Movie Review: The Corporation (2004)

Reviews: The Corporation

(Originally written on July 21, 2004)

The Corporation is doing surprisingly brisk business here in Minneapolis. By the time I finally managed to catch a show, I had already been turned away twice because the theatre had sold out, and once I was inside, I had to scramble to find a seat.

The lines around the block is good news for everyone who was overjoyed by the overwhelming success of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. That film touched a nerve in America, and people are searching for an encore, for the next documentary polemic. The voters are angry and they’re looking for alternative voices.

Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar, the film’s directors, are sure to be happy for their good timing. The Corporation made a successful run on the film festival circuit (including the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, where it won the top prize), and now Michael Moore’s clout will enable it to reach audiences that otherwise would never have noticed.

I think The Corporation is a good movie, and I think it’s an important one; but it isn’t a great movie. It could have been if the filmmakers were more disciplined or more focused, and willing to let the audience draw its own conclusions. Watching this film is like listening to an impassioned preacher deliver a long sermon; you enjoy the sermon, you mostly agree with what you hear, but eventually you just become worn out. The preaching just goes on and on and on. You just want to wrap things up, and the minister keeps pulling out another three chapters to read.

Perhaps the overall tone of the film brought this about. The Corporation serves as a laundry list of corporate abuses and crimes in the name of relentless profits, and the damage wrought over the past century. We see Bovine Growth Hormones, pollution of land, air, and water, third world sweatshop labor, cruelty to animals, chemicals on the farms, chemicals in our hair, chemicals in our food, strip-mining, fossil fuels that cause global warming, genetic manipulation, genetic mutations, birth defects, the explosion of cancer.

We learn the history of corporations, from its humble roots to the infamous Supreme Court decision, argued in the name of the then-new 14th Amendment to the Constitution, that declared a corporation a legal person. Only these persons have resources far beyond any of us, um, people. And we witness global corporations evolve into the fiefdoms and robber barons of our time, looting resources, abusing workers, and always obsessed with profit, profit, profit.

One great moment – visually the best moment in the film – shows a stack of legal documents in an office. The camera pulls back, and it slowly reveals row after row of boxes and documents. The room becomes a warehouse, and its sheer size overwhelms you. The rows of shelves just go on and on.

You watch all the evidence, and you listen to CEO’s, activists, and progressive heroes like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomski, and you end up feeling, well, helpless. The mood of The Corporation is almost one of despair. There’s that sadness and anger you felt when watching Fahrenheit, but this time you feel so much smaller, almost helpless. What else can you feel when you realize that a handful of international businesses will soon own the DNA to all human life, and then all life on Earth? When you confront poisons in our food, mass extinctions, and global warming, you have to wonder if we even have a future.

Isn’t this how the dinosaurs went extinct? Okay, that was the “Dinosaurs” TV show, but still.

This, I think, is where the filmmakers felt a need to change the tone. They need to show something uplifting, something that can motivate the audiences and inspire them to their cause. Abbott and Achbar show us success stories and remind us of Gandhi and King and Civil Rights and Women’s Rights; they show us activists and protestors around the world who have fought for living wages, clean water, resisting privatization of natural resources and genetically-modified crops. And it just goes on and on and on.

I suspect you understand my fatigue with The Corporation. It isn’t the length that wore me down, but the sheer repetition of it all. One of the basic rules of filmmaking is that you say what you need to in the shortest time possible. This picture is at least twenty minutes too long; I’d definitely drop the last two or three reels, and trim the rest of the material. I just felt like I was being clubbed over the head with a whiffle bat, and I sympathize with these filmmakers. I believe in their cause. I just don’t want to be preached at anymore.

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