A documentary film directed by Michael Moore.
Rated M (adult themes). 126 mins.
Michael Moore seems to enjoy the status of a sign of contradiction, not only in the world of documentaries but in his capacity for challenge to social conditions and policies and the repercussions for government, companies and for ordinary people: American gun culture in his Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine (2002), terrorism and the Bush administration, Fahrenheit 911 (2004) and, an issue which is currently causing political division in the US, American health care, in Sicko (2007).
Now, in the aftermath of the banking scandals and the credit crunch, a look at American Capitalism and its consequences – not only for Americans but for all of us.
It is worth saying that Michael Moore is less abrasive than he has been in other films. Not less critical.
His films are often criticised for being partisan with the implication that documentary is meant to be objective. This is not the case in even the most 'objective' of films. There is always the point of view of the film-makers and what they include and what they omit, let alone the angles at which they photograph. So, Moore's kind of documentary, a legitimate genre, is polemic. He likes to provoke – and not without reason. When there was criticism of bias in Fahrenheit 911, it seemed that even if only half of what he included in the film was true, then that was extremely alarming.
The title of the present film is heavily ironic – except that Americans have long been in love with Capitalism, especially as the contrary to Socialism and, especially, Communism. Moore takes us back through American history and the developments of capitalism in the land of opportunity. He then focuses on particular individuals, companies and the exploitative money-making in their ventures.
Coming to 2008, he has quite an amount of material, especially but not exclusively, on the banks and the reckless gambling with money, hedge funds, mortgage deals and the duping of innocent (and often naïve) ordinary people with extra interest rates. As always, Moore makes his case emotionally, humorously and personally (with visits to Flint, Michigan, where he comes from and excerpts from his 1989 documentary about General Motors, Roger and Me, which now seems more prophetic than would ever have been thought in the past).
Critics carp at Moore's stunts. But, that is what Moore enjoys. It is a weapon for a polemicist (even taping off blocks of the financial district of New York at the end of the film as a crime scene). He likes and films his being turned away from buildings while requesting to see the company bosses.
There is a great deal to think about as we watch the stories of put-upon people, the insensitive comments of the wealthy wheeler-dealers, the facts and figures of the banking collapse and the details of what the banks have been doing and risking in recent years. Bush is a target. Obama is seen as a sign of hope.
What Moore is doing in his documentary polemic is entertaining and alarming, sermonising and challenging, provoking and provoking.
Moore joked anecdotally in 2003 that during Mass on the day he was awarded the Best Documentary Oscar for Bowling for Columbine, he was distracted during the homily. This time his Catholicism is far more explicit in Capitalism, going back to explain his Catholic upbringing (with some home movie clips, even with the sisters at his parochial school), mentioning that he thought about being a priest when he was young and explaining the credibility of priesthood for him through his admiration for priests who marched for social issues, including with Martin Luther King. There are also glimpses of Dan Berrigan SJ in some clips.
For testimonies about the evils in capitalism, he also goes to some clergy for interviews, to two priests from Detroit who officiated at family weddings. He also presents two bishops. An auxiliary bishop of Chicago, speaking at a Mass early in 2009 in solidarity with strikers who were sacked without pay by Republic Doors and Windows and were protesting. (After six days Bank of America decided to pay the wages owed.) He emphasised that the Church stood with them. He also talks with Emeritus Auxiliary Bishop of Detroit, Thomas Gumbleton, a noted figure for his stances and articles on war and peace issues. Moore asks the bishop what Jesus would think of Capitalism. The bishop explains how so many aspects of capitalism, especially rampant capitalism, have no place in the Gospels.
Moore can be mischievous and provocative. He brings Jesus into the film more explicitly. By using clips from Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth, he dubs a Robert Powell voice-alike which makes the point about Jesus and capitalism more humorously and tellingly. By having Jesus say outlandish capitalist opinions in his preaching and by having Jesus refuse to heal someone because of insurance difficulties and medical pre-condition, he makes his audience laugh - and, he hopes, think. By showing a scene of the way of the cross and the crucifixion, he certainly makes his point. A different use of the Jesus-figure.
Moore fans will enjoy Capitalism and feel some moral outrage. Non-fans will probably just be outraged.
Paramount Opens November 2
Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.