by Jeremy Rogers
Former Secretary of Labor during the 1990s, Robert Reich, has always been a left-wing populist. After feeling like he was not getting his goals accomplished while serving with the rest of President Clinton’s cabinet, Reich stepped down as Labor secretary to spend time outside of political life. Since then he has authored several books, his most recent sharing its title, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, with his new Netflix documentary. Reich’s name came into some prominence during the build-up to the 2016 presidential elections, where he quickly threw his support behind Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders. Since his latest book was released in mid-2015, Reich can use this new Netflix documentary as an opportunity to let hindsight illuminate key parts of his message. Is he successful? Can this documentary save capitalism?
Does this really need a story?
Saving Capitalism, like many documentaries, does not have a traditional narrative plot per se. Instead Reich begins by talking about his childhood and about how poorly the middle class is doing in 2017. The topics discussed in the documentary roughly coincide with accounts from Reich’s life that are germane to the other topics being discussed. Even though the anecdotes from the former labor secretary’s past are told in chronological order, there seems to be little in the way of cause and effect tying each story together. We start with Reich’s first job as an intern, go through his college life, his time as Labor secretary and his time since as a university professor and as an advocate for liberal economic policy.
Despite the abundance of Reich’s life story in the documentary, it is not a biopic. There are many shots of Reich giving speeches to crowds and Reich appearing on television. Some scenes are of Reich meeting with politicians and lobbyists to discuss the economy. The net effect is that too much of the documentary is focused on Reich and not enough on what he has to say about saving capitalism.
Repetition, repetition, repetition
Throughout the film, Reich changes settings a lot in the course of talking to so many groups of people. Because of this, it always feels like the same basic talking points about the economy are repeated in different ways more often than should be necessary for a 70-minute documentary. There are many great points that are touched on in the documentary that could have been expanded on, but the editing takes up run time repeating basic stances anyone familiar with Reich’s work should already be familiar with.
Over the years, Reich has had a lot to say about the distribution of wealth and how the economy is organized. He’s already written 14 books on the matter, so it’s confusing why the finer points of his arguments weren’t dived into more. The strongest points of the documentary were when the exact figures were brought out to make specific points. More sections discussing exact dollar figures would have helped make Reich’s case.
Better on the page
Documentaries are a visual medium. That means that there has to be something stimulating for the eye to look at while information is being delivered to the viewer. Saving Capitalism is not a great adaptation because it sacrifices too much of the source material to make segments that appeal to the eye.
This is confusing, because the book this documentary is based on does not follow the same formula. There is so much more depth and cohesion of theme in the book which makes the state of the adaptation surprising. Perhaps Reich was advised to dumb down his content to better appeal to the young Netflix crowd. A documentary titled Saving Capitalism does not seem like the kind of thing Joe Average Netflix user would turn on after binging Stranger Things 2. It’s presented as a more in-depth look at how to save the economic system of the United States. Reich should have literally taken a page from his own book and made this documentary focused and in-depth instead of being an entry point into his ideology.
For a better example of how to make an effectively formatted book-based, left-wing documentary for Netflix, see Noam Chomsky’s Requiem for the American Dream. The format is more book-like, setting up what feel like book chapters and following through with each chapter’s topic until it’s completely finished. If Saving Capitalism had emulated that formula, the message would have felt less disjointed.
Featured image from Saving Capitalism
'Saving Capitalism' is a meandering, unfocused documentary that is inferior in almost all ways to the book that it’s based on. The focus on Robert Reich’s life takes away from an already short runtime that should have been used to provide depth and further analysis. Whether you are a Tea Party member or a regular watcher of his online series The Resistance Report, this documentary is not the best place to learn about or from Robert Reich.