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|Corporation, The (2004)
by Alexandre Paquin
If the modern corporation is treated as a "person" according to American legal jurisprudence, what kind of person would it be? This is the question that the new documentary "The Corporation," by Mark Achbar, co-director of "Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media," and Jennifer Abbott, strives to answer, or rather, to which the documentary knew the answer all along but feigned ignorance. The modern corporation, because of its quest for profits at all costs, even if it involves mistreating workers, violating laws, and putting unsafe products on the market, is a psychopath, "The Corporation" advances.If that conclusion strikes you as obvious, it generated loud applause by the audience that saw the film last October. The screening had been heavily advertised by leftist organizations, and that is where The Corporation's main problem resides: it knows all too well what its traditional audience is, and it knows all too well how to pander to it.
"Good documentary, but by no means a classic."
This is not to say that The Corporation, which took six years to assemble, does not prove anything; on the contrary, the documentary is a powerful and extremely relevant indictment of the business world. It clearly explains how American businesses used the Fourteenth Amendment, meant to protect Blacks in the South, to proclaim that corporations should be treated as "persons." But the documentary's treatment of cases is as a general rule superficial and its selection of evidence is painfully predictable. So we are exposed to the inevitable mentions of the plight of Third World workers, IBM and its link to the Holocaust (see Edwin Black's book IBM and the Holocaust) and other businesses that dealt with the Nazis (General Motors, Coca-Cola), corporate fraud, and patents on life forms, all carelessly introduced and discarded without much contextualization.
A few cases are worthy of greater coverage, such as biotech company Monsanto putting pressure on Fox not to broadcast a story on the possible risks of a bovine hormone approved by the Food and Drug Administration without any testing on humans, with Fox backing down and going as far as firing the two reporters who investigated the story, and a chilling plot by DuPont and J.P. Morgan executives, among others, to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930's. But these cases are not pursued long enough to provide any outstanding interest in them, or even any lesson to be derived from them.
The documentary might have been more convincing had it emphasized the actions of a few corporations instead of shooting in all directions. DuPont might have provided an excellent case study because of the various infractions of which the company has been found guilty during its existence and the way it has succeeded in keeping Gerard Colby's book DuPont: Behind the Nylon Curtain out of the market (see Ben Bagdikian's The Media Monopoly and Colby's account in Into the Buzzsaw). Monsanto, Disney, and Nike would also have made ideal subjects; as it stands, The Corporation covers all of them but not at any length.
The focus on one industry such as oil would also have been fascinating. Standard Oil has a long and notorious history, from the halcyon days of John D. Rockefeller covered in Ida Tarbell's The History of the Standard Oil Company to the post-anti-trust break-up, to today's mergers. Details as to how Standard Oil of California, along with General Motors and Firestone, among others, colluded to get rid of trolley systems across the United States following World War II, and were all fined $5,000 for their effort, would have been fascinating. (If that sounds familiar, it is probably because the case provided the basic story plot for the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit.) By trying to include chunks of everything, The Corporation ends up discussing nothing in depth, even leaving out some key areas that are mentioned in the film to prove that corporations are indeed evil. For instance, one mentioned attitude that corporations ought to be accused of is "union busting." I was expecting the usual McDonald's or Wal-Mart references, but, in reality, how many cases in the entire film deal with the question of union-busting? Not one.
As well, the "experts" who provide on-film arguments include such left-wing staples as Michael Moore, Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky. And the "rebuttal" must come from such pro-free market people and groups as Milton Friedman and the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute. What has happened to the moderate voice? One interesting interviewee was the CEO of a multinational carpet company, who believed that respecting the environment was a commercially sound choice, but one has nagging doubts about his motives for believing so and for appearing in the documentary at any rate.
What The Corporation does best is explain how the corporation became a recognized and respected entity in North American society; throughout the documentary, the filmmakers display their well-honed skills at tracking down historical documents and footage that heighten the irony of the subject matter. However, the makers of The Corporation, in spite of the documentary's running time of 165 minutes, reportedly had to choose from 450 hours of footage, and one of the film's greatest problems resides in the editing. Case studies are too wide in scope, all over the place (the Monsanto bovine hormone story is covered in two distinct parts), and never linked together by a narrative device. The Corporation also makes the mistake of sticking too closely to the traditional Left in its approach. Furthermore, the narrator addresses the audience in a hushed, patronizing voice tone that cannot fail to annoy.As it stands, "The Corporation" is an eye opener and a nice primer on how business has come to pervade our lives, but it is not the classic some have claimed it is. Instead, what it can do is spark among those who see it the impulse to debate its arguments, which is, to say the least, truly remarkable in our increasingly cynical and apathetic society.
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originally posted: 10/22/03 14:55:59
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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.