Senior HTF Member
- Feb 12, 1998
- Real Name
- Michael Reuben
Capitalism: A Love Story (Blu-ray)
Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Film Length: 127 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 50GB + 1 DVD (digital copy)
Theatrical Release Date: Sept. 23, 2009 (limited)
Blu-ray Release Date: Mar. 9, 2010
The trailer for Michael Moore’s latest film showed the familiar rotund figure in a baseball cap trying to make a citizen’s arrest of A.I.G.’s directors and standing outside the company’s headquarters demanding the return of bailout money. Those are sentiments with broad appeal. So why did the film do so much less box office than Sicko, Fahrenheit 9/11 or Bowling for Columbine? Has the provocateur from Flint lost his edge? Has he become the worst possible thing for a filmmaker who thrives on controversy: mainstream?
Hardly. The film’s marketing was a miscalculation, because Capitalism is only secondarily about the 2008 financial crisis. To Moore, that was just the latest in a long list of crimes perpetrated against the American middle class by the relentless logic of corporate profit-making. He was already at work on Capitalism when the financial crisis hit. The film is a restatement, further exploration and damning summation of themes that have been at the center of Moore’s work since his first film, 1989's Roger and Me.
It’s hard to summarize a Michael Moore film, because they never follow a straight line. That’s part of what gives his films their distinctive edge, and it can drive even his fans up the wall. He never pursues a point to its logical conclusion or pauses to weigh contrary evidence, because he’s always rushing off in another direction, usually seeking some fresh provocation. It’s an effective approach for entertainment; less so for persuasion.
When the film was released, the usual Moore-haters scored an easy “gotcha!” by noting that, if Moore hated capitalism so much, he should have given the film away for free. It’s a stupid argument. Anyone who watches the film without ideological blinkers can see that the title should be taken literally. Michael Moore really does love capitalism. At least, he used to.
As he relates in the film, Moore was raised in a comfortable middle class existence provided by what he views as the golden age of American productivity. His father worked for GM, where he earned a good wage and benefits, thanks to union battles won by an earlier generation. Foreign competition was non-existent, because Europe and Japan were still resurrecting themselves from the rubble of World War II. Moore regards this as an era when capitalism worked, because it was held in check by competing values exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. (He acknowledges that serious social inequities persisted, as shown in footage from the early civil rights movement.)
Then Moore skips forward several decades to the moment when he believes American capitalism fundamentally changed: the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. It’s worth noting that Moore is not alone in viewing this event as a watershed in American history. The difference is that where many saw (and still see) Reagan’s ascendancy as a new era of strength and prosperity, Moore sees disaster. For him, Reagan was a corporate “spokesmodel”, and his election signaled the capture of American democracy by the forces of big business. (He’s particularly scathing on the influence of Don Regan, former head of Merrill Lynch, then Treasury Secretary in Reagan’s first term, and finally the formidable chief of staff in his second, who once famously told Reagan to “speed it up” during a speech.) Reagan’s iconic pronouncement that “government is not the solution, government is the problem” would usher in an era of deregulation whose effects, especially in the financial world, continue to be felt thirty years later.
After 1980, the capitalism that had been the jolly enabler of Moore’s childhood transformed into an abusive robber baron, sweeping away jobs and destroying lives. People who proclaim that “Michael Moore hates America” simply aren’t paying attention; even a semi-alert viewer can’t help but notice the overwhelming sense of disappointment and betrayal that dominates his films – but never more so than in Capitalism: A Love Story. Like Charles Dickens, who loved his native England but was appalled at the human cost exacted by its industrial revolution, Moore is determined to put a face on the toll exacted from individuals by the unbridled pursuit of wealth. And like Dickens, Moore’s solutions (be honest, be good to others, don’t take more than you need) may appear naive and utopian, but they’re nobler than the alternative.
The film offers a rogues’ gallery of profiteers, and Moore’s point is that they’re not aberrations but model capitalists, because greed and taking advantage of others have become the essence of the system. There’s Peter Zalewski, a colorful character who’s a principal in Condo Vultures, which specializes in distressed Southern Florida real estate. There’s the ugly phenomenon known as “Dead Peasants Insurance”, in which companies purchase life insurance policies on their own employees, even at low levels, then profit if those employees die; the companies engaging in this cold-blooded actuarial game are a who’s who of the Fortune 500. (The film neglects to mention that Congress limited, but did not eliminate, the practice in 2006.) And then there are the leaked 2005 and 2006 memos from Citigroup, future recipient of billions in bailout funds, to their top investor clients offering an analysis of the United States economy as a “plutonomy” and featuring language of unusual directness:
But the balance of power between right (generally pro-plutonomy) and left (generally pro-equality) is on a knife-edge in many countries. Just witness how close the U.S. election was last year, or how close the results of the German election were. A collapse in wealth in the plutonomies, felt by the masses, and/or prolonged recession could easily raise the prospects of anti-plutonomy policy.
