Blighted seeds, tiny children hunched over sewing machines, a nation in convulsive riots over the price of water: What shadowy entity could be behind all these horrors? The corporation, according to the documentary of the same name.
Created by Canadian filmmakers Mark Achbar, Joel Bakan, and Jennifer Abbott, and inspired by Bakan's book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit Of Profit And Power, the film takes on capitalism's juggernaut via two and a half hours of interviews with left-leaning academics, conservative CEOs, psychologists, corporate spies, and activists. Sweatshops, environmental degradation, political murders -- you name it and The Corporation covers it. The film ranges over the collateral damage of profit-making with the passionate zeal -- and the bewildering sprawl -- of a lefty political rally.
Early on, the film is organized around an intriguing conceit: A speedy history introduces the legal development that helped launch the meteoric rise of the corporation; after the Civil War, lawyers began to argue that corporations were "people." Therefore, the 14th Amendment, created to ensure the equal rights of freed slaves, was also applicable to their clients. As legally recognized "persons," corporations thus deserved the same rights and safeguards. So, the filmmakers ask, if a corporation is a person, just what kind of person are we dealing with here?
An insane one, it turns out. Through a series of case studies on pollution, exploitative labor practices, and deceptive marketing strategies, the filmmakers make a convincing argument for putting the corporation in a straitjacket. The corporation is relentlessly selfish; its primary goal, to the exclusion of all others, is to turn a profit for its shareholders. Using up and leaving the cheap labor forces of poor countries? "An incapacity to maintain enduring relationships," according to the psychoanalysist's diagnostic guide, the DSM-IV. Spraying DDT all over people or lying much about antibiotics in milk? "Reckless disregard for the safety of others."
The corporation, the film argues, suffers from a debilitating lack of empathy, an inability to accept responsibility for its actions or to feel sorrow or remorse for the consequences of what it does. The filmmakers' verdict: According to the DSM-IV, the corporation is ... a prototypical psychopath.
Corporations may be crazy, the film says, but the people who work for them aren't. The Corporation's full, sensitive portrayals of the CEOs give the film much of its heft. Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, the former head of the Shell Oil Company, and his wife receive a batch of protesters on their front lawn. The activists came bearing a "murderer" banner, but Moore and his wife respond by sitting down for a chat over tea, apologizing for the lack of soy milk for their vegan guests.
Another CEO comes across as positively revolutionary. After Ray Anderson of Interface carpets had an epiphany about environmental sustainability, he radically altered his company's environmental practices and began traveling to spread the progressive word to his fellow CEOs. People who work for corporations aren't amoral, the film asserts; rather, they are often good people who have been insulated within the depersonalizing structure of a corporation. Caught in a bureaucracy worthy of Max Weber or Franz Kafka, they forget their humanity -- and the human cost of the larger corporation's actions.
Too often, however, the film strays from these manageable dimensions. Eager to get in every nuance and nefarious act, the filmmakers fire off in every direction. Employees' rights, genetic sequencing, the evils of advertising, stifled press freedoms: The only thing missing is Mumia Abu-Jamal. Attempting to absorb all the information, my tiny brain whirled like a hamster on a wheel, distracted by the film's inventive culture-jammer style -- tongue-in-cheek quotations from old-school educational films, the flashing introductory reel of logos, the clever checklist graphic for each pathological corporate trait. The talking heads yammered, the film cut from country to country, theme to theme, throwing me into a panicked, frothing gallop, all rolling, white-rimmed eyes and flaring nostrils. I cowered on my environmentally unsound carpet, barraged by footage of real-life product placements, Agent Orange birth defects, Kathie Lee Gifford sweatshops.
The filmmakers would have done well to remember their own lessons about human scale. Unlike the empathy-devoid corporation, The Corporation is an orgy of empathy -- but the effect is ultimately numbing. The explanation of the fascinating origin of corporate personhood, tied as it is to slavery, happens in the blink of an eyelash. The evolution of the prophet Anderson, the struggle of two reporters to air their milk-antibiotic story, the shattering poetry of a Bolivian water activist's convictions: Each of these could have been a brilliant stand-alone documentary, one that illustrates the filmmakers' ideas through human stories, human faces.
For all of its unruly ways, though, the film often reveals moments of devastating clarity and unexpected optimism. One of their answers to checking the totalitarian nature of corporations seems unsatisfying; the filmmakers just swing the pendulum from big business to ... big government! But they build this solution out of their corporate critique: asserting the rights of the individual (who can choose to consume responsibly, vote with their dollars, and speak out in local government forums against the negative corporatization); building worldwide coalitions based on those individual rights; appealing to CEOs through progressive voices like that of Ray Anderson. The filmmakers recognize that they can't put the genie back in the bottle, so they argue for people to counterbalance companies' power, and for truly responsive corporate behavior.
Despite the all-consuming sprawl of their film, its faint preaching-to-the-converted feel, the filmmakers still get their simple, powerful message across: If the corporation wants to be a person, it should try acting like a good one.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.
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