Yes, Capitalism: A Love Story is packed with Michael Moore's "confrontational antics" (as Kenneth Turan calls them in the Los Angeles Times), and Moore explores the evils of capitalism "in his usual hopscotching fashion" (as Stephanie Zacharek bemoans on Salon.com—Moore leaps from a strike in a Chicago factory, to an eviction in some rural place, to a speech in Congress, to the collapse of a for-profit juvenile detention center in Pennsylvania, to an apartment of an underpaid airline pilot, and so on, and so on). And, of course, Moore has lots of "queasy joke[s]" (as Manohla Dargis too cleverly observes in the New York Times). But by focusing on the antics, the hopscotching, the jokes, and on Moore himself, these critics and others have missed the real greatness of this documentary. Because I saw it, the main business of this review will be to point it out to those who didn't.
Let's begin with a moment in Michael Moore's first documentary, Roger & Me, which came out in the most important year of the last quarter of the 20th century, 1989. But before describing and considering the moment in Roger & Me, let's quickly revisit 1989. So many things happened that year: The Soviet Army pulled out of Afghanistan, negotiations for Nelson Mandela's release began, and, finally, the Berlin Wall fell, an event that was read as a victory for American-style capitalism and a loss for "really existing socialism." The world now had only one choice, one future, one course—American-style capitalism. Before I leave this digression and return to the moment in Roger & Me, a quick definition of American-style capitalism. It aspires to this economic condition: weak labor unions, an absence of a social safety net, the privatization of anything that can be privatized, and the transformation of citizenship into entrepreneurship. In American-style capitalism, the whole society is a market and what you bring to this market is your "human capital" (innate and learned skills). Market society (later called "ownership society") rose from the economic crisis of the 1970s, was accelerated by Ronald Reagan, and became the dominant economic model after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Now for that moment. It happens when sheriff's deputy Fred Ross, one of the few who have a secure job in Flint, explains why it's hard for some of the people he is evicting to move—there's a shortage of U-Haul trucks. "These people couldn't find a truck. They called two or three different places. They called U-Haul... and they said all their trucks were out for today. They called Ryder truck, and they said all of theirs were out for today. A gentleman came by, we hauled him down, and he didn't want to get involved. So now I assume they're on the phone, trying to get a trailer... from Mark's Trailer Rental up on Carpenter Road."
"Why are all the trucks being rented here?" asks Moore.
"People are probably moving. With GM closing, there are so many people leaving town... We're having a lot of people just abandon their houses sometimes."
In this moment, Moore points to the fact that people are fleeing Flint, Michigan. He even shows, in one sequence, U-Haul trucks on the freeway, each heading to a city or place that has what Flint no longer has—a future.
Let's keep that moment in mind and turn to Capitalism, which was made 20 years after Roger & Me and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The area of time covered in the documentary is just before and just after the crash of September 2008. What is it we see all across America? That it has become Flint. Indeed, the American-style capitalism that removed Flint's economic base and industrial production, and relocated it to poorer parts of the world has spread its program to every corner of the country. Thousands of poor and middle-class people are being evicted by thousands of sheriff's deputies.
The people in Roger & Me, however, were in a much better situation than the people in Capitalism. The residents of Flint could still go somewhere else, still rent a U-Haul truck and move to a place where the job market was booming. In Capitalism, you can't move to a better place because everywhere else is the same as where you are; everywhere jobs are disappearing and the poor and middle class are being viciously dispossessed of the little that they own. There is even a moment in Capitalism, the most important moment, when Moore discovers that a man being evicted from his rural home received the eviction notice from a company that's based in Flint! The dead city is literally turning the living into zombies. Capitalism is the only film today that has an adequate idea of the state of things in America.