The bankrobbers caught on camera at the start of Capitalism: A Love Story are a forlorn and feeble bunch. We see a bedraggled old man in a Hawaiian shirt, and what looks to be a 12-year-old boy wearing a balaclava. For all their flailing efforts, they've got nothing on the real crooks: the banking CEOs who recently absconded with $700bn of public money, no strings attached. That's what's known as a clean getaway.
Michael Moore's latest documentary drew tumultuous applause at the Venice film festival, suggesting that the veteran tub-thumper has lost none of his power to whip up a response. If the film finally lacks the clean, hard punch provided by the record-breaking Fahrenheit 9/11, that can only be because the crime scene is so vast and the culprits so numerous.
Undeterred, Moore jabs his finger at everyone from Reagan to Bush Jr, Hank Paulson to Alan Greenspan. He drags the viewer through a thicket of insurance scams, sub-prime bubbles and derivative trading so wilfully obfuscatory that even the experts can't explain how it works.
The big villain, of course, is capitalism itself, which the film paints as a wily old philanderer intent on lining the pockets of the few at the expense of the many. America, enthuses a leaked Citibank report, is now a modern-day "plutonomy" where the top 1% of the population control 95% of the wealth. Does Barack Obama's election spell an end to all this?
The director has his doubts, pointing out that Goldman Sachs--depicted here as the principal agent of wickedness--was the largest private contributor to the Obama campaign.
Capitalism: A Love Story is by turns crude and sentimental, impassioned and invigorating. It posits a simple moral universe inhabited by good little guys and evil big ones, yet the basic thrust of its argument proves hard to resist.
Crucially, Moore (or at least his researchers) has done a fine job in ferreting out the human stories behind the headlines.
None of these is so horrifyingly absurd as the tale of the privatised youth detention centre in Pennsylvania, run with the help of a crooked local judge who railroaded kids through his court for a cut of the profits. Some 6,500 children were later found to have been wrongly convicted for such minor infractions as smoking pot and "throwing a piece of steak at my mom's boyfriend". The subsequent bill for their incarceration went directly to the taxpayer.
Moore's conclusion? That capitalism is both un-Christian and un-American, an evil that deserves not regulation but elimination. No doubt he had concluded all this anyway, well in advance of making the film, but no matter. There is something energising--even moving--about the sight of him setting out to prove it all over again. Like some shambling Columbo, he amasses the evidence, takes witness statements from the victims and then starts doorstepping the guilty parties.
"I need some advice!" Moore shouts to some hastening Wall Street trader who has just left his office. "Don't make any more movies!" the man shoots back. Moore chuckles at that, but the last laugh is his. This, more than any other, is the movie they will wish he had never embarked on.
© PROMETHEUS 148/2009
PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin - News, Politics, Art and Science. Nr. 148, October 2009