'Capital in the Twenty-First Century': Film Review

Kino Lorber
Essential lessons, taught at a too-brisk pace.
5/1/2020

Documentarian Justin Pemberton adapts Thomas Piketty's blockbuster book about global inequality.

Released in 2013 (and translated into English the following year), Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century did the impossible — turn an economics text into a massive best-seller — in part because it was accessible to nonscholars, gathering the data and principles that confirmed what many readers instinctively knew: Fewer and fewer people controlled more and more of the world's assets, and this was a bad thing.

Given the extent to which it has informed public debates about economic inequality, one wonders what group of moviegoers will have need of an adaptation like Justin Pemberton's film of the same name — a slick and engaging film that speeds through the history of modern capitalism with very few pauses for reflection. Presumably, the film's brisk pace and lively visuals are meant to appeal to those who steer clear of wonky political debate or left-leaning activism. But how would one convince such a person to watch a documentary about economics in the first place?

For the rest of us, Capital is mostly a tour down memory lane, a reminder of how one system of wealth-accumulation evolved into another and so on over the years. One or two episodes make especially good use of this medium, and smart interviewees often condense insights into especially sharp soundbites. The film's timing is fortuitous, as a worldwide calamity might conceivably make governments more receptive to Piketty's proposals for redistribution and reform. But it leaves one wishing for a longer-form project that would bolster arguments for harnessing the "wild horse" of unrestrained capitalism and explore ways redistribution of wealth might be sold to citizens trained by the rich to fear any hint of socialism.

As the doc's tremendous fondness for clips from old movies reminds us, novels and films have been teaching us much this history all our lives. We start with Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, where Columbia University's Suresh Naidu explains that, in the 18th century, capital was mostly about moneylending and land-owning. Then as now, rom-coms sold their audiences fantasies sure to leave them disappointed as adults: In Austen's case, the idea that being fun and witty might cause an aristocrat to propose marriage — when in truth, the rich married strategically to cement their own positions.

During the Industrial Revolution, capital was not so land-based. A new factory could make you far richer than rent on a vast estate; and if you lived in certain parts of the world, slaves were more useful than real estate as collateral for borrowing money.

The film's midsection is especially familiar — stories of how economic fears were transmuted into nationalism and war; of how Depression and wartime sacrifice made nations briefly hospitable to welfare programs and labor rights, not to mention an assortment of other rights for oppressed populations.

The film is more than halfway to the end before it gets to the narrative that seems most relevant to our current predicament. Starting with the 1970s oil crisis, a certain kind of conservatism found ways to reclaim political power. Reagan and Thatcher created a safe space for intellectuals hawking dubious ideas like trickle-down economics. Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz says it was well understood at the time that inequality would rise as a result of their policies; the claim was that, when corporations were helped by tax breaks, a nation's overall wealth would increase, so even a smaller slice of the pie would make workers richer than they were.

Well, no. As it follows the path toward our current gilded age, the movie gives time to a couple of stories that may be truly eye-opening for many viewers. In one, U.C. Irvine psychologist Paul Piff explains an experiment that debunked the notion that people grow more willing to help others when they themselves are better off. In footage from the experiment, we watch those who know their privilege is the result of a coin toss grow more and more arrogant and confident of their own skills, even taunting those not favored by the coin toss. Little wonder that so many people who are born into money cling to the bizarre belief they are self-made entrepreneurs.

Closing scenes find Piketty offering remedies similar to those offered by Elizabeth Warren: Tax wealth in addition to income; fight corporate practices that hide profits in countries where they're barely taxed. The delivery of these ideas is as common-sense here as it was in a Warren campaign that should at this moment be charging toward the White House. Progressives with an optimistic bent will note that, with a virus currently showing how lethal inequities of wealth truly are, more people (and the leaders they elect) will be willing to hear those ideas and give them support.

Production companies: General Film Corporation, Upside Productions
Distributor: Kino Lorber (Available Friday via Kino Marquee)
Director: Justin Pemberton
Screenwriters: Justin Pemberton, Thomas Piketty, Matthew Metcalfe
Producers: Matthew Metcalfe, Catherine Madigan, Yann le Prado, Johan de Faria
Director of photography: Darryl Ward
Editor: Sandy Bompar
Composer: J.B. Dunckel

102 minutes