Michael Moore is pissed. After two decades of tilting at corporate windmills, the nation's most incendiary filmmaker is tired of sprinkling lighter fluid on the problem and reaches for his flamethrower, and in doing so offers a valedictory address for his entire, brilliant, scandalous career. His latest work is less reliant on stunts but more ferocious in its polemic, and maybe a bit scattershot in attacking not just last year's financial market meltdown, but the entire system that created it.
Capitalism feels like a homecoming, and has a direct connection to his 1988 breakthrough Roger & Me, which chronicled the ruin inflicted when General Motors abandoned his hometown. Twenty years later, Flint's still waiting on a comeback while the rest of the nation is getting a heavy dose of the foreclosures and decay the Rust Belt has suffered for decades.
Moore returns with his dad to the site of the Flint sparkplug plant the elder Moore worked in to provide for his family, now reduced to a vast field of rubble, desolate as the lunar surface. Moore pines for that lost place of his childhood, and returns over and over again to the lush green lawns and Formica countertops of a poodle-skirted suburbia gone by. His premise is that, somewhere along the way, the glorious future and American dream pitched so fiercely in the golden days of TV dinners was yanked out of reach by loathsome, money-grubbing thugs.
Moore is furious with the corrupt banks, credit card companies and reckless Wall Street manipulators, but he's mostly exasperated at a system that funnels wealth into fewer and fewer hands. He exposes some of the strange grotesqueries of the free market, like so called "dead peasant" insurance, wherein companies take out policies on their employees unbeknownst to them or their loved ones, and then cash in, sometimes in the millions.
A good Catholic boy at heart, he's in the mood to toss the moneychangers out of the temple, and enlists several priests to help decry capitalism as a sin. It's debatable what moral high ground can still be claimed by the archdiocese, but this overt religious fervor leads to the funniest and most outlandish moment in the film — it's when he actually puts words in Jesus' mouth, redubbing an old movie rejecting a leper based on "a previous condition." But the gags end when a mournful Moore intones, "Capitalism is evil, and you can't regulate evil."
That evil has a face here, as Moore digs up the corpse of Ronald Reagan, if only to kick him and his "trickledown" free-market policies back into the dirt. To Moore, Reagan is a twisted demon conjured from a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and Franklin Roosevelt is a sainted martyr forever backlit with a golden halo.
Moore articulates one of the left's best-taken but most rarely made points: that after World War II, both Germany and Japan were rebuilt in our liberal democratic New Deal image, then proceeded to kick our asses economically.
Like so many ills, Moore lays the dismantling of American industry at Reagan's feet, but isn't shy about calling out the scavengers who've continued feasting on the middle class' rotted rump. Several Democrats, led by Chris Dodd, the powerful chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, get raked over the coals for accepting heaps of contributions and sweetheart loans from the very industries they're charged with regulating.
By widening his scope, Moore leaves plenty for fact-checkers to pick apart, and not every choice he makes works. For instance, a chat with cuddly intellectual playwright Wallace Shawn is cute but pointless. Worse, the ample footage of struggling families getting evicted begins to get maudlin and borderline exploitative, and a montage of Katrina survivors hanging on for rescue is gratuitous (we get it). Surely some is bluster, but there's more than enough passion, wit and truth to engage audiences in the ways Michael Moore can. We know what his enemies will make of his latest broadside. But when he says: "I refuse to live in a country like this, and I'm not leaving," will enough folks join him in his closing gauntlet?
At the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.