The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Michael Moore hits pay dirt in Hollywood

September 16, 2009 |  3:01 pm


If Hollywood really had its own mayor, Michael Moore could probably have the job for life, especially judging from the lovey-dovey reception he got Tuesday night at the Motion Picture Academy, where he showed his new film, "Capitalism: A Love Story," before a packed house of rapturous fans. Looking as big and beefy as ever -- he's certainly no poster boy for the Pritikin diet -- wearing a black sports coat and a red baseball cap, Moore got a standing ovation when he took the stage before the film started.

He'd just come from taping an appearance on the new "Jay Leno Show." When Leno called him and asked if he'd appear on the second night of the program, Moore, not exactly shy when it comes to self promotion, quipped: "What's wrong with the first night?" He also tossed a genial barb at Overture Films, the company releasing the film here next week, saying that he really appreciated their support "especially when they didn't know if I was going to go after their corporate parent or not."

As you've probably heard by now, the film offers an all-out attack on the unfettered nature of American capitalism, which Moore views as a gigantic, looming threat to democracy, since the system is largely rigged to benefit the richest 1% of the population at the expense of the rest of us. Many of the individual scenes are riveting, especially the footage of Moore's crew shot at an old-fashioned sit-in at a Chicago door and window factory. But I wonder if critics will be divided over how successful Moore is in tying together all the strands of his critique -- which includes everything from poor pay for commuter jet pilots to the collapse of the Florida condo market to privatized juvenile detention centers, along with a healthy round of Goldman Sachs bashing for basically orchestrating a Wall Street bailout that did a better job of serving its interests than aiding taxpayers.

What I found especially fascinating is that a lot of the film's rhetoric, especially its populist take on the evils of crony capitalism, isn't so different from the anti-government rhetoric we've heard at many of the Tea Parties and town-hall meetings and last week's Washington protest rally. Everyone is mad at the establishment, which provided billions to bail out well-connected insiders, but screwed most of the Average Joes. After all, even though the break-out star of "Capitalism" is Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), a feisty House Democrat who is the most vocal opponent of Wall Street giveaways, it was the die-hard conservative House Republicans who were largely united in their opposition to the bailout bill.  

Of course, Moore's populist fervor comes from a very different place. He's a share-the-wealth, Bruce Springsteen style liberal: pro-union, loyal to underdogs, suspicious of fat cats and fond of Woody Guthrie, who is heard at the movie's end, singing "Jesus Christ," a 1940 ballad that paints Christ as a friend of the poor, "laid in his grave" by the rich bankers and landlords who were threatened by his populist preachings.

In fact, the most autobiographical part of the film is rooted in the connection Moore makes between his Catholic upbringing and his championing of social justice. He interviews a number of priests and bishops in "Capitalism," all of them vocal critics of the excesses of our Wall Street-based form of free enterprise. Moore gave an interview to the New York Times, which runs this Sunday, in which he implies that his politics are just as grounded in Catholicism as in his more familiar exercises in class warfare.

As the Times Bruce Headlam puts it: "Along with a moral imperative, Catholicism also gave [the filmmaker] a method. Mr. Moore idolized the Berrigan brothers, the radical priests who introduced street theater into their activism, for example, mixing their own napalm to burn government draft records. Their actions were a form of political spectacle that ... influenced some of Mr. Moore's best remembered stunts."

Ironically, in recent months, it has been the fringe elements on the right who've been using street theater and showmanship -- for example, Fox's Glenn Beck or those gun-toting hotheads at town meetings -- to get their anti-government and anti-Obama messages across. Maybe Moore has been all too successful in showing how much effect you can have with clever agitprop theater. At the Academy, Moore reminded his supporters -- who would include most of Hollywood -- that it was time for them to get their message across.

"The American people will do the right thing if they're given the right information and if they're not manipulated by the Fox Newses of the world," he said. "We spent the summer watching a minority of people painting Hitler mustaches on Obama and scaring Democrats ... and I want to ask, 'Who has his back?' I hope this film will be a catalyst to get people involved in our democracy, because you have to be involved. Democracy is not a spectator sport."   

Here's Moore on Leno, including his a capella singing debut:

Photo: Michael Moore. Credit: Carlo Allegri / Associated Press