Review by Sean Boelman
Based on the bestselling nonfiction book by economist Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a new documentary exploring the idea of power in society. However, despite the wealth of interesting ideas Piketty brings to the table, this topic is simply too big to be contained in a single film.
The movie’s main purpose is to investigate the role of wealth throughout history and in the modern world and link it to the divisions in class that are still dominant today. However, many of the arguments made in the film are relatively self-explanatory, and as a result, it doesn’t have the eye-opening effect for which its source material has become so famous.
Director Justin Pemberton structures his movie around a series of case studies spanning a long period of time, hoping to draw a comparison between what happened in the past and what is happening now. This is perhaps the film’s most successful point: that society urgently needs to learn from the mistakes made in the past and enact a drastic course-correction.
It is when the movie gets into its discussion of class relations that it starts to feel like something is missing from the discussion. This is one of the most important social issues today, and while there are some really good points made, they are spread through a bunch of material that has been argued more effectively by other sources.
Perhaps the film’s biggest blindspot is that all of its interviews are conducted with notable economists, many of whom are of the upper class. While this expert knowledge is essential for a well-measured case, the fact that the perspectives highlighted in the movie are well-off makes it come across as a lot more distant than it otherwise would.
One of the biggest disappointments about the film is that it doesn’t take full advantage of the resource that is Piketty. He does a handful of interviews for the movie, but given his connection with the material, it’s disappointing that he wasn’t more of a commanding voice, or even the narrator.
On a technical level, Pemberton brings a lot of style to the film, and while the cool soundtrack and sleek visuals are able to make it more accessible to general audiences, this technique can feel like pandering at times. For example, the use of a clip from 2012’s Les Miserables to explain an already understandable point shows Pemberton’s occasional excess.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century desperately wants to be revelatory, but it only offers momentary insight. More often than not, it feels like little more than a feature-length advertisement for Piketty’s book, which almost undoubtedly contains the more developed arguments.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century begins streaming in partnership with indie theaters on May 1. A list of participating locations can be found here.