Worth A Look: 17.59%
Just Average: 7.41%
Pretty Crappy: 0.93%
7 reviews, 66 user ratings
|Corporation, The (2004)
by Mel Valentin
"The Corporation," an ambitious, sweeping, 145-minute left-leaning documentary (a longer, 225-minute version will be likely available on DVD) directed by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott & Joel Bakan (who provided the source material), examines the 150-year history, growth, and consequences of the modern corporation (a “legal person” under corporate law). The documentary filmmakers, however, don’t take the typically dry, humorless approach favored by public broadcasting documentarians. They aren’t above satirizing and skewering both the nature of corporations and the businessmen (CEOs and consultants) who owe their continuing financial success to them.Corporations are ubiquitous in modern industrial and post-industrial life, their effects on public opinion, ideology, and the environment equally pernicious (while, to be fair, offering certain economic standards for its employees working in Western countries). As The Corporation reaffirms, corporations are created and sustained by a single, overriding goal, the pursuit of profit (with the related pursuit of power to guarantee and increase short-term and long-term profits).
"A call to enlightened, impassioned, progressive activism."
The Corporation begins with a focus on history, with a late-nineteenth century decision by the United States Supreme Court. The Court decisively accepted the legal argument that corporations were entitled to the status of “legal person.” With that Supreme Court decision, corporations could enter into contracts, enforce those contracts in courts of law, and otherwise enjoy the privileges and rights of “actual” persons. That decision led to the unprecedented growth of the modern corporation, without regard to the public good, or to what Milton Friedman, an economist interviewed for the documentary, calls “externalities,” the unintended effects of a transaction between two parties on a third party. In short, with economic growth and success, with the massive concentration of wealth, corporations were under no legal obligation to control “externalities” (i.e., pollution, toxic and hazardous waste dumping, etc.), many of which have led to disease, poverty, exploitation of natural and human resources, and the use of economic power and wealth to influence government decision making.
Achbar, Abbott, and Bakan cleverly analogize the modern corporation to a psychologically disturbed individual (actually a “psychopath”). Citing the Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) and a Personality Diagnostic Checklist, the filmmakers denote six characteristics shared by most psychopaths, (1) callous unconcern for the feelings of others, (2) incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, (3) reckless disregard for the safety of others, (4) deceitfulness: repeated lying and conning others for profit, (5) incapacity to experience guilt, and (6) failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors. By these standards, corporations pose a serious, long-term danger to the environmental health of our world, and to Western-style democracies, where the financial power and heft of corporations negatively influence local, state, and federal lawmakers and the laws they craft into favoring corporations, without concomitant consideration of the public interest or the public good.
Relying on case studies and interviews (with, according to the film’s marketing campaign, seven CEOs, three VPs, two whistleblowers, etc.), Achbar, Abbott, and Bakan build a case for the prosecution. Their interviews with CEOs lead to several conclusions, the most important of which is the recognition (by interviewer and interviewee) that the recent attempt to humanize and liberalize corporations by focusing on social responsibility and corporate accountability is more public relations than actual change in the fundamental nature of corporations. When corporations trump their labor standards, racial and gender diversity, their newfound social vision and involvement in local communities, those decisions are carefully aimed at maximum media exposure, through marketing, interviews, and other initiatives. A fundamental change in the structure and goals of corporations, if it does happen (and here I have to admit to more skepticism than the filmmakers), can only come through changes in corporate law (which, in effect, would balance the profit motive and the public good), and increased government oversight and regulation (untainted by corporate lobbyists, a still unlikely possibility).
The examination of corporations doesn’t stop there, however. In probably its strongest segment, the documentary examines whistleblowers and the unsurprising effects that years of corporate-funded litigation can have to stifle dissent and muzzle the mainstream media. Case in point: Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, investigative reporters fired by a Florida affiliate of the Fox News Network after they refused to rewrite and dilute a story on rBGH, a synthetic hormone created and distributed by Monsanto in the United States (but banned in Europe and Canada). RBGH enhances cow metabolism and increases milk production. As a result of increased milk production, cows tend to suffer from something called mastitis, a painful udder infection. Unsurprisingly, antibiotics are employed to combat the infection, antibiotics that eventually enter the milk supply. Milk consumers, then, can suffer from an increased tolerance or immunity to antibiotics, and eventually an increased susceptibility to antibiotic-resistant diseases.
After Fox News fired them, Akre and Wilson sued Fox under a Florida whistleblower’s statute. In a local civil court, they won a judgment against Fox News. The jury had found that the story Fox News would have aired would have been false, misleading, and distorting. On appeal, the judgment for the Akre and Wilson was overturned (the appellate court found that there was no violation of the whistleblower statue, since Akre and Wilson did not allege that Fox News had violated any criminal statutes). Fox News didn’t stop there, however. In an unprecedented move, the litigators for Fox News have instituted a new lawsuit against Akre and Wilson for legal and court fees (which are generally not awarded under American civil law). As of this writing, that case is still pending. Fox News, of course, has made it abundantly clear to its employees that dissent will be met with lengthy and costly litigation (Akre and Wilson, who are married, had to take a second mortgage on their home, and with the new litigation, are likely to go bankrupt). Akre has been unable to find work, and Wilson commutes from Detroit to Florida on weekends to spend time with Akre and their daughter.
Having made the case against corporations, however, the filmmakers falter in describing approaches to corporate power. Certainly, legal changes can and should be made, and current environmental laws should be strengthened or, in some cases, rewritten (e.g., corporations in compliance with federal environmental law can generate “pollution credits,” essentially the difference between maximum allowable pollution emissions and what they actually produce, and sell those credits to other corporations who would otherwise violate federal environmental laws). The filmmakers also point to anti-corporate activism as a necessary response to irresponsible corporations, but they don’t attempt to answer the very real problem of awakening the majority of Americans (and world citizens) into activism and participation in nascent global movements. As such, the mainstream media presents activists as a step away from conspiracy theorists, well meaning but ill-informed, with equally misguided tactics. For example, the documentarians proudly point to the anti-globalization protests at the Seattle WTO meetings. The effects on the WTO and its policies, however, have turned out to be negligible (WTO meetings are now held in “safer” cities, and with better security measures).Regardless of its shortcomings, however, "The Corporation" is a must-see for the concerned citizen interested in a brief, if left-leaning, introduction into the nature and impact of the modern-day corporation. "The Corporation" may ask more questions than it answers, but those answers can only come through increased dialogue between activists and non-activists and counter-balancing lobbying efforts at the local, state, and federal levels. The need for involvement at all levels is there, but that need has to be met by a measured, well-informed response by a no longer passive citizenry.
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originally posted: 05/24/05 15:19:50
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This film is listed in our political documentary series. For more in the Political Documentary series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Minneapolis/St.Paul Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Minneapolis/St.Paul Film Festival series, click here.