16 Oct 2019

Review - Capital in the 21st Century

From At The Movies, 7:32 pm on 16 October 2019

When the then-CEO of the New Zealand Film Commission, Dave Gibson, announced its next co-production was to be a film based on the book Capital in the Twenty-First Century there was some surprise.

French economist Thomas Piketty’s acclaimed book about wealth and inequality had no discernible connection with New Zealand, and it looked altogether too dry and academic to work as a film, even if the author actually spoke English.

So, as one of the leading sceptics about a film of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, may I also be one of the first to admit how wrong I was.  

Justin Pemberton is the director, and he guides his many expert talking heads – including Piketty himself – clearly and persuasively.

And much of his work was made easier for him by the other key figure in the film, producer Matthew Metcalfe.

This is a film that was going to need selling, and illustrating properly. A few paltry diagrams and graphs were not going to suffice.

Nobody massages a Kiwi film budget like Matthew Metcalfe, and he makes sure that when a quote from Jane Austen, or Dickens – or even Wall Street – is required, then they’re produced.

Thomas Piketty

Thomas Piketty Photo: AFP / FILE

Years of lively documentaries from the likes of Michael Moore have meant the bar is set this high, and anything lower simply won’t do.

But enough of how expertly Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been produced. What does the film offer, apart, you’d think, from the bleeding obvious?   The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer.  

Does Piketty have any explanation of how and why this is happening?

Yes he does, and if all the film showed was the precise method the rich have been staying rich for centuries by constantly diverting popular attention elsewhere, it would have justified its ticket price.  

Don’t look at us, say the wealthy and powerful. Look over there!

By the end of the film I discovered my view of virtually every war in history had measurably shifted. That’s no mean feat.

Piketty’s other revelation – to me at any rate – was how long the state of affairs has been going on, where the one percent own just about everything, and the rest of us own just about nothing.

It’s been going on for centuries, of course, and generally the only way in which the aristocracy or the robber barons could be temporarily persuaded to loosen their grip was by bloody revolutions.

There was one exception to this rule.

As the film points out, the only time that fairness and, if you like, common decency held sway was in the years immediately before and after the Second World War.  

For nearly 40 years, fair taxes and a welfare state kept the greed of the powerful at bay, it seems, until the Nineteen Eighties. 

Greed was Good again, thanks to neo-liberalism, and it’s been like that ever since.  

At least, to the credit of thinkers like Thomas Piketty and the makers of the documentary Capital in the Twenty-First Century, some solutions are being suggested. 

But to make them happen is going to require political leaders with vision and fortitude - or failing that, a healthy fear of the consequences of not doing something. 

And to get those leaders is going to need an electorate educated enough to know what they’re voting for. 

So seeking out this film may not be a bad start.  Strongly recommended in other words.