Where the prevalence of the Occupy Movement helped foster interest in French economist Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” it’s the grotesque geopolitical reality of coronavirus that fuels New Zealand documentarian Justin Pemberton’s film adaptation of the same name. Pemberton captures the meat of Piketty’s prose, but slices and dices the historical throughline into a remixed blunt instrument better suited as a cudgel to hand to the newly radicalized rather than an informative gesture for the nonconformed.

Though the source material is no doubt complex and layered, Capital could be simply summarized as a campfire tale outlining a long series of cons that the powerful have performed on the weak. The film traces a clear line from the lottery-by-birth rule of landed gentry to colonialism all the way to the modern ways in which multinational corporations shield profits in tax havens. It’s comprehensive almost to a fault, throwing so many rank injustices at the viewer as to numb them to the inevitability of greed and its perseverance in the face of revolt.

While there’s a fair amount of talking head explanations from economists and historians, Pemberton relies heavily on the liberal application of scenes from popular films, drawing stuffy academic concepts to more visceral narrative examples from the big screen. It works great in the earlier scenes, showcasing how the works of Jane Austen were pure fantasy compared to the grim reality of monied elites only marrying other monied elites, scrappy and quirky female protagonists be damned. But the stylistic choice wanes over the runtime, as the persistent referencing of other popular works on the current subject begins to feel lazy rather than illuminative.

Still, the film makes for an exciting and watchable experience. At times, Capital feels less like a traditional documentary and more like a very long YouTube video, rife with obvious pop music needle drops and a restless visual energy implying a subscriber call-to-action or Patreon watermark are right around the corner. That approach feels improper for some of the bigger picture topics, but in highlighting smaller curios on the fringes of history—in how the culture of fashion was fueled by the needs of the textile industry, or the way in which slavery functioned—the film truly sings.

Perhaps making the feature-length equivalent of an unfocused and ranting blog post when adapting such a carefully composed text should be held against Pemberton and the film itself, but in many ways, this is the right picture for the moment. The last time a documentary and its moment in time were so well wedded, it was Michael Moore ranting at George W. Bush in Fahrenheit 9/11, a timely and popular film that, years on, is nearly unwatchable despite what it got right. Capital, though brash, speaks to the collective anger we all feel at the myriad systems failing us in such a critical time of need. That it runs around the room screaming scattershot truths about the lurid history of modern society to get its points across is more a condemnation of the grand-scale criminality that has brought us here than of this film or its makers. Basically, don’t shoot the messenger.

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