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DVD Review: Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story

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Some people hate Michael Moore; they call him a propagandist with an agenda. Some people love Michael Moore; they call him “a voice crying out in the wilderness,” trying to save our country or society or economy. Michael Moore is a clever documentarian. He’s aware of the hottest issues in America, and knows how to make thought-provoking, controversial films about them. His audience is rewarded with his viewpoint which is thoroughly marinated in humor and irony.

Capitalism: A Love Story begins with the amusing juxtaposition of clips from a vintage documentary about ancient Roman civilization with clips from a variety of situations in modern American society. Moore then shows us things that are happening now: seven sheriff’s cars come to a home in Lexington, North Carolina, and the officers break down the door in order to evict the inhabitants; homes in Detroit are boarded up as residents are evicted; in Peoria, Illinois, a family has 30 days to be out of the modest home they designed on the property that’s been in their family for four generations, but then the sheriff shows up to evict them while they are packing.

We meet a man whose company, Condo Vultures, is in the business of flipping foreclosed condominiums. People’s homes are being bought for 50-75 percent of the market value, and the speculators are raking in the big bucks. It makes one wonder if the bank is willing to sell at such a loss, why don’t they just reduce people’s mortgage payments by 75% — maybe more people could keep their homes. I know, I’m naïve. Threaded throughout are clips from ancient commercials, documentaries explaining capitalism, home movies, and old films. A special note should be made about the music Moore chose to include; it is exquisite.

“This is capitalism, a system of taking and giving. Mostly taking.” And Capitalism: A Love Story is an attack on that system. If Moore thinks that capitalism is a bad thing that we should eliminate, does he suggest an alternative? Yes, and surprisingly it’s not socialism, it’s democracy.

The $700 billion Wall Street bailout is the star of Capitalism: A Love Story, and learning how that came about may make viewers angry. It should, whether you agree or disagree with Moore. My reaction to the bailout was that if anyone gets money it should be the people that were hurt by all the economic shenanigans, not the [insert string of expletives here] who caused it. I tried to imagine $700 billion dollars, but couldn’t. Breaking it down, I imagined about $2300 for every person—adult or child—living in America. Then I thought, why not? Distribute the money to the people who need it, not the lucky ones like me who are comfortably middle class, but the people who so obviously need help. Those people are not obvious to the ones who got that $700 billion, of course, because they don’t travel the highways and back roads that we peasants travel. Okay, so now I’m beginning to sound like Michael Moore.

Speaking of peasants, did you ever hear of the “peasant dead”? Those are the millions of employees on whom large corporations take out life insurance policies, hoping they will drop dead decades before they’d expect. The employees and their families don’t know about the policies, and don’t get a dime from them. One young man’s company received over $5 million when he died of cancer. While Moore points his finger at corporate greed, it might better be aimed at insurance companies who are allowed to broker these policies. If a company insures a young woman (who is the cheapest to insure), they are gambling with the insurance company, hoping the odds tip in their favor and they win. Winning means that someone—the young woman—dies. That’s ghoulish.

Moore traces our current financial crisis (oh, I forgot, we’re on “recovery” road) to Ronald Reagan. He tells us that when Reagan became president, corporate America took over and the country would be run like a corporation (I don’t know if that’s such a bad idea, if it were run like a successful corporation). He points out that under the Reagan administration, our infrastructure was dismantled and unions were destroyed. A lot of people have opinions about that, and it’s important to remember that this movie represents the opinion of one. I’m from New Jersey; I don’t believe anything. If you’re going to present one side of a story, I want to hear all sides, and then I’ll dismiss it all as a bunch of… well, what Jerseyans dismiss stuff as. I do know there were greedy, conscienceless people long before Reagan got into office.

Moore is at his best when he shows us how “people like us” have fared at the hands of greedy capitalists. He outlines the story of the two judges in Pennsylvania who ended up in jail because they traded their integrity for a couple million dollars which they made by sentencing 6500 children to a privately run juvenile detention home. We listen to some of the kids explain what happened to them, and then we learn that once incarcerated, their sentences could be extended until the “home” (PA Child Care) decided they were ready to leave. The men behind PA Child Care made tens of millions of dollars.

Remember when air travel was glamorous and pilots were paid fabulous salaries? Moore introduces us to pilots who need food stamps, donate plasma, walk dogs, and make less than fast food restaurant managers. They live on credit cards and make $17,000 a year while trying to pay off 100 grand in student loans. Yikes—I really don’t want the pilot of my next flight to be preoccupied with how he’s going to pay his rent, or worn out from working more than one job. Where’s all that money for checked baggage going?

Father Dick Preston of Flint, Michigan, is interviewed and he tells us in no uncertain terms that capitalism is wrong and should be eliminated: “Capitalism is a sin.” Wanting a second opinion, Moore interviewed another priest who declared that capitalism is “immoral… obscene… radical evil.”

Moore also offers examples of companies that are run democratically, where the CEO is taking home as much money as the person on the assembly line (and they’re making three or four times more than airline pilots). According to Moore, work in America is like a well established dictatorship. Most workers I know would agree. Although Capitalism: A Love Story condemns capitalism, its real message seems to be “we get what we settle for.” If enough of us little people put ourselves on the line in a fight for fairness, the big bullies are going to lose. He makes the point that the top 1% of Americans have more assets than the bottom 95%, but they only have 1% of the vote, while the rest of us have the other 99%. Pretty cool, huh? You and your best friend can outvote Bill Gates. Moore also presents incidents where people successfully fought back against banks and corporations, encouragement for us all.

Capitalism: A Love Story has a number of special features: “Sorry, House-Flippers and Banks—You’re Toast in Flint, MI,” “Congressman Cummings Dares to Speak the Unspeakable” (maybe capitalism is a bad thing), “NY Time Pulitzer Prize Winner Chris Hedges on the Killing Machine Known as Capitalism,” “The Rich Don’t Go to Heaven (There’s a Special Place Reserved for Them!)” (more conversation with Father Preston), and “What If, Just If, We Had Listened to Jimmy Carter in 1979?” (a July 15, 1979, Presidential address).

Bottom Line: Would I buy/rent Capitalism: A Love Story? Yes. It’s not completely objective, but it is entertaining and gives us something to think about other than a new car or iPod.

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