Michael Moore's Capitalism Is Creaky

But this country needs someone like him breaking it all down, serving up realities we’d rather not see.

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After 20 years of watching Michael Moore in action, from Roger & Me to his latest offering, Capitalism: A Love Story, you’ve got to know what you’re getting: There’s no pretense of journalistic objectivity; no attempt to temper the outrage; no shame in poking relentless fun at the bad guys. His is documentary filmmaking with a distinctly partisan point of view. Moore’s aim is to agitate, to make you feel, to incite you to act. And if that means playing a little dirty pool to make a point—manipulating images or exaggerating facts—so what?

All’s fair in love and muckraking, and Moore is absolutely in it to win it. He’s spent his career raging against the machine, and there’s the sense that he really relishes playing the court jester, poking fingers in the faces of the powers that be, from General Motors CEO Roger Smith to the late Charlton Heston to the masters of the universe at Bear Stearns. In Capitalism, in which he takes on America’s economic meltdown, you get vintage Moore: carefully calibrated rage served up with hearty helpings of humor and hi-jinks. But this time around, underneath the Moore-ian bluster lies a pervasive weariness.

“I can’t do this any more,” he announces in a voiceover at the end of the film. “Join me. And, please…. Speed it up.”

He’s not the only one feeling weary. Capitalism, which opened to wide release last weekend, failed to enthrall at the box office. Not that I’m surprised; I’ve long grown frustrated with the Moore Method. Yes, I appreciate the spirit of the work that he does—someone’s got to take on big topics like the sorry state of U.S. health care, the war in Iraq and violence in our schools. I can also appreciate that he’s taken that hoary old chestnut, documentary filmmaking, and rendered it something creative, new and endlessly entertaining. I appreciate the need for a voice of dissent, the need to scream truth to power.

I can appreciate all this. But I wish his documentaries didn’t feel like the latest episode of The Michael Moore Show. Beneath the façade of the baseball-cap wearing, working-class crusader is a mean-spirited crank who’s not above using people as props. (Witness the way he needled an ailing Heston in Bowling for Columbine.) With Moore, everything and everyone is in service to his schtick–kind of like Sacha Baron Cohen messing with unsuspecting dupes in Bruno and Borat.

See Moore try to make a citizen’s arrest at AIG! See Moore wrap Wall Street in yellow policeman’s tape! (Get it? It’s the scene of the crime!) Moore’s Everyman schtick worked well when he was indeed Everyman doing battle for the little people, bullhorn in hand. But over the years, the Oscar winner has become rich and famous playing the obstreperous instigator—famous for being Michael Moore. (Never mind the irony of taking down capitalism when you’ve benefited greatly from it.) He’s a bolded name, his face rendered instantly recognizable. Now, in Capitalism, when he bum-rushes the headquarters of GM or Goldman Sachs, the security guards smirk as they (reluctantly) kick him out. They know that he’s playing a part. As are they.

With Fahrenheit 9/11, the New York Times described his work as that of an editorial cartoon, and that’s about right. He’s all broadly bold brush strokes and sarcastic one-liners, pounding the viewer with his P.O.V., via numbers and stats and sob stories. Capitalism is no different. There isn’t any attention paid to the P.O.V. of the other side, because in the Moore universe, there is no other side. This is propaganda, with a capital P, exclamation point.

“You have the right to employ just about anything you can to make a good movie that’s entertaining,” Moore said during at panel at the 1989 Toronto Film Festival. “As long as you tell the truth.”

Ah, the truth. There are those who would argue that Moore doesn’t believe in letting the truth get in the way of a good story. In her 2007 documentary, Manufacturing Dissent, Canadian filmmaker Debbie Melnyk, a self-described “progressive liberal,” set out to profile Moore, whose work she had long admired. He never sat down for an interview with her, but plenty of others did. Including former GM CEO Roger Smith, the elusive subject of Roger & Me, who tells Melnyk that, contrary to what Moore depicts in his documentary, he did not cut off Moore’s microphone when he was confronted by the filmmaker at a GM shareholders’ meeting. “It’s not our style,” he told her. Instead, a former producer who worked with Moore says, Moore cut and pasted video footage to make it appear that way.

Observes a longtime Moore friend in the documentary, “He is driven to get things done by any means necessary.”