Michael Moore’s repeated drumbeats defending the “little guy” against threatening social forces may not be as satisfying a remedy as Catholic social teaching’s call to make an “option for the poor.” But Moore’s approach makes for lively, feature-length documentaries, like his new release, Capitalism: A Love Story.
For 20 years, Moore has been exposing the harm inflicted upon average Americans by heartless corporations, including those that peddle guns, pollute the environment, downsize workers and deny reliable health care coverage to millions. His new offering targets not just one industry or policy but the entire market system. The financial crisis provides stark new material for anyone intent on lambasting our misplaced trust in self-serving chief executive officers, corrupt government officials, greedy lobbyists and a host of other villains.
But Moore is not a humorless ideologue caviling from the left. While a verb like denounce applies to his work, expose and lampoon are even more descriptive. Michael Moore is one part class clown and one part prophet of doom. Sometimes he makes his points seriously, as with his footage of crumbling rustbelt devastation or chilling homemade videos of frightened families being evicted from their freshly foreclosed homes. Just as often, he stages zany publicity stunts to embarrass greedy parties caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Recent taxpayer bailouts of banks and other firms deemed “too big to fail” also provide him with rich fodder.
Each of his films includes one indisputable accomplishment: the use of lively video montage that keeps viewers off balance. We never know where we will be taken next, whom we will encounter or what emotions will be evoked. Detractors accuse Moore of manipulating facts, indulging in inexcusable simplification and engaging in lazy thinking. On this last count, they have a point. Nowhere does the film seriously address the key distinction between the basic principles of capitalism and real-world abuses. Does social betterment require scrapping the entire market system or merely reforming a few practices and replacing the worst culprits?
If we want a serious ethical analysis of economic systems and their shortcomings, we will be better off reading the latest papal social encyclical. But anyone wanting a vivid illustration of the principles found in such documents would do well to see Michael Moore’s exposé of the ways of greed and his defense of the little guy in our contemporary economy.