker signs, it's hard to applaud strident harangues from the Left -- especially those as thoroughly muddled as Moore's latest. Capitalism: A Love Story is an odd beast, a collection of sometimes truly disturbing stories combined with some bizarre logic and political magical thinking, all in service of a highly dubious proposition.

Right away, the film's tone is striking. Video clips of bank robbers are followed by heart-rending scenes of families being evicted from their homes as they curse the banks and the powers that be, and pack up their guns. It's populism of the Bonnie and Clyde variety. One could imagine very similar scenes presented for the purposes of right-wing demagoguery -- perhaps a tax revolt, or an anti-immigrant message. Moore's brand of populism occupies the ground where left and right wing anger often meet. It's instructive that later in the film Moore will be railing against the bank bailout, taking a position squarely in line with that taken by many conservative Republicans at the time. Moore may mock Sarah Palin, but his anti-government rhetoric is not dissimilar.

Start making sense

Capitalism: A Love Story contains segments that would have been perfect for Moore's old TV Nation show -- exposes of the slimy practices of large corporations that take out huge insurance policies on their own employees, profiting from their deaths while families themselves get nothing but grief; a segment on underpaid airline pilots; and a piece about the corrupt judge who got kickbacks for sending kids to a privately-owned detention facility. Shocking stuff. But demonstrations of the fundamental failure of capitalism? Bad news, Mike: corruption, greed, and cronyism know no system.

Even putting aside Moore's status as a rather successful capitalist filmmaker, the flaws in his logic are so obvious as to be embarrassing. His source for the insurance policy outrages, for instance, is a lawyer. And this lawyer is investigating for... good karma? Elsewhere Moore shows workers who have formed a co-operative to run their factory, sell their goods, and share the profits. There's a name for that: capitalism.

Moore's recounting of the sub-prime mortgage crisis is particularly dizzying. He repeatedly refers to an entity called "The Rich," as in this description of the 2008 bank bailout: "But first 'The Rich' decided to pull one last heist."

This is after we've been told that The Rich, or at least The Banks, had concocted the sub-prime mortgage "scam" (Moore's word) as a deliberate means of stealing people's homes. Thus, to review, The Rich cleverly created a plan that would steal people's homes, which would then plunge in value as the bottom fell out of the real estate market, thereby causing almost 150 banks to fail, thus setting up the REAL heist: the Congressional bailout. Better than a David Mamet script.

Moore describes the passing of the bailout package as a "coup d'etat," backed by well-orchestrated media hysteria. But one news clip shows the 777-point stock market plunge that followed the initial failure of the bailout. Apparently in Moore's world this did not represent pension funds cratering, ordinary investors losing their savings, and businesses facing failure -- it was just The Rich getting their asses kicked. (Those wanting a more nuanced point of view may want to pick up the current issue of The New Yorker).

Two sides of a spinning coin?

Moore's worldview is every bit as Manichean as Glenn Beck's. No one will need 3-D glasses to watch this movie. But maintaining his Good Guys/Evil Guys mindset requires some serious contortions. Moore consistently paints the bailout package as the sinister work of the Bush administration, ignoring the fact that Obama supported the plan and then continued it. In fact Moore describes "The Rich" trembling before the prospect of the Obama uprising. Which explains, Moore tells us, why the robber barons of Goldman Sachs became Obama's top campaign contributors -- merely a desperate attempt by The Rich to buy off our hero. So then: when Republicans get investment bank money, they're in bed with the Devil. When Obama gets it, it's just proof The Rich are running scared.

One begins to wonder about Moore's definition of capitalism. "Capitalism is an evil," Moore states, "and you cannot regulate evil. You have to replace it with something that works for everybody, and that something is called democracy."

So, we're going to vote on who gets goods and services? I vote for more.

Toward the end of the film Moore starts to sound seriously wacky. He digs out a clip of a late speech in which President Franklin Roosevelt proposed a worker's bill of rights. Moore then seems to suggest that, had FDR but lived a little longer, there would be no economic injustice in America whatsoever (and no Hurricane Katrinas, either). Watching this segment, and much of Moore's film, offers the same depressing feeling inspired by watching Beck, or Sean Hannity, or Bill O'Reilly -- the sense that American political activists occupy two antagonistic fantasy worlds.

Go out and cheer Capitalism: A Love Story next week if you must. But remember, popcorn costs money. Eat the rich.  [Tyee]

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