The Inspector Columbo of film polemics gives us his most radical take yet in "Capitalism: A Love Story."
With "Capitalism: A Love Story," Michael Moore delivers his liveliest, most radical film to date. Forget the weary debate over the lack of dissenting voices and balance in his work. Moore is a provocateur, and "Capitalism" is a Molotov cocktail thrown straight at the heart of the New York Stock Exchange. The impact is spectacular.
This is no eye-glazing tutorial on debt swaps (Moore shows us a tongue-tied Harvard economist unable to explain a derivative). Instead, the film gives us a rollicking review of economic outrages and a scalding critique of insatiable greed. Capitalism isn't just a flawed theory, Moore argues, it's evil, a multiplier of all that is selfish and wrong in human nature. Fingers are pointed, names are named. Democrats take almost as many lumps as Republicans.
We meet families evicted from homes where they have lived for decades, airline pilots paid so little they qualify for food stamps, spouses stunned to learn that ghoulish employers took out secret insurance policies on their loved ones and made millions when they died.
How did the Crisis of '08 come about? Moore rewinds to the heady days of World War II, when government expenditures boosted America's morbid economy, and the 1950s, when single-worker blue-collar households lived well.
Moore's Good Old Days came to a screeching halt when Ronald Reagan brought in Wall Street financier Donald Regan as his first Treasury secretary. Regan was the chief spokesman for the 1981 tax cut, trimming taxes for low-income families while slashing rates for the wealthy. Moore is spare with charts and graphs, but they clearly detail the greatest upward redistribution of wealth in U.S. history. Government connived with big business to reduce financial regulations, and let the captains of the market steer whatever course they chose.
Like over a waterfall. Moore recounts last year's panic in scary detail, connecting the dots between ballooning mortgage rates, mass defaults and the near-meltdown of global capital markets. Inevitably, the big-bonus crowd used the crisis to stuff their pockets with stimulus money: "Heads we win, tails we win."
After 20 years in the movie business, Moore knows that Groucho Marx trumps Karl Marx. Laughs and hope sell better than anger, and Moore tempers his attacks with prankishly re-edited old movies and plenty of good cheer. One of the film's heroes is polio researcher Dr. Jonas Salk, who could have enriched himself by claiming patent rights to his vaccine. He gave it away for free. Saving millions from paralysis and death was reward enough.
Moore once again shambles through the story like Inspector Columbo, asking naive questions and building his case piece by piece. Today the nation's top 1 percent of households own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. In 2005, analysts at Citigroup coined the term "plutonomy" to describe America's massive wealth inequality. Given the wealth-friendly government policies in place, the report concluded, the rich were guaranteed to keep getting richer.
The only cloud that Citigroup's researchers spied on the horizon was the chance of indignant political backlash: "One person, one vote" worried the analysts. If Moore has his way, the other 99 percent of voters will make themselves heard. "I refuse to live in a country like this," he declares, "and I'm not leaving."
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186