Film review: Capitalism: A Love Story

Canada/USA 2009

Film still for Film review: Capitalism: A Love Story

Reviewed by Tony Rayns


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

An essay on capitalism as an anti-democratic system. Starting from mortgage foreclosures, house repossessions and profiteering on cheap real estate in Florida, Michael Moore traces the United States’ immediate financial problems back to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. He sees the dismantling of the industrial superstructure for short-term profit as the start of the rot and finds it echoed in the privatisation of juvenile detention, the low wages paid to airline pilots and the corporate practice of taking out life insurance on employees without their knowledge. Pausing only to discuss whether capitalism is compatible with Christianity, he moves on to examine examples of successful worker-owned enterprises and then looks at links between Wall Street and the White House. Seeing Barack Obama’s victory as a sign of hope, he celebrates the success of a sit-in strike at a window-making factory where the workers demand compensation for a bank decision to close the company. He ends by cordoning off Wall Street banks with ‘crime scene’ tape, and goes out on a jazz arrangement of ‘L’Internationale’.


Michael Moore indicts capitalism as a point-by-point betrayal of the principles set out in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights, announced (but never enacted) a year before FDR’s death. Sorry to put a spoiler right at the top of the review, but that’s the one surprise in a movie which is most of the time content to take Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 as the moment when everything started to go wrong with the capitalist system. There’s even a ‘flashback’ to Roger & Me (1989) to illustrate the planned dismantling of the industrial sector on Reagan’s watch. To be fair, Moore does plant another historical reference in the film’s preamble: a comparison of present-day destitution with slavery and gladiatorial combat in ancient Rome (as seen in an ‘amusingly clunky’ Encyclopaedia Britannica film). Clearly, though, historical perspectives are not Moore’s strongest suit.

Of course, every film defines its own audience by the way it addresses them and the assumptions it makes about their reactions. More squarely than either Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) or Sicko (2007), Capitalism: A Love Story is addressed to the ‘sub-prime’ American working class; the assumptions are that this audience is poorly educated, religious, sentimental, incapable of following detailed analysis or logical argument but brimming with the kind of righteous indignation that can potentially evolve into social action. As the concluding jazzy rendition of ‘L’Internationale’ by Tony Babino confirms, this is carefully targeted agit-prop.

Right-wing buffoons like Joe Queenan regularly charge Michael Moore with hypocrisy for continuing to pose as ‘the little guy’ while enjoying vast personal wealth and prominence. This line of attack takes no account of the box-office performance of Sicko (and it must be said that Capitalism seems unlikely to do much for either Moore’s own bank balance or the ailing Weinstein Company’s) but is anyway beside the political point. Capitalism is all about getting inside a Florida apartment as the bailiffs move in and sobbing along with the now-homeless family of evictees; about interviewing the man from Condo Vultures on speculation in repossessed homes (“What’s the difference between me and a real vulture? I don’t vomit on myself!”); about visiting worker-owned cooperatives in Wisconsin and California; and about joining the sit-in strikers at Republic Windows and the sympathetic Chicagoans who bring them food and pledges of financial support. In short, it’s about doing the things that TV news cannot or will not do, and then drawing obvious social and political conclusions from what’s observed. The word ‘socialism’ is studiously avoided until Sarah Palin is heard uttering it with her pitbull snarl.

Inevitably, this is tricked out with Moore’s all-too-familiar stunts – inviting passers-by on Wall Street to define ‘derivatives’, revoicing a home-loans ad with Mafia jargon, cordoning off a bank with ‘crime scene’ tape – all of them subject to the (capitalist?) law of diminishing returns. The underlying problem is also familiar from Moore’s earlier films: what poses as an investigation is in fact a didactic tract, albeit one with no more analytic rigour than a crap shoot. Towards the end Moore confesses on the soundtrack that he doesn’t think he can keep doing this kind of thing any longer unless his audience rises up to join him in ‘action’. “Hurry up, will you?” he begs. Sadly for him – and, no doubt, for the United States – the current financial crisis has not had the same galvanising effect on Middle America that the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers had, and his call to arms against bankers, vultures and complicit politicians falls on largely deaf ears. There was a moment when Michael Moore looked like the Left’s answer to Sarah Palin, but that moment has passed.

See also

Fahrenheit 9/11 reviewed by Mark Cousins (September 2004)

Mission improbable: B Ruby Rich on Fahrenheit 9/11's mission to unseat George Bush (July 2004)

The egos have landed: Jon Ronson on Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine (November 2002)

Documentary: shaking the world: Mark Cousins on ten films that changed the world (September 2007)


Directed by
Michael Moore
Produced by
Anne Moore
Michael Moore
Written by
Michael Moore
Daniel Marracino
Jayme Roy
Edited by
John Walter
Conor O’Neill
Pablo Proenza
Original Score
Jeff Gibbs
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011