Our whole plutonomy thesis is based on the idea that the rich will keep getting richer. This thesis is not without its risks. For example, a policy error leading to asset deflation, would likely damage plutonomy. Furthermore, the rising wealth gap between the rich and poor will probably at some point lead to a political backlash.
Many of the “masses” are suffering. The film opens with heart-rending scenes of evictions in such disparate locales as Lexington, North Carolina; Detroit, Michigan; and Peoria, Illinois. The last is a scene to which the film returns repeatedly, because it involves a home on farm land owned by the same family for generations; nothing about the story fits the popular stereotype of a “flipper” or subprime borrower. Then there are the kids who were shipped for petty (or non) offenses to juvenile detention facilities run by PA Child Care, a for-profit facility that paid off Pennsylvania judges to ensure a steady flow of inmates to generate an income stream. (Several judges were ultimately indicted.) Free market advocates routinely assert that government oversight ensures waste and corruption, but Moore’s point here is that corporate oversight doesn’t guarantee a different outcome.
The film spends a long time with the two hundred employees of Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, who were fired just before Christmas 2008 and their pay withheld, after Bank of America (which was already lining up for bailout money) pulled the company’s line of credit. That story is one of the few with a moderately happy ending, because the workers took over the plant and locked themselves in, demanding to be paid what they were owed. When influential figures like Chicago’s archbishop sided with the workers, the company and the bank caved.
The Chicago archbishop isn’t the only religious authority to make an appearance in Capitalism. Moore interviews several priests who forthrightly declare capitalism to be a sin and a bishop from Detroit who unhesitatingly declares that Jesus would have no part of capitalism. In some ways, this is one of the most entertainingly subversive elements of the film. It’s a standard American ritual to invoke Jesus in support of one’s point of view, no matter what it may be. Why shouldn’t Michael Moore join in? As if to acknowledge the game, Moore includes clips from such figures as former Sen. Phil Gramm declaring the godliness of capitalism.
When Moore reaches the subject of financial deregulation, he is genuinely bipartisan. He spares the Clinton administration no more than any other (and deservedly so); he’s vicious in rehashing the financial industry’s capture of Christopher Dodd, the Democratic Senator who chairs the Banking Committee (though not for much longer); and he’s merciless on the Democratic Congress that approved the $700 billion bailout of the financial industry in October 2008.
Moore views the bailout as the final indignity heaped on the American public by a deregulated financial industry, which, having lured millions of people into a ruinous game of living on credit with adjustable mortgages, teaser rates, credit card traps and other assorted snares, now went to Washington and looted their tax money. He clearly admires the early outpouring of constituent protest that initially persuaded Congress to reject any bailout. However, as we know, that was just a temporary setback. At the end of the film, Moore is on Wall Street, encircling its buildings with “Crime Scene” tape.
A personal note: My own favorite moment occurs halfway through the film, when Moore offers excerpts from interviews with a former vice president at Lehman Bros. and a Harvard professor, each of whom tries to explain what a derivative is and immediately becomes tongue-tied. Lest anyone think that Moore edited the film to make these guys look bad, I can assure you he didn’t. I’ve been there. More than a decade before the 2008 meltdown, I sat across a table from some very smart people who made a great living creating and trading derivatives, and they were just as unable to explain them. These people had far greater incentive to make themselves understood than the interviewees in Capitalism, because they were being sued for their work and needed me to understand it, so that I could explain it to a judge and prepare them to explain it to a jury (which, lucky for them, they never had to do). Once you’ve seen this stuff up close, you understand why it’s “toxic”. No one knows what it really is, and no one knows what it’s worth. It might as well be Monopoly money, because it’s only worth something while everyone’s still playing the game.
The hi-def video image is clean and detailed, except where the source materials do not permit, such as with archival footage. This is not a film where one expects to be wowed by the image, but it’s a pleasure to see a documentary that has been well-photographed and reproduced using the best available technology.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is serviceable but unremarkable. As this is a documentary driven by dialogue, only the front channel is active for lengthy stretches. There is musical accompaniment, which is well presented with good fidelity, but it’s mostly in the front left and right channels. Probably the only sequence with any elaborate sound editing is an elaborate parody in which an address by former President Bush announcing the financial crisis is set against a background of cartoon calamity as a way of illustrating Moore’s argument that the country was scared into approving the bailout with inadequate deliberation and without adequate oversight.
Except where noted, all special features are in HD.
Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren on How Wall Street Got Away with Murder (Blu-ray exclusive) (8:20). It’s hard to think of anyone who has done more than Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren to expose the predatory practices of the credit card industry. Her revelations in the documentary Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders were some of the most shocking. In November 2008, she was appointed chair of the congressional oversight panel that was supposed to ensure transparency of the TARP bailout program, only to find that Congress had ensured a lack of accountability, because recipients of TARP funds aren’t required to disclose what they’ve done with the money. In this interview, Warren talks about the frustrations of the situation and also offers a short history of the credit card industry. If you’ve ever found yourself unable to decipher a credit card agreement, you may find it reassuring to learn that neither can a distinguished professor of contract law. They’re written that way on purpose.
