If you’re the sort of person who earnestly begins a sentence with, “I just read this great article in The New Republic,” then you have probably heard about Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the bestselling nonfiction book by French economist Thomas Piketty. It presents a grand unifying theory of modern economics, with its central principle being able to explain everything from the French Revolution to Occupy Wall Street. A film adaptation was inevitable, and New Zealand filmmaker Justin Pemberton condenses the book’s 700 pages into a provocative, easily digestible documentary. But there are blind spots in its desire for simplicity and elegance, so Capital is more like an explainer article than real journalism.
Pemberton jumps around in history before getting to the twenty-first century. He starts with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a period where a young Piketty saw the Western World realize that capitalism finally “won.” Deregulation was among the spoils of that victory, and where Piketty finds the thesis of his book: inequality rises when capital (i.e. assets like land) concentrates around the elite, which then leads to turmoil and instability. It is a simple idea, so it can apply to all sorts of large-scale situations throughout history, including World War I and America’s postwar boom.
Pemberton interviews Piketty, as well other prominent thinkers like Kate Williams, Joseph Stieglitz, and Francis Fukuyama. This is the rare economics documentary without visual representations like charts or graphs. Sure, there is B-roll footage, coupled with obligatory drone footage and inelegant needle drops, but all this does is provide rhetorical oomph to the arguments made by the talking heads.
Capital weaves this footage crisply, even if his connections and examples veer into eye-rolling obvious territory. For the 1920s, Pemberton and his editors could think of anything better than “We’re in the Money” and images of dancing flappers (never mind that the song was written in 1933), while the “Greed is good” speech from Wall Street represents the 1980s. Once you get past that, what is more frustrating is how there is no attempt to interrogate Piketty’s argument, even as a way of sharpening it.
The rhetorical forcefulness – the film’s total desire for you to accept its premise as gospel – is made clear in how Pemberton stages the interviews. Piketty and the others look directly into the camera, instead of slightly off-center, as if speaking to an interviewee. They are looking at you, the viewer, telling you how it is. It is involving technique, leading to a feeling of urgency that was not exactly there when Piketty first published his book seven years ago.
That forcefulness, however, is ultimately a weakness, as if Pemberton does not trust his audience enough to let them interrogate the argument. Any unifying theory, for example, will have historical moments or movements that do not fit into the thesis. It would have also been clarifying to have Piketty reconcile his desire for wealth redistribution with his acceptance of capitalism in a general sense. Piketty is surely aware of his book’s limitations – academics always have their arguments interrogated – and he seems too mild-mannered to be arrogant. I cannot help but wonder what the thinks of this film, and worries that it may be too fawning.
Of course, Pemberton and Piketty had no way of knowing that the coronavirus pandemic would lead to an economic catastrophe, and the possibility of a second Great Depression. Nothing in Capital is particularly prescient (there is no discussion of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic), although its final minutes offer a glimmer of hope. Piketty says that political turmoil leads to opportunities/reforms (e.g. The New Deal), particularly when said turmoil is catastrophic. That is certainly the case now, and Capital arrives On Demand on a day when retail workers are staging a strike against monopolistic retailers.
Maybe Piketty is right and there is reason to hope. It’s hard to know from simply watching Capital, since Pemberton prefers the illusion of intellectual rigor over the real thing.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century is available at the Virtual Screening Room for AFI Silver. Watch it here!