Fans of conspiracy theories will be sorely disappointed by the incisive and disconcerting documentary, THE CORPORATION. Whatever dark and paranoid fantasies that contingent has spun over the years about a secret cabal running the world, the facts that filmmakers Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbot and Joel Bakan bring to the screen are worse. Instead of a that faceless cabal plotting world domination for its own nefarious but well-defined ends, we are instead given individual entities that are the result of unintended consequences on the part of short-sighted legal systems. The result is a non-living creature that lies outside the control of any laws or individual nations and whose only goal is profit for its own sake with human beings not figuring into the bottom line. It’s all still evil, but much more difficult to eradicate.
This is a long film, clocking in at almost 2 hours in length, yet, it uses its time to excellent advantage to explore a great deal of worthy information. And it is by virtue of its length and the amount of information crammed into it that it succeeds in conveying the scope of its thesis, that corporations are a pervasive, often unnoticed presence affecting even the smallest, most unexpected details of our lives and not in a benign way.
The style is slick, unfussy, and definitely no-nonsense, as befits the sobering subject matter. Imaginative graphics share screen time with an unusually robust set of talking heads that includes filmmaker/gadfly Michael Moore, physicist/environmentalist Vandana Shiva, and linguist/media anarchist Noam Chomsky. Clips of industrial films from both vintage and modern are used in ironic ways that are both pithy and pointed. The one showing happy Japanese nationals being sprayed down with DDT by the occupying American forces in the interests of keeping epidemics at bay is particularly memorable. There is also the succession of perfect quotes. Take the commodities trader noting that when the Towers fell, the first thing that most people on the trading floor thought was that this would drive the price of gold through the roof.
The presentation is equally accomplished. Rather than the usual litany of ills committed by corporations, the filmmakers start with a novel comparison based on the odd legal status that corporations enjoy of being persons. Stacking up their collective behavior reveals something ominous, but in retrospect, not really surprising, that when compared to the symptomatic behavior as listed in the DSM-IV (the diagnostic bible for such things), reckless disregard for others in turning rivers into sludge in the name of profits, for example, the diagnosis is that of a psychopath. And while this is, of course, a dramatic device, there is, nonetheless, a startling rightness to the ease with which the comparison is made that packs a wallop. It’s also important for the later discussion of the corporation as distinct from its employees, even CEOs, who may have the best of intentions, but are ultimately hamstrung by the corporations driving and legally enforceable interest, the bottom line. As Moore puts it, there is no such thing as enough, and with no outside oversight, that can only lead to trouble on scales unimaginable a century ago. This, in turn, leads to the speculation on what unimaginable trouble is in store in the future, with Bechtel’s ownership of all the water in Bolivia, even rainwater, brought up as a case in point.
If it’s hard to envision that sort of thing happening closer to home, THE CORPORATION the turns to something as close as the dairy section of your local market. Case in point, one of several examined in depth, is the tale of the Fox investigative reporters and what happened when they tried to blow the lid off a story that can’t be considered anything less than in the public’s best interest. The problem, synthetic bovine hormone, banned pretty much everywhere else in the world, used to increase milk yields from cows. Unfortunately, it also caused infections in those cows that led to pus in the the resulting milk and unneccesary suffering on the part of the cows. Plus, the milk market was already oversupplied. Unfolding like a hard-boiled film noir, it pits the good guys against not one, but two, corporations, Fox Broadcasting and Monsanto, the manufacturer of the hormone. When the latter threatens to pull advertising from the former, Fox decides that it has the right to decide what the news is and, after increasingly baroque tactics to put a lid on the expose, kills the story and cans the reporters. Among the many other deeply unsettling issues this brings up, the two most troubling have to be the tactics corporations use to get around the government agencies designed to protect the public good, follwed by what other, equally important stories the public is unaware of because of corporate pressure on the media.
As for the corporate structure’s predilection for totalitarian regimes and the compliant workforce and compliant government agencies, it’s covered with the examination of IBM’s profit-driven connection to the Holocaust and the inevitable comparisons to current regimes in Nigeria among others.
If there is a hero in THE CORPORATION, it is Ray Anderson, the CEO of the world’s largest carpet manufacturer, Interface. He?s a soft-spoken man with an elegant southern drawl and an unassuming manner. His self-described epiphany about sustainability occurred when he was asked to give a speech about his corporation’s commitment to sustainability and he realized that there wasn’t one. The experience turned him into a poetic philosopher at odds with the very system of which he is a part and given to perceptive observations, such as the one where he likens condemning future generations to deal with the ecological mess the present generation is making as being not unlike the taxation without representation argument that started the American Revolution. It’s a necessary sop and relief to the audience when we?re shown even small victories, such as a town rejecting the further intrusion of chain restaurants,
There is that nagging feeling after seeing the way that the modern corporate structure was created, that its business-model successor might have within it the seeds of something just as bad, perhaps worse, just waiting to be exploited or bumbled into. In that light, THE CORPORATION can be viewed as more than just another anti-corporate screed. Rather it’s a cautionary work designed to inform its audience against accepting any change as change for the better, as well as effectively getting its collective blood up in a fit of righteous indignation over the status quo.