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Michael Moore Takes on Goldman

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You could think of Up in the Air by Jason Reitman and The Informant by Steven Soderbergh as an amuse-bouche before the main course of Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story. The film is everything I hoped it would be: hard-hitting, instructive yet entertaining, sad and funny both -- in a word, essential. If enough people see the damn thing it could ignite a populist rage that's kept in check partly by ignorance of the economic and social inequities laid out in Moore's expose.

Setting forth his argument with homespun logic, intelligence, and drama, Moore takes on the challenge of demystifying the economic meltdown that has brought so many Americans to their knees. He lays the blame on the abuses of capitalism, singling out the bankers and Wall Street, who have launched a financial coup d'etat, substituting their interests for the will of the electorate and Congress. Moore especially targets Goldman Sachs, which profited handsomely following the bailout and whose alumnae dominate Treasury.

Kicking off with a parallel between the decline of Rome and the United States, Moore shows us suffering in America and the cruel world of foreclosures and evictions, focusing on one particular midwestern family. Adding insult to injury, the bank pays them a thousand bucks to ready for the next owner a property owned by the family some forty years. He targets as well the vulture-like real estate people -- and a company actually named Condo Vultures -- who flood in to profit from others' misfortune.

Another target of Moore's wrath: Ronald Reagan, who oversaw the whittling down of the 90% tax on the wealthy. As a result the top 1% has more wealth than the bottom 95%, establishing what Reagan's flacks called a "plutonomy." In contrast, essential workers such as pilots at American Eagle make $19,000 a year, live on food stamps and work second jobs. Another fruit of unrestrained capitalism: for-profit prisons whose owners are in cahoots with the judges to stock them with kids guilty of minor infractions.

New to this piece of agitprop are insights into how Moore became a crusader. Apparently as a boy he was attracted to the priesthood, more precisely the activist clergy who went to jail in protest over Vietnam. In a savvy strategy to enlist support for his vision in this God-centered country, Moore enlists a bishop to declare that capitalism is radically evil and runs counter to religion and Jesus.

Moore's Capitalism could -- and will -- be accused of over-simplifying. But in this case simple is to the good. When it comes to the economy, mystification is one of the great tools of the Right. Moore does a comic schtick in front of a bank trying to get the wizards of finance to define a derivative. Even a Harvard prof fumphers around without producing a cogent explanation. Of course the film also includes Moore's trademark attempts to bust through security at steel-clad corporations so he can have a productive tete a tete with the CEO. And there's a hilarious sequence of Moore surrounding the Stock Exchange with yellow tape and declaring it a crime scene, to the delight of tourists standing by.

Despite the suffering and galling inequity on display, Capitalism delivers green shoots. A number of people, ranging from sheriffs to factory owners, appear transformed by something resembling moral qualms, and turn unwilling to perform as America's executioners. It reminds me of the scene in Eisenstein's Potemkin when the workers under orders to shoot their own refuse to do so. Similarly, in Reitman's Up in the Air the chief "termination engineer" who fires people by video conferencing quits the job in horror over her own behavior.

There's a terrific progressive agenda in this year's Toronto lineup. Can a movie alter anything? Doubtful. But these films reveal that there's new awareness in America quietly getting born.