October 02, 2009
My Review of "Capitalism: A Love Story"

Michael Moore's movie, "Capitalism" A Love Story" was a slow starter, but rose to moments where spontaneous hoots and tears flowed in the audience. It's not a blockbuster, but it's a good film, with takeaway moments that are rich for reflection.

The many previews preceding the film were typically commercial, so I wondered how "Capitalism" would begin. Would it visually and energetically flow, and fit within its context? Or would it have a strange and jarring start, like a dose of cold water? I was pleased that it was the former. It flowed and has a hip, artistic beginning.

And yet initially, the story felt slow and unsupported. Moore starts with intimate and personal stories of people who are being foreclosed on -- heartwrenching stories to be sure -- but he doesn't give the background on those stories, like how the people got into debt to begin with. It's a little fuzzy, and without the background, the people come off as mainly whiney. Of course they hurt, but I wanted to know *why* their particular story was an injustice.

At about the 45 minute mark however, the film starts to warm up and get going, specifically with the story of privatized juvenile detention centers which paid a county and local judiciary per headcount of juveniles incarcerated. The heat starts to rise when you hear the stories of the young people jailed for up to a year for, for example, throwing a piece of cooked meat, or arguing in public (no fisticuffs) -- a YEAR! -- without any review or oversight because somebody was profiting from their presence in the for-profit facility. The trauma of one young man who, now free, prefers being alone where he can avoid anyone controlling him, is palpable.

The film moves from there to show corporations which secretly take out insurance policies on workers, and highlights the families of two who died, and who struggled financially after the deaths while the corporations raked in up to $5 million (!) each on the deceased. The question is clear -- if higher payouts occur when someone is healthy and young yet dies, maybe the corporations prefer people to die young rather than live. And should someone be able to purchase a policy on you without your consent?

Next Moore covers airline pilots and it's appalling to discover that commercial pilots, who are responsible for the safety of hundreds of people daily, TYPICALLY make only $17K per year, while carrying a burden of up to $100K in student loans, plus trying to cover regular living expenses. It's not surprising to learn that many pilots have second jobs, and as a result are dangerously tired and overstressed because of their finances. One pilot interviewed says it's common for pilots to qualify for, and use, food stamps. The airlines simply ask them not to make purchases with food stamps while wearing their uniforms.

Moore then rolls through the stock market crash of last year and highlights how everyone in the Treasury Department was (or is) connected with Goldman Sachs, which conveniently was the only big bank still standing after the bloodbath. He nails Reagan and GW Bush, and Clinton somewhat, for basically swallowing, re-packaging, and re-presenting the slick likes sold them by the financial "experts" who had a direct interest in deconstructing our existing, legal, financial protections, for profit -- like Phil Gramm, Donald Regan and Bernie Madoff.

He also completely obliterates the Christian Right's claim that capitalism is God's chosen form of social and economic exchange. One weakness however is that his personal viewpoint is Catholic, which isn't so bad, but he doesn't cover any other spiritual or religious traditions, so I doubt it will effectively break through the Christian Right's fundamentalist wall.

The movie picks up strength when he runs through some history, for example the fact that in the 1940s and 1950s wealthy people were taxed at a 90% tax rate (indeed!), but they still managed to live very comfortable lives, while the healthy pool of common tax receipts (then) was used to build highways and schools, as well as pay watchdogs and inspectors, to keep E Pluribus Unum safe. Jobs were plentiful, homes were affordable, families could afford one parent staying home to care for children, and people had health coverage and paid vacations.

More could have been made of the leaked Citibank letter, addressed to its elite top investors, boasting about how increasing deregulation had put them on a nearly guaranteed "gravy train", with the only real risk being the people waking up and using their votes (which they gloated was unlikely to happen...). He shows the letter, and it's a smoking gun, but rather than pursue the sick thinking behind it, Moore simply uses it as a subtle theme, as he builds his case for the power to change things being inside *us* (because we vote).

The most powerful, moving moments in the film are related to collective action -- like the very successful, worker-owned businesses he highlights, a robotic invention company and Alvarado Street Bakery -- which show that greed-based corporate models are #1, not the only way to do business, and #2, are not even necessarily the most profitable or healthy.

Tears, hoots and hollers erupted in the audience (in me too) during scenes showing workers getting together and staging a sit-in to force corporate owners to pay them their correct severance amounts, and most movingly, when an organized group of neighbors takes over several abandoned homes and puts people in them, rather than having hundreds of unoccupied, foreclosed homes, and also hundreds of homeless families living out of their cars, together turning their neighborhood into a wasteland. They fight the sheriff and win -- it's quite a moment.

Special mention goes to Marcy Kaptur, Representative of Ohio, for being a true watchdog for the people -- she completely RAKES the criminals in government over the coals. And for the sheriff of Wayne County Michigan who, after a certain point, recognizing that increasingly empty neighborhoods were only increasing crime and blight, refused to continue evicting people.

The conceptual heart of the film is probably the reflection on Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, who had a comfortable enough life, didn't need more, and so gave away his vaccine for free -- no rapacious pharmaceutical corporation patents or profits needed. And the question of how we could be sold the lie, and swallow it, that everybody who tries really hard... can attain an elite life, in mansions with private jets, like the top 0.5% of the population (a small minority). You wonder how "everybody" (or at least the majority) could EVER swallow the lie that they can fit into the top 0.5%.... It may be more proof that we have become hopelessly stupid, because obviously a majority ("everybody") can NEVER become a minority (top 0.5%).

But while we buy the lie, and remain in a trance, we will be milked. It behooves us to wake up. In Moore's vision that means learning to be satisfied with enough, stop indulging in excess and greed, participating in your community, standing up collectively for what's right and best for all, and voting.

Cinemagraphically, as a film, it could be tighter. But Capitalism is still a fine documentary and Moore raises good questions, illuminates viewpoints not normally discussed, and plants the seeds of hope, that real people, not oligarchs or plutocrats, can say "no" to the many lies the pusher pushes and choose a better way. It's not about left or right, it's about regular folks at the ground level vs. the injustices that rain down from greedy powermongers at the top. We *can* overcome.

Vinessa • 06:57 PM •

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