BY FARAH NAYERI
“We’re here to get the money back for the American people,” says filmmaker Michael Moore, as he tries to take an empty canvas bag into the heavily guarded headquarters of a bailed-out bank.
The 55-year-old satirist has much to rant about, what with the September 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and the $700 billion taxpayer bailout of the financial system. Those milestones should have been enough to fill up all two hours of his documentary “Capitalism: A Love Story,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival at the weekend.
Yet Moore chooses to cover a lot more than just the Wall Street crisis, or “financial coup d’etat” as he calls it. His documentary is a wholesale indictment of capitalism: funny, gloomy and even a little preachy.
“Capitalism is an evil, and you cannot regulate evil,” he lectures in the final voiceover. “You have to eliminate it and replace it with something that’s good for all people, and that something is called democracy.”
Wearing a dark jacket and a denim cap at a packed Venice news conference yesterday, Moore said he told his crew to consider this “the last film they let us make.” His aim, he said, was to “speak the words that need to be spoken,” and “raise the issues that need to be raised.”
What we get is a grab-bag, best-of-Michael-Moore compilation, with echoes of his other movies “Roger & Me” (1989), “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) and “Sicko” (2007).
“Capitalism” opens with heart-rending foreclosure scenes. A young black man watches as his lifelong home is boarded up. A white woman sobs as a short-sleeved sheriff appears with an eviction notice.
“This is capitalism,” says the Moore voiceover, “a system of taking and giving, mostly taking.”
Next, we meet a Florida-based man who works for a company called Condo Vultures. It deals with clients who buy foreclosed homes and sell them at a profit. The difference between him and a real vulture? “I don’t vomit on myself!” he cackles.
As Moore’s movie zooms out to show the many other pernicious aspects of capitalism, it loses focus.
Offering a lesson in postwar economics, Moore starts by depicting his comfortable 1950s childhood as an autoworker’s son, and ends with the 1980 election of President Ronald Reagan.
“The country would now be run by a corporation,” says Moore, pointing out that Reagan’s Treasury secretary Donald Regan was previously the chairman and chief executive officer of Merrill Lynch & Co.
Moore then offers illustrations of capitalism’s worst excesses. A company running a juvenile home gets youths locked up for minor offenses — squabbling in a mall, mocking faculty on the Web — so it can overcharge the state. Other companies collect hefty life-insurance payments on dead employees. Underpaid airline pilots live on food stamps, sell their plasma, and moonlight as dog walkers to make ends meet.
Moore shows how citizens are taking the matter into their own hands: through collective company ownership, through sit- ins, and through squatter action. He encourages them to do more.
In an openly religious section, a priest defines capitalism as “immoral, obscene, outrageous.” Jesus wouldn’t approve, says Moore. He tries to prove it by redubbing an old movie where the Christ figure is made to pronounce free-market messages such as: “He’ll have to pay out of pocket.”
“Somehow, I don’t think Jesus came to earth to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange,” Moore deadpans.
Not till the second half does Moore finally get down to what he has pitched his film to be: a lampooning of Wall Street. This section has an urgency that the others lack. It’s scathing, effective and hilarious.
Wall Street bankers are stopped on the street for a definition of derivatives. All are silent, except for one, who replies, “Don’t make any more movies!” A former Lehman Brothers executive and a Harvard University pundit are no better at explaining the financial instruments.
Moore gives a blow-by-blow account of the bailout. He suggests that former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s prior job as chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. led the administration to “use the taxpayers to bail out Goldman and other favored financial institutions.” (A spokesman for Goldman Sachs, contacted via e-mail, declined to comment on Moore’s statement.)
Here, the facts and figures speak for themselves, and Moore has a field day rolling them off. In the final scene, we see him sticking a long yellow strip of tape on a row of Wall Street security barriers. It reads: “CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS.”
“Capitalism: A Love Story” once again shows Moore as a talented pamphleteer and a voice in American democracy. Only the film runs on too long, and tries to be too many things at once. Moore’s best movies are single-issue ones, like “Sicko” (on health care) and “Bowling for Columbine” (about gun laws). Too bad this one didn’t make Wall Street the sole theme.
See Related: FILM
See Related: BANKING CRISIS
ABOUT SAN FRANCISCO SENTINEL
SENTINEL FOUNDER PAT MURPHY