HOLLYWOOD — How do you make a movie about the country’s current economic crisis and actually get people to see it?
Two obstacles most obviously arise: illustrating such a potentially dry subject in a compelling way, and persuading audiences to pay money for information they can get at home — and feel depressed about — for free.
Having Michael Moore as our guide certainly helps. Twenty years after he took on General Motors with his powerful debut “Roger & Me,” the proud provocateur is aiming at the same sorts of targets with his latest documentary, “Capitalism: A Love Story.”
This is vintage Moore, reflecting both the filmmaker’s fondness for manipulation and his strengths as a showman. As he did with “Sicko” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” he typically oversimplifies a complicated topic to make it accessible and amusing for the broadest possible audience. Obviously, when he returns to GM’s headquarters two decades later — and the security guard sees him and his crew coming from a mile away — he’s doing it as a hilarious spectacle and he doesn’t really expect to get into the building for an interview.
It’s good for a laugh, as is so much of “Capitalism.” But Moore also tells moving stories of specific families who’ve lost their homes to foreclosure, or airline pilots whose wages are so low, they rely on secondary jobs and food stamps to survive.
With a big assist from his crack team of archivists, he brilliantly juxtaposes 1950s footage of wholesome guys and gals extolling the virtues of capitalism with all-too familiar shots of contemporary hardship. But we also see home movies of a young, towheaded Moore, excitedly visiting Wall Street from his home in Flint, Mich. — and looking impish even as a child — which will become even more relevant when Moore comes back to the economic vortex in the film’s final, dramatic moments.
In making the argument that capitalism is evil, Moore is all over the place, and he doesn’t even make the vaguest attempt at finding balance journalistically. Then again, he never has. But at least he’s equal opportunity, blaming politicians on both sides of the aisle for allowing Wall Street’s influence on government to lead us into the troubles we’re in today. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are right up there alongside then-U.S. Treasury Secretary (and former Goldman Sachs executive) Hank Paulson, announcing the $700 billion stimulus package that bailed out banks and mortgage giants last year.
And he’s just as inclusive in his suggestion that, while we’re all in this thing together, we’re also capable of making a change together. (Along those thematic lines, the only person who doesn’t receive any kind of skewering is President Barack Obama.)
“Capitalism” may make you feel hopeless, with its tales of corporations taking out huge insurance policies on dying workers and judges accused of accepting bribes to send teenagers away to a for-profit Pennsylvania juvenile detention center for ridiculous reasons. But it also gains the most momentum with real-life examples of the people standing up for themselves, such as the laid-off Chicago window company workers who staged a good, old-fashioned sit-in to fight for outstanding wages, or the California bakery that functions as a co-op where the employees are also the owners.
As dense and daunting as “Capitalism” can often seem, it may also be Moore’s most hopeful film yet, and it couldn’t be more relevant or resonant. See it — and argue about it — with someone you love.
“Capitalism: A Love Story,” an Overture Films release, is rated R for some language. Running time: 126 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.