My first response to hearing the title of this new documentary by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan was: "Which corporation?" I expected a hard-hitting expose on the misdeeds of some company or other. My question was answered in the film's opening moments, when a seemingly never-ending series of corporate logos flash across the screen. Which corporation? Every single one of them. Harmful behavior, the film argues, is built into the very structure of a corporation.
Based on Bakan's book, "The Corporation," which won a number of audience awards at film festivals around the world, including Sundance, begins with a review of the history. Only 100 years ago, corporations were not nearly as ubiquitous as they are today; we find out which legal loopholes were exploited to give them the unmatched power they hold today, comparable to the Catholic Church or the Communist Party in other times and places.
One unique aspect of corporations is that they claim the constitutional rights of persons--the right to privacy, the right to property, and so forth. The film takes the next logical step and asks, if this is the case, what kind of a person is the corporation? The answer, arrived at through a series of case studies, is not reassuring.
Of the recent films that ask us to reevaluate our place in a hypercapitalist consumer society (Michael Moore's documentaries, "Control Room," "Super Size Me"), "The Corporation" is the most ambitious. A complete overview over the way businesses have changed our lives is probably more than any feature-length film can deliver, but Achbar, Abbott, and Bakan try none the less. From pollution, globalization, sweatshops, the punishment of whistleblowers, the destructive impact on the biosphere, the privatization of our most precious resources, branding and dishonest PR, the patenting of life forms, media consolidation, certain corporations' fascist past, exploitive marketing to children, and much much more, the film shows just how pervasive and damaging the consequences of corporatism have been.
"The Corporation" is like a shotgun blast: powerful but scattershot. The film has an incredible amount of information to offer but loses some of its focus, especially toward the end of its two-and-a-half hour running time. Some anecdotes would have been benefited from summary. For instance, the story of how Fox News successfully repressed an investigative report that was damaging to Frankenfoods giant Monsanto is an instructive tale, but in the detailed blow-by-blow, the crucial point of the final court ruling gets lost: it is now legal for an American news corporation to force its reporters to lie.
In other places, too, the amount of detail drowns out the focus of the argument. We learn, for instance, that the California Supreme Court considered, but ultimately decided against revoking the corporate charter of oil giant Unocal. But for a film that spent much time on the status of corporations as persons, it was surprising that there was no mention of the growing "Corporate Death Penalty" movement--if corporations enjoy the rights of people, shouldn't they also qualify for the ultimate punishment when they kill? Tighter editing could have driven home the central points of the film more successfully.
Ultimately, these are quibbles. "The Corporation," baggy as it is, stays fascinating throughout. Amusing vintage footage from silent movies and educational films illustrate some of the drier concepts, and the wide-ranging roster of talking heads includes everybody from Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore to Shell chairman Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, Milton Friedman, and reformed CEO Ray Anderson. Since I've seen "The Corporation," not a day has gone by that I haven't thought of one of the film's lessons.