So Michael Moore has decided to take on the biggest issue of his career: the implosion of the world financial system. Come October, millions of us will shell out 12 bucks to be illuminated (in about 90 minutes) by the populist guru's take on the economic meltdown. The film does not yet have a title, but at the recent Cannes film festival, Moore offered a glimpse at the plot: "The wealthy," explained history's most successful nonfiction filmmaker, "at some point decided they didn't have enough wealth. They wanted more—a lot more. So they systematically set about to fleece the American people out of their hard-earned money. Now, why would they do this? That is what I seek to discover in this movie." (Story continued below...)
That Moore, who is so skilled at luring in the evildoers and catching them on tape (though not quite as skilled as Sacha Baron Cohen, whose next movie addresses homophobia), would take on the villains of the financial industry should fill me with joy. Indeed, when I made Maxed Out, my take on the credit industry's rotting from within, three years ago I utterly failed in my numerous attempts to catch anyone on the record, save a couple of smarmy young turks in the debt-collection business. But the prospect of Moore taking on the nation's biggest and most dysfunctional industry fills me instead with a kind of dread, not just for the movie but for him personally. Not many details have been released about the angle his film will take but, from the way he describes it, there is a good chance not only that Moore will finally jump the shark but that he may have become that which he has derided so brilliantly over the years: a simplistic, didactic, one-note bully masquerading as the world's sheriff.
If his Cannes statements are representative of the film, "the wealthy," as Moore calls them, will face the brunt of his criticism—people like Sandy Weill, in many ways the mastermind of our current system, and pikers like Allen Stanford and Bernie Madoff, who simply adapted an age-old scheme to an era when there was no one, or at least no one competent, looking over their shoulders. But blaming "the wealthy" (note to Moore: in a global sense, that means blaming most of America), individually or collectively, for our insane financial system or its inevitable bailout would be a distraction from a crisis that is far from over. Blaming the wealthy—or the greedy, whatever—misses the point. All you have to do is examine an earlier financial catastrophe: Enron.
As the ironically titled 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room demonstrates, the people in charge were not the smartest guys in the room at all, nor were they fat cats obsessed with becoming fatter cats. They were middle-class, insecure, arrogant, selfish and occasionally homophobic megalomaniacs blown up by Wall Street, by investors and, most of all, by the government's failure to keep them on a short leash. The most apt description of Enron—and of the current meltdown—comes from Kurt Eichenwald's brilliant blow-by-blow account of the company's collapse, Conspiracy of Fools.
Eichenwald didn't call his book Conspiracy of the Wealthy or Conspiracy of the Greedy for good reason: in many ways, the guys at the top were simply riding a wave of wishful thinking fueled by ineffective regulators, insufficient laws, corrupt ratings agencies, double-dealing bankers and, of course, millions of investors, from giant pension funds to Midwestern grannies, willing to play along as long as the stock continued to climb. If the guys at the very top really had been the most important perps, the prosecution of Kenneth Lay and the imprisonment of Jeffrey Skilling and Andy Fastow might have mitigated, if not solved, the problem. Instead, the same denial-fueled wave that made Enron one of the most valuable companies in the world picked up speed and became the tsunami that demolished Wall Street.
"Why would they do this?" Moore asks about the wealthy evildoers, whetting our appetite for one more awful truth. It's a very interesting question. (Perhaps the answer is the worst possible reason: because they could.) But as much fun as it may be to think of guys like Madoff and Stanford and Richard Fuld being marched around in orange jumpsuits, or of drastically limiting their pay, going after those guys ignores the evil of a system that made the vast majority of the fraud perfectly legal. The most recent conspiracy of fools only worked because it made hundreds of millions of middle-class Americans feel as though they were among the same wealthy that Moore is preparing to crucify. Only now has a sense of betrayal set in, which is the one thing that Moore has on his side: populism.
Which is, of course, why another major target of his upcoming film is likely to be the bailout money (as seen in Moore's theatrically broadcast teaser for the film). Most Americans were against the bailouts, though maybe not for the right reasons. I questioned the sense of bailing out, and then attempting to restart, a fundamentally unsound system. Others were just irked that high-paid executives were being bailed out. But the truth is that those guys made off with their loot long ago, and the net effect of the bailouts was probably to protect, at least temporarily, trillions of dollars in savings, pensions and retirement accounts, not to help out fat-cat shareholders and bondholders. Moore may run out of fuel on this issue for yet another reason: much of the bailout money is being repaid by the banks, with interest. Better hurry.
Unlike most of us, Michael Moore flourished during George W. Bush's reign of "misunderestimations" and malapropisms, releasing a trio of documentaries (Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko) that were far more successful than anything he'd done before. Does anyone really remember 1995's Canadian Bacon (tagline: "It gets lonely at the top when there's no more butt to kick")? How about 1997's The Big One, which took in well under 1 percent of Fahrenheit's box office? Moore, the burly Michigan native who happened to be a liberal, made a perfect foil for W, the fitness-obsessed legacy child who pretended to be a cowboy.
Moore's movies have been stirring, sometimes rousing, not quite slick and always filled with belly laughs and tears. What they have not been is effective. Seven years after Bowling, we haven't passed substantially more stringent gun-control laws. The year that Fahrenheit was rushed into theaters, Bush was reelected by more than 3 million votes, even though he'd lost the popular vote four years earlier (Moore still took credit for avoiding a much bigger loss, as if that mattered). And even if Sicko has rallied some Americans around the idea of universal health care, the industry-inclusive proposal advanced by Obama bears no resemblance to the socialist models touted as ideals in the film. It's sad, because Moore could accomplish so much more.
Ultimately, Moore's new film must rise above mere entertainment or a populist pep rally for the most capitalistic of reasons: competition. Around the time that he announced his new movie, Fox put out word that it's fast-tracking a sequel to Wall Street, a movie in which Oliver Stone famously took down greedy corporate raiders, as epitomized by the character of Gordon Gekko. It's odd that, in the decades since "greed is good" joined the vernacular, we have not learned to separate financial fact from fiction. But maybe, just maybe, the legacy of Moore's latest will be to educate. Here's hoping that the film offers a more thoughtful, expansive analysis of a broken system than Wall Street 2.