Posted by Aaron West, 6/27/04
Directed by Jennifer Abbott, Mark Achbar
Featuring: Ray Anderson, Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Milton Friedman, Peter Drucker
Running Time: 145 minutes
There have been a rash of agenda-based documentaries released in the past few months, some of which have crossed over into the mainstream and achieved financial success. The most notable of these have been Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me and Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, but there has also been Control Room, Outfoxed, The Hunting of the President, and more. Many of these films have been on the receiving end of excessive ridicule and skepticism; some have gone so far as labeling the cycle as "crockumentary". While each of these has their own merits, they are all guilty to varying degrees of misrepresenting content in order to make their agenda look more appealing. In this regard, The Corporation is a breath of fresh air, regardless of one's political platform.
The Corporation is a sweeping and comprehensive look at its namesake, beginning with the history of its inception, the concept behind it, and its impact on the modern world. Instead of tugging on emotions or playing on stereotypes, this documentary functions in a similar fashion as a straightforward expose, or even a cinematic version of a well-constructed thesis. It uses examples, statistics, and solid rhetoric to make its points, and it even presents arguments from the other side, acknowledging that the core agenda is ambiguous, and does not try to provide the ultimate answer. The thesis of the film is not necessarily to convince the audience of anything specific, for us to understand and acknowledge that there are significant problems with today's corporate world.
While this is a more straightforward argument, it isn't completely dry. One thing the filmmakers have borrowed from Michael Moore is some of his sharp, cynical wit. They inject humor into the film on several occasions, sometimes by showing some of the hypocrisy in action, and others times by using humorous images and narration. For example, since the corporation has the legal rights of a human being, The Corporation gives it a psychiatric evaluation, which it fails with flying colors. They compare certain attributes of the corporation that it needs to excel, such as greed, and disregard for others. They even bring in a professional psychologist to provide the final diagnosis. Cute, but effective.
When they aren't busy analyzing the mental state of the corporation, the filmmakers spend some time investigating some of the techniques and secrets of the corporation. They often use professionals to make their point, such as economist Milton Friedman, branding expert Naomi Klein, management expert Peter Drucker, plus many other individuals who share their insights into lesser known corporate practices, such as espionage and underground marketing. These points are delivered effectively, mostly because they draw on the expertise and conviction of their testimonials. Many of these points are insightful rather than condemning and they don't all fall into alignment with the film's thesis, which resultantly makes it a much more open ended and thorough documentary.
One aspect of The Corporation that it doesn't necessarily share with other "crockumentaries" is that it provides opposing viewpoints and doesn't necessarily assume that its assertions are the correct ones. In many cases, it lets the audience make up their own mind. This provides some much-needed gray area within the argument. The film isn't suggesting that the entire corporate system be scrapped and reformed overnight. That would undoubtedly create mass chaos and economic depression throughout our world. The filmmakers acknowledge that there is no clear and immediate solution, and at times they point out how, through their influence and power, corporations can do good as much as evil. In fact, in many cases, the corporate methodology is rooted in benevolence. For instance, one of the corporate rationalizations for globalizing and opening cheap labor factories in foreign countries is that they are providing employment to people that might otherwise starve. Yet, sometimes these corporations will use and abuse these people. Since they are ultimately (in their eyes) saving their employees, does that justify their mistreatment? These are tough moral questions, and there is no clear answer. In this regard, the movie has to be respected for keeping an open mind and presenting multiple answers to these issues.
Even though corporations often do evil, the movie is not quick to condemn the individuals working for them. In one case, they show a small protest with a handful of people who camp out on a Shell executive's lawn. Eventually the executive comes out to discuss the issues and even feeds them. What they come to find is that the protesters and protestee share the same ideals and desires. The executive doesn't come off as the insensitive plunderer, but instead a conscientious individual who is just as concerned about the welfare of humanity and the environment. Of course the filmmakers want sensitive and liberally minded people to be working on the top floors, just because they are among the few who have a voice for change. However, they are still quick connect the institution to the individual when it comes to doing evil, and they even use slavery as the comparison. Since this executive is concerned about the corporation's environmental impact, does that absolve him from transgressions that his employer makes towards the environment? Again, there's that gray area, as there should be.
Many of the arguments and examples are shocking and frightening. I guarantee, everyone who walks out of the theater will change their dairy consumption habits, because of the amount of time the film spends unveiling the controversial drugs used on cows in order to yield larger amounts of milk. Yes, the film even names names, primarily Monsanto, the same corporation that patented Agent Orange, the filmmakers are quick to point out. Some of the revelations come not in the form of what corporations have done, but what they can do. They spend a considerable amount of time focusing on a recent trend that allows corporations the legal right to patent life, and they speculate that many complete genomes of species will at some point be completely privately owned. There is no need to speculate what could be done with such power, and the documentary appropriately leaves it up to the audience's imagination.
Many of the points and accusations made in the film are hammered home by Interface, a publicly traded carpet manufacturing company. CEO Ray Anderson made a life-changing revelation circa 1995, that changed his outlook on his responsibility to the planet. He discovered, through reading a book and speaking to an environmental conference, that he himself had been a practicing plunderer. He took it upon himself to transform the way his company does business, and is still striving to make the company completely sustainable at some point in the future. They have made significant progress and today they project full sustainability by the year of 2020. Anderson provides a great deal of commentary throughout the film about his personal experiences and discoveries. What makes his testimony so provocative is that he is coming from the other side. He condemns corporate tactics from his own personal experience. In my opinion, without Anderson's participation, this documentary wouldn't be nearly as convincing.
The Corporation stands far apart from its "crockumentary" contemporaries. It is able to deliver a cohesive, well-structured argument, without using editing tricks or deception to prove its points. All this, while it is still able to make the lengthy presentation entertaining and insightful. While it will be inevitably lumped into the "crockumentary" bucket, it is the least deserving of such a label. Not only is it the best agenda-based documentary yet released, it is among the best films of the year.