The Common Good
December 2009

Fat Cats and Failed Systems

by Danny Duncan Collum | December 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story examines a "filthy, rotten system."

In Capitalism: A Love Story, all of filmmaker Michael Moore’s obsessions fit into a unified picture of a world gone mad. And, as the title promises, all blame is laid squarely at the feet of what Dorothy Day used to call “this filthy, rotten system.”

Moore goes back to Flint, Michigan, as always, and encores some footage from Roger and Me (his 1989 directorial debut). Fear-mongering George W. Bush, the star of Fahrenheit 9/11, also makes one last appearance as the figurehead for the 2008 bank bailout that Moore labels “a financial coup d’état.”

If Sicko’s trip to Marx’s grave was too subtle for you, there’s no missing the message here: An economic system founded on private profit is inhuman, immoral, and unsustainable, and alternatives exist. After Capitalism, Moore has pretty much said it all.

The film also serves as the capstone of 20 years of work that revolutionized nonfiction filmmaking. Before Roger and Me, documentary filmmaking was a solemn affair, often devoted to the pretense that the filmmaker didn’t exist. Voice-over narration was verboten, and even explanatory titles were suspect. The idea was to present the illusion of unfiltered reality.

That ideal was a noble one, and it led to some astonishing cinematic achievements, such as Barbara Kopple’s portrait of striking coal miners in Harlan County, U.S.A. Documentaries of this school often claimed as inspiration James Agee’s injunction to capture “the cruel radiance of what is.” This is ironic since the central character of Agee’s classic book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is none other than James Agee. Indeed, what made the book a classic is its eccentric fusion of personal voice and observed truth.

Moore brought that same spirit to his filmmaking and, in the process, put political documentaries in the multiplexes for the first time. From the start, Moore put himself—the working-class guy from Flint—on camera at the center of the action. And he did Agee one better with his bent for staging filmed confrontations, usually in the lobbies of fat-cat office buildings. Of course, that strategy worked better when Moore was obscure enough to sneak into a General Motors shareholder meeting. When he tries the same tricks on Wall Street in 2009, everyone recognizes him from blocks away.

Moore’s man-in-the-street stunts may be played out, but his other trademark—fun and games with archival footage—keeps getting better. One high point of Capitalism is a sequence from a cheesy Jesus Christ biopic that uses over-dubbing to show the Savior spouting free-market verities. To the man crippled from birth, Jesus says, “I’m sorry, but this is a pre-existing condition. I can’t heal you.”

In fact, Christianity comes off pretty well in this movie. Moore traces his politics back to his Catholic upbringing and his boyhood admiration for radical priests such as the Berrigan brothers. He even has a good word for the nuns at his school. He trots out two Detroit priests who declare capitalism “evil,” and brings on “their boss,” Detroit retired auxiliary bishop Thomas Gumbleton, to provide an imprimatur for those sentiments.

Capitalism ends brilliantly, with a Vegas lounge act rendition of the old socialist anthem “The Internationale” playing over the closing credits, followed by a version of Woody Guthrie’s “Jesus Christ.” Interspersed among the credits are quotations from Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, warning of the danger of concentrated wealth. That’s Moore—maybe an unorthodox Christian, maybe a heterodox socialist, but certainly a small “d” American democrat.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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