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Laramie Movie Scope:
Capitalism: A Love Story

An indictment of capitalism

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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October 28, 2009 -- Michael Moore's latest film, “Capitalism: A Love Story” takes on a much bigger and more complicated issue than has been addressed in his past films. Although the title of the film would have you believe this is about capitalism, it is really about the corporate takeover of government in the United States, which is another thing altogether. What Moore is saying, in effect, is that we now live in an oligarchy rather than a democracy.

Although Moore gives us a brief primer on the nature of capitalism, euphemistically known as the “free market” economy, he can't wait to get to the real crux of the movie, the corporate takeover of the government, which he dates back to the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan as president. Moore uses a telling bit of archival footage that seems to show Treasury Secretary Donald Regan (former head of the Wall Street firm Merrill Lynch) pulling the strings of President Reagan. Although Moore neglects to mention the legal doctrine of corporate “personhood” that led to the corporate stranglehold on government from the late 1970s onward, he does show the strengthening of corporate control over the government during that time. He also portrays the decline of unions during that same time period. The Reagan administration was hostile to unions, while Moore points out that President Franklin Roosevelt sent federal troops to Detroit to protect union members who were occupying industrial buildings during a massive strike.

Near the end of Roosevelt's administration, he gave a speech (shown in the film) during which he proposed a new bill of rights for the people, including, “The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation; The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living; The right of every business man, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination from monopolies at home or abroad; The right of every family to a decent home; The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment, and the right to a good education.” Moore points out that ironically, Americans never got most of those rights, but Europeans and even the defeated Germans and Japanese got most of the rights that Roosevelt proposed.

Moore goes into his own background in Flint, Michigan, with scenes from his first film, “Roger and Me,” scenes with his father, with the priest who performed his marriage ceremony, with the local bishop and other priests and religious leaders. Surprisingly, these priests and bishops say in the film that capitalism leads to sinful behavior. This is surprising because many American religious leaders have closely aligned themselves not only with capitalism and patriotism, but with the Republican Party, which is strongly pro-capitalist. In fact, some prominent evangelical leaders openly appeal to the desire for money by promising material wealth to believers. Indeed, some members of the Christian Right seem to believe in and emphasize patriotism and capitalism a lot more than the actual teachings of Christ. Moore does some funny dubbing of old movies to put words in the mouth of Christ making it seem he won't heal people with pre-existing conditions. Moore also explores the grisly world of “Dead Peasant” insurance, in which companies like Wal-Mart take out life insurance policies on their own employees (even low-level employees) with the company being the sole beneficiary. This creates an actual incentive for the company to see that these employees die fairly early in life. This gives a whole new spin on the health care debate.

Moore's greatest passion, however, comes from attacking the banking bailout of 2008. Moore skims over the banking crisis that led to the initial vote on the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 and dwells on the voting. It was voted down on the first attempt and then passed a few days later after a number of earmarks were added (pork), including tax breaks for renewable energy projects and an insurance parity measure for mental health coverage. Moore insinuates that the entire banking crisis was over hyped. He even hints at a conspiracy involving the President of the United States, George W. Bush, who helped pressure Congress into passing the measure. Surprisingly, Moore's arguments are similar to those of conservative commentator Glenn Beck, who is attempting to redirect anger over the banking bailout from President Bush to President Barack Obama. Moore, on the other hand, is a supporter of Obama, but a harsh critic of Bush. Moore criticizes the Democrats in Congress and blames them for the bailout.

Moore's argument falls apart on several counts. First, the crisis was real, not imagined, highlighted by massive bank failures and a near total lack of liquidity in the system, not just in America, but in other countries as well. Second, Moore indicates the Democrats defeated the first bill then changed their votes. In fact, the House Democrats voted for both the first version of the bailout on Sept. 29, 2008 and the second, Oct. 1, version as well. Democrats voted in favor of the first bill 140 to 95, while the House Republicans voted strongly against it, 133 to 65. The second House vote on the measure, on October 1, 2008, had the Democrats voting more strongly in favor, 172 to 63, while Republican opposition weakened substantially. House Republicans voted against the bill 91 for to 108 against. The numbers show that 25 Republicans switched their votes to favor the measure as did 32 Democrats. Put another way, 13.6 percent of the Democrats switched votes from no to yes, as did 12.6 percent of the Republicans.

Moore paints a different picture of these two votes. He ignores the differences in the two measures and says the first vote was a triumph of democracy, while the second was a tragedy of Wall Street influence peddling. Moore, of course, can't bring himself to say the Republicans are the champions of the little guy and the opponents of monied interests for their stand against the two bills, but that is where his argument would lead him if he chose to go that far. He's too partisan for that. He also ignores the many significant differences between the bill that was finally passed and that which was originally proposed by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. He does, however, mention the role of monetary system de-regulation as a contributing factor in the crisis, but not the crucial role played by Congress loosening Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's lending rules. He also doesn't mention the fact that many economists credit the bailout with saving the banking system.

Moore stages his usual street theater scenes, allegedly trying to make a “citizen's arrest” of Wall Street executives, and backing an armored truck up to the offices of bailed out banks and demanding the people's money back. These stunts look pretty silly. Nobody, even Moore, takes these seriously anymore. Moore's visits to families evicted by foreclosures are poignant, but he never explains the loans for which they are being evicted. In the case of a farm that has been in the family for generations, some bad loan decisions may have been made by the owners, as well as the lenders. More interesting is the family who is evicted, and then moves back into their house and defies the authorities to evict them again. Interestingly, they succeed in defying the authorities, an act of defiance seemingly supported in Congress by some representatives shown in the movie. Also interesting is the decision by Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans to stop performing foreclosure sales in the Detroit area until he is satisfied that homeowners have adequate opportunities to take advantage of federal programs designed to help them.

This film is a real hodge-podge of partially-expressed ideas as one might expect from a film that tries to cover too much ground in a short amount of time. Most of Moore's films are uneven in this way, but this film, like others Moore has made, is also funny, moving and entertaining. You won't learn much about capitalism by watching this film, but you will see some outrageous abuses of our current economic system, like the crooked judge paid to sentence juveniles to serve long terms for dubious crimes (including some constitutionally-protected activities) in a privately-run detention facility. This film is both thought-provoking and entertaining. It rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2009 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)