Capital in the 21st Century’s lesson on society is both watchable and scary

Returning to cinemas after playing at this year’s NZ International Film Festival, Capital in the 21st Century is a NZ-made adaptation of an important text on economics and society. As Steve Newall writes, director Justin Pemberton has transformed dense subject matter into an energetic, informative, and eminently watchable documentary—but not without a cost.

Taking just 103 mins to distill the nearly 700 pages of Thomas Piketty’s best-seller of the same name, whipping through the transformation of wealth over the past few centuries into capital’s current form, Capital in the 21st Century is an energetic, informative, and eminently watchable documentary.

Without oversimplifying the economic issues it examines, this part-history lesson, part-prediction, and advocate for a more equal future is an essential primer to understand the mess we’re in, and the future shakiness we face. When considered alongside a climate crisis film like 2040, the decades to come look pretty terrifying, but that’s no reason to look away.

If there’s a downside to the digestibility of Justin Pemberton’s doco, it’s that the film’s recapping of modern capitalism doesn’t have the luxury of getting particularly in-depth. Nor did the run-time allow enough for me in the way of crystal ball-gazing about future decades and practical, actionable solutions to improve them. For instance, while wealth inheritance and the dangerous rise of oligarchs are raised as short to medium term dangers, it’s not clear how we’re meant to combat this given the massive imbalance of power and resources.

The film never stops being engaging, Pemberton making the most of his interview subjects and interweaving their expertise with a visual style that doesn’t allow the viewer’s attention to lag. If taken as a pacey way of bringing folks up to speed with the predicament of our present, this much more watchable a history lesson than one would imagine. But it did not leave me feeling optimistic or knowing what I should be doing about the inequities on display.