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Netflix’s Saving Capitalism is a good primer on the economic situation in the United States and how it got to this point. If you’ve ever had your eyes glaze over at the thought of trickle-down economics, Saving Capitalism is for you. In a time where people are more politically engaged than ever, or at least more vocal about their beliefs, quality information is currency. Saving Capitalism is evenhanded in its approach, frustratingly so at times, but proves helpful.
The documentary is based on the book Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few by Robert B. Reich. Reich worked in various capacities under Presidents Ford, Carter, Clinton, and Obama. Reich’s depth of knowledge is obvious and, combined with his relaxed, no-frills approach, he makes for a good host. Saving Capitalism tracks the evolution of capitalism in America, from its beginnings as a system that helped a country prosper to its current state as a system that values corporations over people. It’s no surprise that Saving Capitalism is at its best when it focuses on the modern-day issues. The backward-looking parts of the documentary can be a bit dry, but it’s almost inevitable. It’s a history lesson and one that is essential.
At its most engaging Saving Capitalism functions as a something of a call to arms. The progression of the current system is leading down a road that will continue to alienate many people while a condensed few reaps the benefits. The trajectory is as clear and implications are just as easy to see. Saving Capitalism doesn’t exactly have an answer per se. But the answer is kind of obvious, isn’t it? If we want real change, that starts with us. We have to organize. We have to educate ourselves. We have to vote. What Saving Capitalism does best is make it painstakingly obvious that the people can fight the system if we’re willing to put in the work. But, in more harrowing fashion, it also shows what will happen if we stay the current course.
Even if you’re already well-versed in the history of capitalism, Saving Capitalism appeals to more than just academics. There is a part where we watch a family, in 2016, debate the merits of two anti-establishment candidates in Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. It’s surprising because the family doesn’t really get heated, but rather they’re considering what each person could possibly do to help them and others in a similar state. It’s almost refreshing to see a political conversation go down like that. But this is merely a brief detour. The audience knows the outcome of the election and what it means for this family. It’s like there is an invisible hand lingering and methodically slapping you during the doc.
One of those slaps is delivered via a woman who works as a cashier and struggles to keep her family afloat. There is no relief in sight for her, even though she works hard for a company that is prospering. Hers is a story that many will find some kinship in. Contrast that with the part where someone who “made it” laments being made a villain or, worse, a victim of their own success. And that’s the most affecting part of Saving Capitalism. We’ve created a system that is dehumanizing at its core, but now we’re in so deep that it’s hard to see the way out. As the documentary shows, most of the lashing out comes in the form of protests like Occupy Wall Street. It also shows that those protests, while aesthetically provocative will require a much larger collective effort to yield results.
Under its informative veneer, there is an undercurrent of hopefulness to Saving Capitalism. Most of that comes from Reich and his professorial demeanor. He doesn’t pull punches, but he’s not out to crush spirits. Some people may misinterpret the documentary’s title, most likely before watching it, but Reich’s main function is to sound the alarm but also remind us that it’s not too late. Given what we see over the film’s 72-minute runtime the deck has slowly but surely been stacked against the average person. It’s hard to find a reason for optimism, but human history is littered with countless examples of people overcoming the most dire of circumstances.
Saving Capitalism feels like homework, but it will give you vital understanding and perspective. Homework is so much more palatable when you’re actually learning, right? Like every bit of homework you’ve ever encountered, the real value will be seen down the line in how you process the information and whatever action or inaction you take. In a world overrun with a new crisis of the day, it’s hard to keep track sometimes. But losing sight of what’s important is what gets us into so many messes in the first place. Saving Capitalism is a reminder to stay focused.
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Eddie Strait is a member of the Austin Film Critic Association. His reviews focus primarily on streaming entertainment, with an emphasis on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other on-demand services.