Sorry, House-Flippers and Banks – You’re Toast in Flint, MI (5:32). A fascinating interview with the city treasurer of Moore’s home town. After GM pulled out of Flint and unemployment soared, the town became a haven for real estate speculators, who were buying up abandoned, foreclosed or derelict homes for pennies on the dollar. As neighborhoods deteriorated, the treasurer successfully lobbied for a change in the law allowing the city to foreclose on any property where the real estate taxes were unpaid for two years. This allowed city authorities to begin removing some of the worst urban blight.
Congressman Cummings Dares to Speak the Unspeakable (7:07). An interview with Congressman Elijah Cummings, a seven-term Democrat from Maryland. A sample: “Most people in my district aren’t trying to get steak. They’re just trying to get meatloaf.”
NY Times Pulitzer Prize Winner Chris Hedges on the Killing Machine Known as Capitalism (8:43). Hedges provides an apocalyptic assessment of the current state of the American economy.
The Rich Don’t Go to Heaven (There’s a Special Place Reserved for Them!) (8:29). Further conversation with Father Dick Preston, one of the priests who appear in the film. His observations on the Somalia pirates are provocative (to put it mildly).
What If, Just If, We Had Listened to Jimmy Carter in 1979? (SD; 17:50). An edited version of President Carter’s televised address to the nation on July 15, 1979, a snippet of which appears in the film. Although the immediate issue was the oil crisis of the Seventies, Carter addressed a wide array of topics. Listen in amazement at how little has changed.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma? It’s Capitalism (6:10). This section features Michael Pollan, a professor at Berkeley, who also played a key role in Food, Inc., discussing the impact of the profit motive on food and health. Also included are interviews with participants in alternatives such as “CSA” (or “community supported agriculture”) and the “backyard garden program” in West Oakland, CA.
Commie Taxi Drivers – “You Talkin’ to Me?” – in Wisconsin (5:48). A profile of the Union Cab Company in Madison, WI, which is run as a workers' cooperative. The title comes from the opening, which neatly parodies the great Scorsese film.
How to Run the Place Where You Work (11:16). An extended interview with Professor Tom Webb, identified as an expert on worker cooperatives.
The Socialist Bank of – North Dakota? (4:43). A fascinating interview with Dr. Rozanne Enverson Junker, identified as a “political scientist”, tracing the history of the state-owned Bank of North Dakota. Founded in the early 20th Century to give farmers an alternative to the big city banks that charged high interest and steep origination fees (sound familiar?), the bank was ordered by the state’s governor to suspend foreclosures during the Depression when customers couldn’t pay their mortgages. After the Depression, it sold farm land on which it had foreclosed back to the original owners at cost. Today the bank is in sound shape, because it never held derivatives or issued subprime mortgages. All its earnings benefit the state treasury.
The Bank Kicks Them Out, Max Kicks Them Back In (10:51). An extended portrait of Max Rameau, a sort of housing vigilante who appears briefly in the film. Founder of a Miami grass roots organization called Take Back the Land, Max places homeless families in homes that have been abandoned and left vacant through foreclosure; often it’s the same family that’s been forced out of the home. The family gets a chance to regroup and recover, while the structure remains occupied and is less at risk of break-in and overall deterioration than if it had remained vacant. It’s a fascinating example of one man’s populist, though not entirely legal, answer to a seemingly intractable problem.
Trailers. Both the teaser trailer and the theatrical trailer are included. The teaser trailer is funnier. It’s in the form of a PSA, with Moore speaking directly to the audience.
Credits. A short repeat of the film’s credits.
Digital Copy. Unlike some digital copies, this one does not appear to have an expiration date.
One Wall Street professional ambushed by Moore tells him not to make any more movies – and he puts the remark in the film. His final words are to the audience: “You know, I can’t really do this anymore, unless those of you who are watching this in the theater want to join me. I hope you will. And please, speed it up.” The lack of box office for Capitalism: A Love Story suggests he may be waiting a while.
One issue that Moore hasn’t figured out how to address is that, while much of America may share his anger at Wall Street’s greed and Washington’s complicity, the anger probably doesn’t run in the same direction. Moore’s belief that Washington can be taken back by the people appears genuine. But much of the populace has watched the same 30-year (and more) history that Moore presents, and maybe they’re not so sure anymore. Just look at the top two officials responsible for economic policy in the current administration: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and top presidential advisor Larry Summers. Both feature prominently in Capitalism: A Love Story, and neither comes off like a reformer.
[SIZE= 9px]Equipment used for this review:[/SIZE]
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[SIZE= 9px]Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (TrueHD decoded internally and output as analog)[/SIZE]
[SIZE= 9px]Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)[/SIZE]
[SIZE= 9px]Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough[/SIZE]
[SIZE= 9px]Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier[/SIZE]
[SIZE= 9px]Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears[/SIZE]
[SIZE= 9px]Boston Accoustics VR-MC center[/SIZE]
[SIZE= 9px]SVS SB12-Plus sub[/SIZE]