Twenty years after getting his start at the Toronto film festival with "Roger & Me," Michael Moore was back Sunday night among 1,400 cheering friends for the first public screening of "Capitalism: A Love Story," without question destined to be his most controversial film yet. Even the protesters out front were in his camp.
This time the documentary filmmaker's target is not a corporate titan, like General Motors' CEO Roger Smith was all those years ago, but a concept -- capitalism -- so American as to seem like the country would cease to exist without it. And so, by extension, Moore's target is us, a population that his film argues has come to confuse capitalism with democracy, which is the one thing he believes could actually save us.
It is an extremely risky gambit and Moore knows it.
"At least we'll have one good night with a bunch of Socialists from Canada," Moore said as the crowd roared.
As good a filmmaker as Moore is, he's not bad as a stand-up either. The film was screening in the city's historic Elgin Theatre in the Visa Screening Room. Soon after taking the stage in his now familiar trucker's hat, suit and tennis shoes, he crooned sotto voce "Welcome to the Visa screening room, Visa..." before telling about the nervous calls he got asking if there was anything about the credit card giant in his film.
But it was, for the most part, not a night for laughs as the film opened with a '50s-style health warning -- those with heart conditions, or small children, should leave immediately. While it drew laughs, they weren't hearty ones because the subtext was clear, this was going to be no easy ride.
The documentary is in its own way an activist love letter for a different time, one he feels passionately we should reclaim, as he intercuts his own family's home movies of vacations -- "me here on Wall St." accompanied by a shot of an 8 or 9 year old Moore -- or a recent walk with his now 88-year-old father to the empty lot that once was a massive spark-plug factory where his dad worked for nearly four decades. His father had made the trip from Flint, Moore told us, and was in the audience.
Moore's confrontational provocations, which he first introduced us to in his relentless hounding of GM's Smith for an interview to explain the massive downsizing of the Flint, Mich. operation all those years ago, now feels familiar. It feels softened in this film, perhaps because he felt the need to spend so much time in setting the table for his message. He takes us back to Rome, with a textbook explanation of why the empire collapsed juxtaposed with images that remind us how relevant those words are today,
There are heartbreaking vignettes of foreclosed families. An interview with a guy whose company is called "Condo Vultures," and is in the business of buying up and reselling foreclosed properties. As he explains it the only thing what separates him from a real vulture is that he doesn't vomit on himself (his idea of a joke).
Moore walks us through the so-called "dead peasants" life insurance policies that companies take out on their employees -- not for the families, but to enrich corporate coffers. There are charts and graphs and news clips explaining how Wall Street took over Washington, how the disparity between rich and poor grew so wide. And there is the trademark Moore confrontational fun: the filmmaker wrapping Citibank, Chase, et al. in yellow crime scene tape, trying to make a citizen's arrest of their boards of directors.
The film gets tougher and tougher as it goes along with his hometown priests, among others, denouncing capitalism as not just a failed economic system, but as an evil that must be eradicated. I saw one woman slip out at this point, but the rest of the audience seemed mesmerized, barely moving except for the occasional ironic bit that allowed us a second of comic relief.
After a standing, cheering ovation as the final credits rolled, more than half the audience stayed for the Q&A after. The questions, unlike Moore, were not confrontational. Did he have hope that Obama would bring change? He did, though he's not giving him forever to do it. Was he angry over the deification of President Regan? He was.
And then it was over, unless you wanted to join the nearby worker protest -- there were directions.
--Film critic Betsy Sharkey
Photo: Michael Moore arrives at the screening for "Capitalism: A Love Story." Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Overture.