Capitalist Leviathans On the Celluloid Couch

Capitalist Leviathans On the Celluloid Couch

Documentarians apply psychology to examine the health of corporations

Hollywood typically refrains from producing overtly political films for a simple reason—in order to make money, a project needs to appeal to the widest possible selection of viewers.

The reluctance to produce political films is harder to understand, however, in the indie arena, though there are rare exceptions. John Gianvito’s 2001 “The Mad Songs Of Fernanda Hussein,” about the first war in the Persian Gulf and its aftermath, comes to mind.

Still, apathy usually runs deep. Some say it’s a sign of our cultural impoverishment that progressive activists would seize upon a film as facile as Roland Emmerich’s “The Day After Tomorrow” to make a political statement about American national security policy.

Fortunately, recent American documentaries such as “The Yes Men,” “Persons Of Interest,” “An Injury To One,” “The Agronomist,” and “Los Angeles Plays Itself” have picked up some of the slack. For all the differences among these films, they all tap directly into some key cultural issues such as racism, economic globalization, and the prison industry. And despite Michael Moore’s Texas-size ego, he’s shown that documentaries can be as entertaining as fiction—and the enormous opening that “Fahrenheit 9/11” has enjoyed is sure to change the industry conversation about the format.

Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott have adapted the film “The Corporation” from Joel Bakan’s book “The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit Of Profit and Power.” It examines the legal notion of the corporation as a person. This notion first became current in the mid-1800s. It was helped along after the Civil War by the 14th Amendment, intended to benefit the freed slaves. Instead, it was used mostly to defend corporations. While these companies had the rights of individuals, they had no moral accountability or national allegiance. IBM, for example, profited from the Holocaust by manufacturing cards used in the concentration camp bureaucracy. As “The Corporation” relates how business profits from reforms aimed at enhancing individual rights, it also examines corporations for signs of mental illness.

Achbar and Abbott interviewed a wide range of people, but went out of their way not to create a procession of talking heads. They sometimes seem desperate to make the film visually interesting, like illustrating news clips about CEO “bad apples” with footage of a man crushing apples. While “The Corporation” condemns advertising, its slick veneer and snappy editing owe something to the huckster industry.

Not surprisingly, Achbar and Abbott talk to Moore and leftist writers Naomi Klein, Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky whose opinions are generally laudable, even if fairly predictable.

The film becomes more provocative when it delves further into the corporate world and gives specific examples of misbehavior rather than abstract denunciations. The section about two Florida journalists who tried exposing the dangers of Monsanto’s bovine growth hormones is a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks they can change the system from within. Several days before their piece aired on a Fox affiliate, Monsanto sent a letter to the station threatening “dire consequences.” Their jobs threatened, the reporters compromised, having to create an astonishing 83 drafts to placate their bosses’ appeasement of Monsanto.

Despite those extraordinary lengths, the reporters still got fired. When one sued Fox because their demands would have forced her to lie, the court’s favorable judgment was overturned on appeal because lying in a news report is not illegal in Florida.

It’s easy to condemn corporations from the outside, as “The Corporation” spends much of its time doing. More valuably, the film gives corporations the space to hang themselves. Marketing and branding, especially that aimed at children, is worthy of it own documentary, but Achbar and Abbott’s examination of corporate practices in this regard is fascinating nonetheless. A representative of Initiative Media proudly brandishes a study about the power of children’s nagging to affect their parents’ purchases. She uses this information to create ads to help this process along. When asked if this practice is ethical, she reacts as if she’d never contemplated the question.

At 145 minutes, “The Corporation” bites off more than it can chew. At worst, it throws a lot of ideas out without careful follow-up. Chomsky, in particular, uses the word “tyranny” a bit too casually. However, the film has a carefully assembled thesis, ending on a note of tentative optimism from Moore. Carpet manufacturing CEO Ray Anderson, who wants to create an ecologically sustainable company by 2020, strikes the film’s most positive note.

To Achbar and Abbott’s credit, they’re attentive to holes and fissures within corporate culture, rather than damning all businesspeople as evil. A piece of advocacy journalism, “The Corporation” manages to be remarkably complex and fair.

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